Why great buildings need ways in and out for everyone
The American architect, Philip Johnson, once said “all great architecture is the design of space that contains, cuddles, exalts, or stimulates the persons in that space.”
A trip to the State Library in Melbourne bears testament to that. The glorious reading room, which at the time of its construction boasted one of the largest domes in Christendom, manages to exalt the entranced tourist while cuddle the engrossed researcher all at once.
Yet it is hard to feel cuddled by a building if you cannot get into it. And for millions of Australians with a disability the state of our public built environment prevents them entering or using the bathroom let alone feel stimulated or exalted by the wonder of the architecture.
Last Monday, an important step was taken to change all this.
The Rudd Government, through the agency of the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research Kim Carr and the Attorney-General Robert McClelland, launched the Commonwealth’s new Premises Standards which will provide for greatly increased access for people with a disability to buildings in Australia.
Indeed Australia will now have a set of Premises Standards that are among the world’s best, and that will deliver a high level of accessibility at an affordable cost.
Both myself and the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities Bill Shorten had the privilege of participating in the launch along with Graham Innes, the Disability Discrimination Commissioner, before an audience consisting of the Patron of the International Day of People with Disability Thérèse Rein, the Chair of the Parliamentary Committee which recommended the adoption of the Premises Standards Mark Dreyfus, and with representatives from the disability movement and the construction and property sector.
Each group came to this launch with different perspectives. For the disability movement it was a long awaited recognition of the passive discrimination which they face as they live their lives among our nation’s buildings. For the construction and property sector the Premises Standards represent design certainty.
For all, this was a moment to celebrate, although given it has taken a decade to come to fruition, the festive mood at the launch was matched by a sense of sheer relief that the job had at last been done.
What has become clear in this process is that the construction and property sector, which is effectively charged by the Premises Standards with the responsibility of creating a more accessible built environment in Australia, recognises the importance of equity and social responsibility.
They also recognise that the Premises Standards will create new commercial opportunities as they promote innovation and the development of a built environment better suited to the needs of a diverse and ageing population.
For the Government’s part it has been mindful that like every part of industry the property sector operates within tight financial constraints. Accordingly the regulation contained in the Premises Standards is directed prospectively applying to new public buildings where designing for these standards can be done at minimal cost.
Above all, the Premises Standards will offer the greater certainty that the property industry has been looking for – certainty that new building work will comply with the Disability Discrimination Act, and the certainty to go ahead with new investment decisions.
The Premises Standards inevitably represent a balance between the interests of Australians with a disability and what the property sector can afford in building new constructions. There has been an enormous effort on the part of Government to reach consensus on each issue between these differing interests and by and large the Premises Standards is a product of consensus. But where that has been impossible, of course, the difficult decisions have been made.
Once the Premises Standards have been adopted by the Commonwealth Parliament, their technical requirements will be mirrored in the Building Code of Australia, which in turn will need to be referenced in State and Territory building regulations.
In this way the Premises Standards will exist both as regulations to the Disability Discrimination Act making new non-complying buildings unlawful; and as part of the Building Code of Australia which will ensure new buildings are constructed in a compliant way.
The replacement rate for buildings in Australia is about 2 per cent a year.
That means around a fifth of our building stock has been replaced since the process for the establishment of the Premises Standards started ten years ago – one building in five might be more accessible today had the Government then got its act together quicker.
That is why the Government has been so determined to avoid further delay and we are very proud to have delivered this important reform during our first term in office.
The Rudd Government is committed to meeting its responsibility to people with disabilities by ensuring at last that our built environment is properly and genuinely accessible. For millions of Australians the Premises Standards will literally see the building of a better future.
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