Designing an adaptable home

Last updated: 9 August 2023

designing adaptable home

Create an accessible home, one that adapts to the needs of all occupants, regardless of physical ability, now and in the future.

A home that adjusts to your needs

To get the best value out of your home make sure that it will meet your needs and those who live with you not only now but also in years to come.

This could be as simple as being able to push a pram easily into and around the house, or the more complex task of getting in and out of a wheelchair to access the shower.

Rethinking universal design on the Build Magazine website describes how Australian research has shown that a new home has a 60 per cent chance that someone with a permanent disability will live in it during its expected 80-year lifetime.

Regardless of age or ability, every house design should factor in the competing demands of size versus functionality. In other words, is it big enough for the needs of the occupants, without being so big that it is unaffordable to build or run. Often the key is good design with the right spaces in the most useful places.

In terms of utility the house should provide, here are some key questions to think about:

  • How long you expect to live in the house?
  • What needs are the various occupants of different ages likely to be?
  • How will the home be used? Will you want an area where children can play, a space for entertaining guests or a space to work from home?
  • Do you or anyone living with you have any special needs or requirements? Might they in the future?
  • Do you or others in the house have reduced mobility? Might they in the future?
  • How do you spend your time when you're at home? What are your hobbies and interests? Do these require special or additional space?
  • Do extended family members or friends live with you for long periods? If not now, will they one day?
  • Do you regularly have visitors and guests to stay and, if so, how many?
  • How many car parks or how much garaging, do you need?

All these issues influence how many rooms or spaces you need, how big those spaces need to be, and how flexible they need to be (can you use one space to meet several needs?).

This information will be useful whether you're briefing an architect or designer about a new home or renovation, buying a home off the plans, or buying an existing home.

How big does your home need to be?

A well-designed, compact and flexible home may meet your needs better than a larger, more expensive home that takes longer to clean and costs you more to run. There has been a swing toward smaller homes in recent times, with compact, clever design becoming popular. This is a response to a number of factors, including housing affordability, size of sections, smaller household sizes, and the desire to live closer to urban centres rather than on the fringes. It also acknowledges the cost to run and maintain larger homes.

Your builder, designer or quantity surveyor can give you an idea of the current cost of building, by the square metre. This can vary, depending on the complexity of the design and the quality of materials and finish you want.

Choose the right people for your type of building work

Get information about choosing the right people, including when to use a licensed building practitioner (LBP).

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Universal design

Universal design is about making homes that people can live in and enjoy regardless of their age, mobility or stage of life. Universal design also means having a home that is adaptable as needs change, eg having children and the different stages they go through:

  • children leaving home
  • mobility and health changes
  • wanting to simplify housekeeping
  • wanting to stay in your home as you age.

Some basic features of universal design include:

  • flat access to the main entrance
  • kitchen, bathroom and at least one sleeping area at entry level (this sleeping area could also be used as a study or living area)
  • all rooms large enough for residents to move around easily
  • light switches, socket outlets and door handles at easily reached uniform heights.
  • lever-style door handles (easier to grip and open than door knobs)
  • kitchen benches and other work or storage spaces at the appropriate height
  • light switches beside beds
  • doors opening outwards or sliding in small bathroom areas
  • grab bars beside toilets
  • a wet area or level access shower
  • all walkways and doorways wide enough for strollers, wheelchairs or mobility scooters to easily pass through (an 810mm-wide doorway will allow minimum clearance for wheelchairs of 760mm width)
  • garages and carports large enough for wheelchair access around vehicles.

A lot of the features of universal design can be easily built into any new home often at no or little cost. Research has shown that it is considerably cheaper and less disruptive to build universal design features into a new home than retrofit the same house later.

Think ahead about what you might need to set up for in the future. For example, you might ask the builder to put in extra wall framing, so you can put grab rails above the bath or toilet. This would be a minimal cost, if any, if you did this when you were building.

Who lives in your home and what do they do?


Larger families will need living areas that are designed to meet different needs at different times – for example, a children's playroom by day usually is a family living/dining area by night. In fact, most rooms in your home will have multiple uses.

You might want separate areas for:

  • formal and informal living
  • watching TV and quiet activities such as study or work
  • adults and teenagers
  • play or rumpus rooms.

Also consider kitchen size, and how many bedrooms and toilets you'll need. Bear in mind, extra bathrooms will cost more to build and will also mean more cleaning.

Outdoor living spaces can be used to ease some of the pressure on indoor areas. Young children will need access to places to play (including outdoors) where they can easily be supervised.

Older children or teenagers may need private areas where they can study while still being under the supervision of their parents. You may want to consider a separate living area – perhaps in a sleepout or mezzanine floor – where they can entertain their friends.

Do you live with extended family or flatmates?

The needs of adults are quite different to those of children. If you have other adults who live with you, they may need more independence and privacy than children. Do you need a separate living area? Is your site suitable for an additional dwelling? Do you have elderly people living with you who have special needs? Do you have extended family living with you?

Do you have lots of guests to stay?

If you have guests or family members who come to stay on a regular basis, you may need additional sleeping or living space. The trend to have an additional spare bedroom 'just in case' comes at a cost. You might be able to create a multi-purpose room with good storage (for example, you can get a desk that converts to a bed without you needing to pack anything away).

You might want guest bedrooms or children's bedrooms that are large enough to have spare beds for other children to stay. If you plan to use sofa beds or mattresses on the floor in living areas to accommodate guests, it's important that the living areas are warm at night and have convenient access to the toilet.

Meeting future needs

Consider your future needs as well as your current ones:

  • Will your family size change?
  • Do you have children and when are they likely to leave home?
  • Do you ever work from home, or plan to?
  • Are your physical needs likely to change as you age?
  • Do you plan to retire here?

Planning ahead now might save you costly renovations or the regrets of leaving a home and neighbourhood you've become part of.

Depending on your answers, you might need to think about whether:

  • you have enough bedrooms to cope with likely additions to your household
  • you need a room that can be used as an office or for multiple purposes
  • your home will be suitable as you grow older, your mobility becomes impaired or both.

Ideally, your home will adapt to your future needs without further renovation. However, it's also worth planning ahead to make renovations easier. If your interior walls aren't load-bearing, you'll have more flexibility to remove walls and change room layouts as part of any future renovation.

TIP - Lifetime design

Useful tips on the Lifemark website will help you design or renovate your home for a lifetime, and make good use of your available spaces.

This information is published by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Chief Executive. It is a general guide only and, if used, does not relieve any person of the obligation to consider any matter to which the information relates according to the circumstances of the particular case. Expert advice may be required in specific circumstances. Where this information relates to assisting people: