In this episode we feature an interesting interview with Chris Nicholson. A trainee Quantity Surveyor & wheelchair user who brings with him rare insight and analysis into the construction industry and accessibility for new build homes. As well as with the use of space within our built environment.
Perito: Welcome to the Perito Podcast Our World Without Boundaries. A podcast all about creating inclusive environments and about helping us all to become experts in identifying exclusion so together we can make better design decisions in our everyday life, work, play. Which in turn will help us create an inclusive and accessible world for everyone, everywhere.
Now in this episode we are pleased to be joined by Chris Nicholson. Hiya Chris.
CN: Hiya James how you doing?
Perito: Very good thank you very much, how are you?
CN: Yeah well thank you, thanks for having me on.
Perito: (0.28) It’s a pleasure, I was going to do a quick fire round with you but I thought maybe that would be a bit harsh so we’re just going to kick off straight in with the interview questions. Can you tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?
CN: As you’ve already said James my names Chris Nicholson, a 26 year Apprentice Quantity Surveyor with a company called MH Stainton in Lancaster. I’m currently learning my trade at the University of Central Lancashire where on the course that I’m doing I will become a Chartered Surveyor by and for me, being a disabled person, after an accident playing rugby, it plays a part in my healing and trying to create a future that’s accessible for everybody and it’s totally inclusive.
Perito: (1.10) I think that’s a really good aim and it’s something to definitely strive for and very achievable but you mentioned that you were a wheelchair user since you had an accident playing rugby, what has that transition been like and how did the accident impact on your career?
CN: The change has been very dramatic myself personally because I feel before my accident I was very blinkered and very selfish towards people who had disabilities where I wasn’t opening my mind to what other people has to go through day in and day out, the transitions been very difficult from both a personal and professional perspective because I don’t understand professionally why everything cannot be made inclusive, why accessibility cannot be just the norm, why a building cannot be totally inclusive, so if you build something for one person specifically somebody with a disability then it potentially can be accessed by every person so it’s been a transition that’s been very difficult. It’s opened my eyes a lot and I feel like it’s a very strange thing that I actually feel better in my mindset, after my accident I feel a lot more open minded to people who have disabilities because of the learning process that I’ve had to go through.
Perito: (2.16) Was your accident instantaneous or was it something that happened, you needed surgery and therefore you had time to adjust your situation?
CN: My accident just happened, I was on the rugby pitch for five minutes and I had an accident that I was tipped on my head and my right side of my face touched my shoulder and it was very instant and something that I’ll never forget.
Perito: (2.40) You mentioned briefly about how you were almost blinkered, to inclusive environments or other disabled users or people with hidden disabilities.
Perito: (2.50) Can you talk a little about why that might have been. Was it just an indication issue or did you just feel, because you must have been super fit, you must have been young, almost a little bit invincible.
CN: Yeah I was young. I was 21 at the time of my accident and almost very selfish with my own views and how I thought I was invincible and that nothing would stop me but there’s a massive education flaw with regards to people with disabilities. It’s not really a word and description of what people have to go through day in day out who have a disability whether it be mental health, visual impairment, physical impairment or something their born with, the education system isn’t there at the moment to actually give people that knowledge that they need to help understand these situations a bit more which I think the accessible and inclusive world is so far away from being potential because the learning and education isn’t there yet.
Perito: (3.44) So I think that’s a good lead into the next question then, so you’re a trainee Quantity Surveyor and will be soon a full, fully trained Chartered QS. Tell us about your employer and why being a QS is an accessible career and has less barriers then other options you were considering when you were younger?
CN: Being a QS is something I sort of fell into and my employer I previously, I’ve only been M H Stainton now for nine months but my previous employers could see the potential that I had as a QS due to my ability before my accident where I was very good with numbers and I had an eye for detail and now since working with MH Stainton my eye for detail and working to surpass Building Regulations and general environments making a living environment perfect. Not just the one type of person who’s on their feet but for everybody, and I think the company where I’m at, MH Stainton, they really champion the independent kind of living that everybody deserves no matter what kind of disability they have and it’s really refreshing to go into a company and actually see that somebody’s willing to actually take a risk on somebody with a disability even though the boundaries that they have to do the work are quite limiting.
Michael, whose the Managing Director and Gail, who’s the Company Secretary are very supportive, the site team are very supportive and I think in order to get people into sort of these professions that aren’t well know for being disabled friendly, because in the construction industry you just think yep it’s just for guys, and it’s just full of rough and tough people but it’s not. It’s an inclusive environment that I think the company that I’m working for, MH Stainton, really pushed the boundaries on making it an inclusive and socially acceptable environment to work and I’ve never come across a company that’s been like that before.
Perito: (5.43) I think it’s really interesting that they wanted to build that out from scratch, do you think that’s come from the top down, as in from the management team or do you think that’s from someone saying let’s look at the commercial benefits of doing this or look at the social benefits of well being and maybe we should adopt this?
CN: I don’t necessary think it’s on that the social benefits or the commercial benefits and I’ve asked this question once or twice to Gail and Michael and I’ve said to them “you know, why did you, take the risk with me, I’m in a wheelchair I come with these host of challenges” he said “it’s not the wheelchair that we hired, we hired the person” and for me it was a relief because I thought well am I just another tick box. But I’m not, they’ve hired because they want me on their team and they think that I can succeed in their team and it’s just a really refreshing outlook and something that I think major blue chip corporations should actually take on board that a wheelchair person or a person with a disability isn’t just a tick box, it’s somebody that can actually succeed, and do a job exactly like someone else.
Perito: (6.49) What opportunities do you think being a QS does give and will give and why do you like it?
CN: I like it because it brings me back to my rugby days a little bit when I go on site. It’s difficult, I’ve got to make adaptions on site, I get a bit muddy and it’s a challenge. I really, really thrive on a challenge but what I think I can, once I’ve got my chartership, I can bring it to the table I really think that with myself and working I would love to push governing bodies to actually look at people who on paper shouldn’t be working in construction but to get people included to make a difference and make a difference in their regulations that will allow somebody to be better in their own environment because it’s already been catered for because people who have these disabilities have a first person advantage to anybody who tries to cater for somebody with disabilities, they have the experience, they have the knowledge and can make a difference and can make adaptions or suggestions that somebody who isn’t disabled can’t.
Perito: (7.57) You’re becoming expert at identifying what the exclusions are by your own day to day experiences?
Perito: (8.04) So talk about kind of exclusions and social exclusion. What is the most difficult to overcome, do you think it’s attitude on all issues from people around you or the physical barriers that you come across and why do you think this?
CN: I think it’s more people’s perception and the judgement that comes from people who don’t know me and don’t understand my ability to be Quantity Surveyor and the drive that I have to be a QS. I think they judge me way too quickly before they actually know me and understand me and I think it’s a massive flaw in today’s society ‘judging a book by its cover’ and the amount of times that I go onto a building site and people go “oh, you’re in a wheelchair”, “how can you be in a wheelchair and on a building site and working construction”. That’s perception is totally flawed and wrong.
I think it just excludes people from actually wanting to be in the industry, because there’s this whole mentality that the construction industry is just for a set kind of person and not really for somebody that’s like me or somebody with a different kind of disability. It’s totally flawed in my opinion.
Perito: (9.11) It’s classic ability bias isn’t it. The idea of designing something for people with two hands or assuming that everybody has two hands and then you going on site, you’re in a position but their automatically looking at it through their own eyes and their own perception, instead of looking at what they can do to make the difference.
CN: Yeah, exactly and people see a problem before they see me as a person which is wrong. I think it is wrong for people who have different types of disabilities because people view their disabilities before they actually view that person and view what that person can bring to the table and in some cases somebody might be able to bring something more than a fully abled bodied person and they judge a person by their image and not by what quality they have.
Perito: (9.51) Yep agreed, I think it’s very consistent even with Board level in corporations with the idea of diversity in gender.
CN: Oh 100% yeah.
