Austin votes for “sticks” vs. “carrots” with Zero-Step Ordinance

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In a 6-1 vote this week, the Austin city council passed an ordinance that moves them one step toward Stepless-Entry-Homethe “age friendly” & “inclusive” world of new home construction.  But for all the passion and belief I have in this movement, I’m not sure this was the right decision for the city to make.  They will now require new construction to have at least one “no step” entry into the home, and set light switches and outlets at more universally reachable heights.

Link to Article: Austin Council Passes No-Step Ordinance

I learned about this via one of the LinkedIn groups I’m a member of.  There was MUCH conversation (36 comments and counting) on the post on this topic, in the group “ADA for Attorneys, Architects, and Access Professionals”, and it is truly one of the best and most fascinating discussions I’ve ever read on LinkedIn. Thanks for the original post by Mark Handler, Chief Building Official at City of Gardena, and for all the great conversations that have stemmed from it.

As an architect that is personally passionate and professionally educated and certified about “Aging in Place” in residential design, I am working to consult with cities and jurisdictions (along with housing design for large builders and developers) to design Age-Friendly communities and “Inclusive” home designs.  I see both sides of this argument.  I’ve spoken on stage many times (including to my own city council and planning department) on the topic, and how best to go about getting more inclusive home design to be a part of the language of a city, and of the builders that are finally starting to ramp up again with new home construction after the recession.

carrot-stick-approachI think it comes down to a choice about directing this movement with either “carrots” or “sticks”. The sticks in this case would be, as Austin has chosen to do, going about it via mandating the change with rules, laws, and requirements.  I see this approach as a parallel to something much like pollution control, wherein you are forced into compliance, or you pay fees and fines for non-compliance.

The other approach, the carrots, I think could be a better approach overall for getting inclusive design practices and home layouts to get into a “new speculative” that is more considerate of people with all levels of ability.  I think it’s better for the home buyer, the builder, and the real estate industry to let the market decide that this is truly what we want in the next 4 buying cycles (on average every 7 years) that will occur during the remainder of this Silver Tsunami of 10,000 people turning 65 years old for the last 3 years and for the next 18 years.  Personally, I think it IS WHAT WE WANT, but we need to get enough product inventory into the market to test and prove that theory!

AIP-addition03-PatioIn a “carrot” approach, you should make it work for the builder to be interested in compliance.  It has to pencil for them.  It has to be profitable, or at least not cost more to consider it.  Therefore, by creating incentives (like permit fee offsets and density bonuses to builder/developer) it may be a better way to create offsetting balances that help their spreadsheets and allow builders to consider being interested in compliance toward a movement that would create multi-generational, visit-able, and inclusively designed homes that simply work better than the standard “spec house”, for everyone.  It works better for the grandparents, but also the grandkids, the parents, the caretakers, and anyone else that may be in your home!  If the “cost add” (which can be almost zero when planned for in the design phase before construction, vs. retrofitting a home) can be offset to the builder by a lesser permit fee from the jurisdiction, or the “lot density bonus” that would equate to a builder maybe getting one more lot on their development parcel (ie. one more sell-able product with a profit margin for them) then I think you’d get the builder to “open their ears” and their minds to the idea.  For them, it’s going to be a “No MATH, no DEAL” mentality situation.

Right now I don’t see the “stick” mandate / law approach sorting itself out particularly well.  As the article mentions, from the builder side, it could simply have those developers looking just outside the jurisdiction vs. inside it for lots to build homes on.  That’s counter-productive in it’s own right, as it would continue to create sprawl and “suburbs” when we already have a housing stock that is 2/3 “empty nested” in the existing suburbs, and people migrating back toward cities for better walk-ability and access to public transit and services such as health care.

What I’d like to see is enough forward thinking big builders working with agencies to make some % of their new homes meet an optional 2-3 tiered “certification” (like LEED or EnergyStar) that would allow their housing for sale to stand apart from their competitors and be more “future thinking” in it’s design friendliness. I know of a few people that are working on (and have asked us to help with development of) concepts like this for a tiered certification for new homes related to universal design, accessibility, and the like.  If we can make it makes sense for the builder to “try it” financially (with those incentives) then I think we can get to the point where we can let the MARKET DECIDE with quicker sales / higher sales prices being bid up / lower DOM (Days on Market = holding costs to the developer)…

SOLD signTHEN I think “what the public wants” can answer it’s own question for the housing industry and builder/developer.  If these houses are selling QUICKER, or at HIGHER PRICES than the standard “spec house” that isn’t designed for anyone in particular, THEN we will have a viable movement in the housing industry – a paradigm shift that we’ve been preaching and passionately advocating for in the last 4 years.  Our hope is that we can all “paddle faster” and get housing design in front of this SILVER TSUNAMI of Baby Boomers and their families (along with anyone else – 25% of our nation statistically) who are in any way not “perfectly able”.

