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M4(3) Wheelchair User Dwellings

Rachael Marshall

Access and inclusive design consultant

Withernay Projects

Jane Simpson’s recent article about the disparity in provision of accessible housing in the UK and misunderstandings of Approved Document M Volume 1 brought to mind examples from my work advising developers about accessible and inclusive housing.

The focus of this article is M4(3) Wheelchair User Housing, but I’ll start by adding my voice to Jane’s case for making M4(2) the national default regulation to address the well-documented shortage of basic accessible and adaptable housing. (Habinteg, Joseph Rowntree etc.).

Three years after the revision of Part M of the Building Regulations and the accompanying changes to the National Planning Policy Framework, I still have conversations with architects and developers about the differences between M4(2) and M4(3). Once they’ve grasped that more conversation is needed about M4(3) 2(a) and M4(3) 2(b). More worrying is that I am still reading planning conditions that refer to Lifetime Homes standards and wheelchair users’ housing for new developments in London boroughs.

As Jane highlighted, the similarity of the name of Category 2 (‘Adaptable and Accessible Housing’) and the subdivisions of Category 3 (‘wheelchair adaptable’ and wheelchair accessible’) further complicate matters.

Approved Document M guidance about M4(3) dwellings covers both adaptable, M4(3)(2)(a), and accessible, M4(3)(2)(b), units, from here referred to as ‘adaptable’ and ‘accessible’.

Back in July 2017 I started working with a developer of ‘build to rent’ housing and my first task was to untangle their sketchy understanding of the accessible housing standards. The developer’s confusion was compounded by conflicting planning conditions for the scheme that required dwellings built to meet Lifetime Homes standards, 10% to be either adaptable to meet the needs of wheelchair users or built to meet their needs, and to meet M4(2) and M4(3) of the Building Regulations.

Once this was resolved the developer struggled to understand why they would build homes that were adaptable to meet the needs of wheelchair users instead of accessible wheelchair user homes.

The local authority would not be responsible for allocating any of the dwellings, and therefore could not impose a condition that required a proportion of the dwellings to be ‘accessible’. However, the developer could not accept this and worried that the company would be liable under the Equality Act if they did not build accessible dwellings that were as ready as possible for a wheelchair user from day one.

After much discussion about the Equality Act, the Building Regulations and the fact that even an ‘accessible’ M4(3)(2)(b) unit may still need adaption to suit an individual, the client decided to build a proportion of their M4(3) units as almost-accessible instead of adaptable. This resulted in:

  • Bathrooms and shower rooms being slightly wider than in the Approved Document to enable the bath / shower, basin and toilet to be in line and have the necessary clear manoeuvering zones; and
  • Kitchens having mechanical rise-and-fall units with demountable cupboards beneath that are additional to the required storage provision, and a mid-height oven.

This strategy will serve potential disabled tenants well because they will not have to wait for the following alterations to be made to convert an M4(3) adaptable dwelling into an M4(3) accessible dwelling that suits their needs:

  • Removing / adding / relocating some kitchen units and appliances;
  • Addition of adjustable-height section of counter and associated mechanism incorporating shallow sink, hob and counter with clear space beneath;
  • Adjustment / replacement of plumbing and electrical wiring; and
  • Remedial work to kitchen floor.

This is irrespective of whether the developer or the tenant is responsible for the adaptations.

In my experience this strategy is much more in line with what was built prior to the introduction of the Optional Categories into Part M to meet planning policies that required ‘dwellings that are easily adaptable to meet the needs of wheelchair users’, and would be more appropriate than current M4(3)(a) guidance.

Wouldn’t it make more sense for the Approved Document to set out its guidance about designing homes for wheelchair users in a similar way to the section about M4(2) homes? The current Category 3 guidance perpetuates the idea that an M4(3) accessible dwelling would suit all wheelchair users, which is not the case.

In summary, I would support:

  • Making M4(2) the minimum requirement for all new homes built, including those that are created from commercial to residential change-of-use buildings;
  • Omitting all guidance about ‘accessible’ M4(3) dwellings; and
  • ‘Upgrading’ the M4(3) guidance about dwellings that can be easily adapted to meet the needs of wheelchair users without moving sanitary fittings and kitchen appliances.

Contributor: Rachael Marshall is an Access and inclusive design consultant who runs Withernay Projects (www.withernay.com)

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