Ageing society

Flexible elderly-friendly designs must be future for Hong Kong’s public sector flats, Housing Society chief says

Chairman of city’s second largest public housing provider says government should provide incentives for private developers, including extra floor area

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 September, 2017, 8:02am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 September, 2017, 8:02am

The head of Hong Kong’s second largest public housing provider has called on the government to provide incentives for private developers to install elderly-friendly designs in their buildings.

Marco Wu Moon-hoi, chairman of the Housing Society, a non-profit organisation, said authorities should consider granting extra floor area to developers if they were willing to provide effective designs for senior citizens.

Narrow pathways and corridors often awkward for elderly residents to navigate are a common sight in Hong Kong, one of the world’s most densely populated cities.

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Wu said flexible indoor designs were needed that could easily and quickly be converted into spaces suitable for the elderly. Such features should be the trend for future housing developments amid a rapidly ageing society in Hong Kong, he added, to provide comfort in old age.

“Hong Kong is facing an ageing stock of housing and an ageing population,” Wu said. “When we take a walk outside, we can see many more people in wheelchairs compared with 10 or 20 years ago ... The government needs to closely monitor the situation and respond to the needs of the community.”

It is projected Hong Kong will become a “hyper-aged society” within five years with one-fifth of its population aged 65 or above, compared to 16 per cent last year.

By 2041 that figure is expected to be one in three.

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A design manual by the government’s Buildings Department which sets out minimum standards for barrier-free access was last revised in 2008. It specifies dimensions for common areas at all private buildings including corridors, ramps, doors, lifts and handrails.

The manual also provides recommendations on best practice, which adopt higher standards. But Wu said developers were rarely willing to follow these because they would mean bigger common areas in buildings at the expense of space for flats.

Developers are assigned a gross floor area for each building site, which includes common areas and saleable areas. Therefore any increase in common areas will encroach on the floor area available for flats.

Wider corridors are excluded from these calculations to a certain extent, Daniel Lau King-shing, the Housing Society’s development and marketing director, said, but developers were still reluctant to provide them.

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Lau and Wu both said awarding developers extra floor area would be a better way to incentivise them to adopt more elderly-friendly features.

Wu said the society planned to reserve 10 to 15 per cent of flats for convertible age-friendly designs in the first phase of its redevelopment of subsidised housing estate Ming Wah Dai Ha in Shau Kei Wan.

Some of those features were doors that could be adjusted to be wider, partition walls in the bathroom made larger, handrails and non-slip floor tiles in bathrooms, and cabinets underneath the kitchen counter that could be removed to allow wheelchair access.

“Many of the elderly really want to continue living in their established communities,” Wu said. “The concept of ageing in place is very important.”

The redevelopment of the 13-block Ming Wah Dai Ha will be done in three phases, with the last one expected to be finished by 2031. The project will provide 2,563 subsidised rental flats, 750 subsidised flats for sale and 607 flats for the elderly.

The first phase will see 966 subsidised rental flats completed.

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Veteran architect Joseph Kwan Kwok-lok, a long-time advocate for barrier-free access, said besides incentives the government could also consider making some of the recommended features in the design manual mandatory, such as those specifying lift doors should allow adequate time for the disabled and elderly to pass, and those calling for seats in long corridors and lobbies.

But Lee Wing-tat, chairman of think tank Land Watch, said he worried a system awarding extra floor area could be abused by developers, who might end up providing features not up to standard despite reaping the rewards.

“The intention is good but the government needs to be very careful,” Lee said. “I don’t think the Lands Department and the Buildings Department have enough manpower to inspect so many buildings to ensure the system is not being abused.”

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Lee said the penalty for abuses often involved announcing the breach of regulations in the Land Registry, which led to a lowering of a property’s value, but this would not be enough to deter such offences.

He said the government needed to have the power to repossess a property if the owners failed to fulfil conditions set out by the authorities.

Dr Lam Ching-choi, who chairs the government’s Elderly Commission and sits on the Executive Council which advises Hong Kong’s leader on policy, said the government could require all new residential buildings to reserve a certain percentage of flats for convertible indoor designs.

He said he would raise the issue at future meetings of the advisory council.