Adapt to changing market needs

Robin Tuffley of Closomat discusses why it’s so important for landlords to make their homes –particularly bathrooms – accessible for all and what changes can be made

The rental housing market – private and social – is experiencing significant change: not only are more people now renting, the demographic is shifting too. The bathroom is one key area where landlords can ensure their properties are address those market changes.

We are all well aware there we need more houses, and more people are renting – the figure in the PRS sector has risen from 2.8 million to 4.5 million in a decade. In social housing, the demand for homes for older people is 10 times higher than current availability. Set alongside that, more older people are now renting than in the past – the 45-54 year age group represents 16 per cent of the market, compared to 11 per cent just a few years ago. Our disabled population is also growing – people are living longer, and needing more alterations to their home to enable them to remain in it; people who were either born with a disability or became disabled through life-changing incident are similarly living longer as a result of medical advances.

It’s about a move from affordable homes to accessible homes, homes that enable people of all ages and abilities to live in an appropriate environment: adapting to provide a lifetime home. Indeed, a YouGov poll found that 75 per cent of people felt all new homes should be built to be accessible to all ages and abilities, so it is something the market wants. What few people are aware of is that, with existing properties, subject to certain qualifying criteria, the landlord can apply for Government funding under the Disabled Facilities Grant (DFG) to undertake that adaptive work. Up to £30,000 may be available. There are moves afoot to simplify this whole process, and reduce or remove one of the current qualification of five or more years’ residence in the property. Research shows that if someone needs alterations to their home to continue to live as independently as possible, the bathroom is the room most frequently adapted.

Alongside that, there have been two important documents published in recent months that affect the rental housing market. The Royal College of Occupational Therapists’ ‘Adaptations Without Delay’ provides a new framework to transfer the focus of adaptations to a person-centred outcome, to simplify and re-prioritise the process to enable more timely, proportionate solutions. Changes such as installing a level access shower could now be classed as a simple, straightforward alteration whereas historically it was viewed as a major adaptation, depending on the specific environment. Further, an all-party parliamentary group inquiry into decent and accessible homes is highlighting the importance of universal design in housing provision. It states “many older people do not like the idea of being stuck with poorly designed and unappealing aids and equipment. One approach… is to take a universal design approach towards products and services to make them suitable and appealing to all age groups”.

Fixtures such as wash and dry toilets are a perfect example of how those issues can be addressed. As a fitting, they are becoming more mainstream, and aspirational. A wash and dry toilet gives enhanced cleanliness and hygiene over wiping with toilet paper, and can be operated by almost anyone, independently, irrespective of age or ability. A wash and dry toilet is the enabling, universal design answer to something we all do, on average eight times a day, and something that is very private and personal. It is not hard to refurbish a bathroom to be inclusive and accessible. It may not have to be done as a specific capital project, as many of the tweaks to make a bathroom suitable for all ages and abilities, accessible, can be done as part of a routine maintenance programme. One of the simplest ‘fixes’ is use of colour. Colour not only influences the ambience, but can be used effectively to differentiate certain fixtures and fittings. Replace a shower tray with a level access shower, or even remove the shower enclosure completely and create a wetroom.

Thermostatic controls and lever taps give any user easier access and enhanced safety. Location also really matters with fittings in a bathroom. Position the WC away from a parallel wall: a Lifetime Homes criterion. Thus, it can be used easily by someone in a wheelchair or who uses a frame, in that they can access it from either side, or a carer has space to assist if necessary. If the bathroom is being adapted and refurbished for a specific tenant who has disabilities, a wash and dry toilet may be a sensible option in enabling them to continue to live there for as long as possible, with reduced or no care intervention.

As outlined above, the capital cost of such a fixture can be covered under a DFG, so a smart, aspirational upgrade may not even impact on the refurbishment budget. Hang the washbasin within reach of the WC without excessive reaching. It can then double as a support – assuming the supporting wall and fixings are appropriately load-bearing. The capability to install a hoist is another Lifetime Homes criteria, and is a change being made with increasing frequency with our increasingly obese society. Where space is at a premium, a ceiling track hoist optimises useable floor space. Versions are available with discreet gantry legs, so if the ceiling is not appropriately load-bearing, there is still a solution.

They key in design and installation of an overhead hoist system is that it can reach every necessary point of the room! It sounds obvious, but structural obstacles or placement of fixtures may limit its movability. These few hints will help refurbish a bathroom to be suitable for as broad a range of tenants and their families as possible. That increases its suitability for occupants. And increases its rental appeal.

Robin Tuffley is marketing manager at Closomat