Amelia Starr is executive director at Livable Housing Australia, and was awarded the Churchill Fellowship in 2003. She was previously trained in occupational therapy and has a background in disability advocacy and policy.

Architecture & Design spoke to Starr about how training as an occupational therapist has influenced her current work, what Australia can learn from other countries when it comes to livable housing and what the industry can do to help create inclusive housing.

You are a qualified occupational therapist. How has that earlier career experience influenced your current work with Livable Housing Australia?

I started my career working with people who had acquired spinal cord injuries. These experiences ignited my passion for better designed housing. I discovered that it was only when a person returned home, after months of intensive rehabilitation, that the difficulties associated with their home’s design started to emerge. They would notice little things, such as finding that the backyard BBQ area could only be reached by steps. There were also big things, like realising that a friend’s or family member’s home was completely inaccessible.

For me, I realised this was my life’s mission when I began working with a young woman with a spinal injury. She was so excited to be leaving rehab before Christmas, only to discover that her grandparents’ home, where everyone gathered during the Christmas season, had steps at every entrance and the main bathroom was upstairs. She also had to move home with her parents, as the home she had purchased with her fiancĂ© required substantial changes just so she could get through the front door. 

It wasn't the injury that nearly broke her – it was the realisation that the social world and the homes she loved were suddenly not welcoming to her anymore. Over the months I visited her, I saw this bright, bubbly person become more and more isolated from her friends and family as it was “just too difficult” to visit the homes of the people she loved. It was these kinds of moments that inspired me to find out how we could build homes that could better meet our changing needs.

Subsequently, I was awarded the Churchill Fellowship to research livable design initiatives internationally. I was so inspired by the forward-thinking practices in countries such as Denmark, Norway and the UK, where livable design is viewed as critical to good design. I returned to Australia committed to seeing this approach adopted here.

What is your definition of inclusive housing? 

I define ‘inclusive housing’ as designing and building homes that are actually fit to meet the changing needs of the home’s occupants. It’s important for designers of homes to understand that the way we live in our homes is changing. At any one point in the average day, three generations pass through the typical Australian home. What this tells us is that the design of our homes needs to meet the needs of the whole family – from young children to grandparents and everyone in between.

Currently, we design and build ‘Peter Pan homes’ – homes for people who never age and never injure themselves, much less have children of their own. Inclusive or livable houses are homes that ‘design in’ the features that make them more responsive to the current and future needs of the people who live in the home – and which therefore don’t require costly retrofits down the track.

What do you think is the current approach to inclusive housing in Australia?

Awareness of livable design is growing in Australia, largely as the result of LHA’s role in educating the residential design and construction industry, consumers and governments. Our non-regulated, market-driven approach is predicated on national and international research that clearly identifies that industry and consumers need to first understand why livable design is important. The Livability Quality Mark which LHA awards for homes which meet the requirements of the Livable Housing Design Guidelines is essential to transforming industry behaviour and consumer expectations.

What should be changed?

Firstly, we need to transform the way the residential design and construction industry designs and builds the modern Australian home – and we need to engage industry in a dialogue so that it becomes the champion of livable design.

Secondly, we need to educate consumers on the benefits of a livable-designed home so that the question they ask when they are looking to buy a new home is simple: is this a livable home?

What countries have a good approach to inclusive housing?

The Scandinavian countries see livable design as just part of the design and construction process for all mainstream housing, rather than for a sector of the market, as compared with initiatives in the UK, the USA and Canada. The Lifemark program in New Zealand continues to show promise as well, and is clearly having an impact on industry behaviour and government programs country-wide.

We can also be proud that many countries around the world are looking at Australia’s approach as a model of best practice and are replicating our work within their own countries. We are determined to demonstrate that market transformation is possible by working together to adopt voluntary benchmarks for livability.

You have been to countries like Japan, Norway and Canada with your work. What could Australia learn from other countries when it comes to residential design?

In other countries, livable design is understood as simply ‘good design’. It’s not pigeonholed as a type of housing for a specific population of people. This is something we are working on communicating in Australia. Our message is that livable homes work for everyone.

If you could give one piece of advice to architects, what would it be?

Architects instinctively understand and value functional design and are uniquely positioned to help educate consumers on the value of livable design. Become a leader in this emerging space. Work with LHA to become a registered assessor and champion livable design features in your home designs.