The long and short of design

Published The Age, Domain, "The shortest common denominator", 2003

Tall people knew it all along. Short people were out to make them suffer.


Despite the fact that Australians have been getting steadily taller and larger,  interior house dimensions have hardly changed in 100 years.


Benches cause the most pain for tall people.  


Benches in Australian homes are a standard 900 - 915 mm high which means any body taller than 5' 8" or 173 cm, must stoop to chop food and stoop even lower to wash dishes.


Roger Hall, an ergonomics expert with the University of NSW, said, “Fixed benches that are too short for tall people cause static load and muscle strain after ten minutes.”


This provides taller men with the perfect excuse for not doing the dishes (and leaving them to short people).  But it also means that most kitchen benches are causing a lot of people back pain. That the same bench height is common in restaurant kitchens is unpardonable.


Bench heights are just one problem with the design of standard houses for taller people.  Tables, chairs, doorways, beds, showers, mirrors and stairs all cause problems and even back pain to people over 170cm.


Geoff Mortimer is 195cm tall and because of his frustration with normal houses, he designed and built a house for his vertically endowed family. His wife Nancy is 178cm tall  and his two sons grew up to be 203cm and 206cm tall.


Mortimer’s mud brick and wood house doesn’t cause any discomfort to short people, but if feels twice as comfortable and dignified to anyone over 170cm tall.


At 950mm, Mortimer’s benches are just 50 mm higher than the furniture industry standard but they make a huge difference. Mortimer says his shorter guests also enjoy the height because “they enjoy standing up straighter.”


A four metre high cathedral ceiling means that bookshelves, pantry shelves and cupboards can rise to 2.8 metres and afford around 20 per cent more storage space.


Wherever possible Mortimer built doorways that are taller and wider by four or five centimetres. It’s a subtle difference but it means that a 6 foot or 183 cm tall person - the height of this author - can stroll easily through doorways, without compressing shoulders or turning sideways. A visit to the Mortimer house made me realise why I had so often in the past bumped my shoulders on doorways.


Mortimer was tempted to raise the table but out of deference to short guests he simply halved the width of the frame under the table so his family could comfortably get their legs under it on higher chairs.


In the bathroom, Mortimer’s mirror reflects short people but rises to 211 cm. It is the first time I have seen myself in a house mirror with space above my head. I immediately felt myself lengthen. Light shades are high and windows are high enough to afford decent sky views.


Significantly, Geoff Mortimer has a slight stoop but his sons, who have grown up in the 1990 house, have very straight backs.


Geoff’s son, Nick, said, “I used to get back problems living at other houses. Washing the dishes hurts your back. Beds everywhere are too short for me. Shoes my size are rare and bath tubs are not big enough.”   Geoff Mortimer added, "Most cars are not designed for tall people." Most taller people will second these criticisms.


Public transport leg room and shower rose heights were incredibly frustrating, Nick Mortimer said. Men clean the house more often but mop handles and vacuum cleaners require anyone over 170cm to almost double over. Toilet bowls are a standard 60 cm high which is a long way away for a man over 183 cm. It's no wonder men sometimes miss the bowl!


Stairs are a more serious issue. Ivan Donaldson, executive director of the Australian Building Codes Board,  admitted the board was about to review the problem of “slips, trips and falls” which cause more injuries and deaths than fires in Australian homes.


Stairs vary more than benches and doors but the most common sizes are around 290mm for the tread (or “going”) and 165mm for the height (or riser) of each step. This means anyone with a male shoe size 9 or above has to walk sideways or on tip toe to go down stairs safely. It is a sure sign of persistently poor design that most men blame themselves for slipping.


So where do standard heights come from? Are architects all short people with short person syndrome?


The Australian Building Code 1996 sets minimum and maximum heights to protect safety and health but not comfort. It does not, therefore, regulate for table and bench heights which are a product of furniture industry conventions.


Where the Building Code has set minimums, they have often become standard however. Domestic ceiling and door minimum heights are set at 2.4m and 2.04m respectively and because of cost saving these heights are standard in the building industry.


Norm Bowen, senior technical officer at the Australian Building Codes Board, said minimum and maximum heights were adopted from the Uniform Building Regulations of 1945 and in Victoria, those figures came from turn of the century City of Melbourne by laws. Before that, some heights, like commercial ceiling minimums, could be as old as tudor England when allowance was made for men on horseback to ride under second storey eaves, Bowen said.


Whatever their origin, most of these heights and conventions were set when the population was a lot shorter. But it is impossible to say how much shorter because unlike other countries, Australia has not conducted a large anthropometric survey of its people. Statistics have only been collected for military purposes and are decades out of date, much like clothes sizes in this country.


The BBC recently reported that the average Briton has got taller at the rate of 0.75 inches a generation and Health of the Nation figures showed that 30% of men under 25 In England are now over six feet tall. The article reported that “if the current trend continues the average British man's height will be 6ft within a couple of generations and the average woman will be nudging 5ft 7in”.


Robert Caulfield, manager of Archicentre, the advisory service of the Royal Australian Institute of Architects, said that architects needed to review their standard measurements. "Six feet is not a tall person anymore. Not in the Caucasion population."


Geoff Mortimer said, “Architects need to be trained to come up with solutions for tall people.”


Caulfield pointed out that standard widths and heights in houses were interlinked and it was hard to change one thing without changing all.


Appliances like ovens and dishwashers were now designed to fit a 915 mm high bench top. Table dimensions (around 750mm) allowed them to be carried through minimum size doors. Chairs were set to match tables. Cupboards have to be 600mm above stove tops.  So the conspiracy of the lowest common denominator is built in to the standard Australian dream home.


But it does not take much to raise the standard.












© Copyright Andrew Bock 2010. All rights protected.