Health Hardware Design

Fixing Houses for Better Health Project

Housing and health are unarguably intrinsically entwined, wether it is in an urban, suburban, rural or remote setting. Good, reliable and secure housing is a cornerstone for healthy lives.

When discussing health in an Indigenous Australian setting, housing is often identified as a major factor contributing towards healthier lives. The discussion is generally focused on the adequate number of housing provided; quality and kind of innovative building materials and methods of construction; and end user participation in the design and building process.

On closer inspection however, it is revealed that it is actually not the house as such that needs careful re-consideration, but more importantly the appliances, fixtures and fittings within it. It is these fixtures and fittings that provide access to the internal domestic health infrastructure like showers, baths, drains, toilets, laundry tubs, washing machines, hot water heaters, soap dishes, toilet roll holders, door hooks, towel rails and so on. These fittings are the interface through which the health giving provisions in house can be accessed regulated by the occupants. The basin taps, light switches, stove knobs, etc… all play an important role in making access possible and controlling the utility. Yet, they are not fit for purpose. This is were Industrial Designers can make a contribution.

My research has shown that standard domestic appliances, like stoves, washing machines, refrigerators and fixtures like lights and door furniture and others as described above, do not perform well in this setting. This is chiefly due to poor product selection and bad installation in conjunction with environmental factors like harsh water, fine dust and pervasive insects and pests. Therefore fit for purpose appliances, fittings and fixtures are required. The experienced use of these standard domestic consumer goods is significantly beyond their designed specification and use scenarios. Domestic fixtures and fittings rely on a dense and maintenance rich urban setting to provide the back up services should any malfunction or breakdown occur. They are designed for a household setting that corresponds to statistical and focus group research data, which applies to quite specific settings.

This is a noteworthy finding. Interestingly cultural and social narratives are developed as strategies to respond to the apparent inability of the Indigenous users to operate ‘modern’ equipment in order to explain why things that last and perform well in standard suburban settings do not do the same in remote locations. Education and training are the main solutions proffered to ameliorate these conditions. However as the data clearly demonstrates, it is not the user behaviour as such that is the cause of these failures, but the inability of the specified products to operate under the conditions into which they have been deployed.


  • Federal Department of Family and Community Services, Australia

Research team:

Christian Tietz, UNSW Sydney, Greg Norman, Paul Pholeros

Research partners:

Project term:

  • 2006-2011