Whether it is your height, weight, sight, hearing, mobility, or any other difference you may have that is considered not “perfectly able”, you should get equal use, enjoyment, and longevity out of your own home and community.  Good, pro-active, and thoughtful design in planning mode (vs. reactive “panic” mode after it’s too late to do it right and cost-effectively) is the key to a housing stock that considers the future of our population, as it ramps back up to full speed as a leading indicator of an economy that appears to be climbing out of this horrific recession of the last five years.  Full speed is great, but let’s make sure we are pointing that speed in the right direction, one that includes “INCLUSIVE DESIGN”.



Image Credits – 
Entry Door & Mat: http://blog.builddirect.com/wood-floors-and-use-of-mats/ 
Carrot & Stick: http://scoopempire.com/marias-note-morsis-carrot-and-stick-and-stick-and-stick-approach/#.UvBUBfldUkc 
Aging in Place House Addition: http://bruscodesign.com/additions.html
Sold Sign: http://zoe1297.wordpress.com/2009/07/21/to-sell-a-home/sold-sign-2/ 

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3 thoughts on “Austin votes for “sticks” vs. “carrots” with Zero-Step Ordinance
  • Even with the strictest building codes in Texas, Austin is booming, and builders continue investing here because it’s profitable to do so. The new law requiring new homes to be accessible won’t change that, so I commend the City for getting out ahead of the demographics that will plague other cities.

    The new ordinance was not rushed through but started in 1998 when the City experimented with a similar requirement for new homes built with City funds, proving that the “stick” approach can work, at least in Austin.

    Builder arguments just don’t hold water. It costs nothing to change the height of light switches & plugs, install lever-style door handles, or design zero step entries, and if the lot elevation requires steps and makes a ramp too difficult, the builder can get a variance.

    I see builder opposition as similar to when they fought local building code adoption of rules requiring fire sprinkler systems in new homes, even though they save lives & property and are part of the International Building Code. The carrot approach would not have worked there either.

    My perspective comes as cofounder of Home Owners of Texas, a 501(c4) nonprofit that took on the Texas Association of Home Builders to get new consumer protection laws passed and an abusive state agency abolished outright. We proved that the Texas Residential Construction Commission (TRCC) was put in place by builders to protect them from lawsuits rather than to protect homeowners and that it did more harm than good. To do that, we coordinated PR and testimony from hundreds of homeowners with defective homes but no legal recourse. We unfortunately did not win on fire sprinklers, but I’m glad that Austin addressed the accessibility issue.

  • You didn’t publish my more complete reply, so here’s a subset.

    Even with the strictest building codes in Texas, Austin is booming, and builders continue investing here because it’s profitable to do so. The new law requiring new homes to be accessible won’t change that, so I commend the City for getting out ahead of the demographics that will plague other cities.

    The new ordinance was not rushed through but started in 1998 when the City experimented with a similar requirement for new homes built with City funds, proving that the “stick” approach can work, at least in Austin.

    Builder arguments just don’t hold water. It costs nothing to change the height of light switches & plugs, install lever-style door handles, or design zero step entries, and if the lot elevation requires steps and makes a ramp too difficult, the builder can get a variance.

  • Sharon Toji says:

    Many years ago, in Irvine, the city convinced builders to use a carrot approach by offering things like lever door handles as an option, and at a reduced price. The young buyers turned them down, unable to imagine ever getting old in one of these homes. They always thought that they would move within 5 years, and as they got older, they could then choose these types of features. They failed to realize that if they weren’t built into the home they were buying, neither were they going to be built in to homes they would be buying 25 years later. I can see the possibility of giving the carrot directly to the builder in the form of getting to cram in another unit, or a smaller permit fee, but on the whole, I fear that sticks are what works nowadays with an American public that has been schooled to fill in the bubbles and not get outside the lines, but not to do much in the way of thinking.

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