Perito: (10.02) When people talk about oh we need more women in Board rooms, actually that’s just the tip of the iceberg because the more people you have coming from more different backgrounds the more things you can understand because people aren’t looking at things in exactly the same way as everybody else.
Perito: And that’s really useful.
CN: That’s a very big gripe of mine is when you see Members of Parliament who are head of the EWP and head of, you know, people with disabilities. The thing for me is what do those people know about somebody with a disability and after doing quite a bit of research into it Canada actually are trying to champion this process of getting people who are aware of these situations to make people with disabilities be more a viable option in the workplace and for people totally feel like they are wanted and I think it starts from the top of Government and major Blue Chip Corporations and it’s got to work it’s way down, it just takes the one company to make a difference.
Perito: (11.08) Agreed, so moving away from companies then onto the policy that you mentioned about Government and the role that they had to play, a lot of listeners will feel that Part M Building Regs doesn’t go far enough to support concepts like visit-ability and choose-ability. What are your thoughts on the approved Doc M as guidance to meet the Part M obligations and does it go far enough?
CN: I don’t even think it scratches the surface if I’m honest. I don’t like to go on about this point but it’s made by somebody who doesn’t understand what the problems are that somebody with a disability faces every day. I think it’s a totally flawed document that needs to be completely overhauled, re-written, so it makes people’s lives easier not in some respects harder. I’d push for that to be amended.
Perito: (11.57) Do you think that BS8300:2018 has a role to fit into the construction of new dwellings and buildings cos in place of the Approved Doc M (ADM) and does someone like MH Stainton use BS8300 as a standard?
CN: MH Stainton are already working to a really high standard where we like to think that we don’t just think of the norm. We think of surpassing what the benchmark standards are.
CN: And you know we champion ourselves on pushing the boundaries of any type of construction that we set our sights on that we make it totally accessible for everybody. We make any amendments possible that can make someone’s life easier, within reason, and there’s got to be a commercial aspect that we’ve got to think of but we like to really push the boundaries on making sure somebody’s home is built for a lifetime no matter the situation and it can be amended to their situation not just, this is your house, live in it and be done. We like to think that we, and we do, care for our customers and we care for how they want to live their lives and how they want to live in our houses. Many housing companies and developers just see housing construction as just an accountancy, just numbers, it’s not somebody’s life, it’s what’s at the back end for it and how they can make as much money out of it as possible with as little going into it and not caring about that end user. MH Stainton are a company that go that extra mile for its customers and really surpass the current benchmark that is outlined by Government.
Perito: (13.36) When you think about the future of a barrier free built environment what do you think are the most important policy regs, standards, changes that would need to happen to get us there. You mentioned ageing in place, and I think ageing in place would be really vital going forward when you think about the cost of care for the elderly. You don’t just simply want one house; you’re building a house for 100 years. So the number of people who are gonna live in there will be 3 or 4, 5, 10 families and someone may want to be there from the day zero to the day 100 and by being able to facilitate that adaption is essential. What do you think about the future of the barrier free environment?
CN: I think we need to take a page out of Europe’s book. I’ve been to Italy, I’ve been to France and they have this generational living where grandparents live with their sons and daughters and then the sons and daughters of theirs then live with them and I think it, making sure that elements of buildings can be adapted with minimal uplift and upheaval that can affect somebody’s life.
Like making sure that doors are wide enough, like making sure there’s a correct turning circle that if somebody has sensory issues that a building can be adjusted, with minimal impact on that person’s life, to actually be altered in the way that suits them and I think current Building Regs and current standards don’t consider everybody. They consider something that somebody can see and not what can’t be seen and somebody with a visual impairment, you know, it’s all well and good adjusting the height of sockets and light switches but let’s think about people who have these mental disabilities, that have partial sight and that there’s more to it and that I think there has to be a total overhaul in the construction industry both on the housing sector and the commercial sector to completely make a building inclusive. Like I’ve said before, if we make building for one person who has got a severe disability it makes that building accessible for everybody, where we cater to the masses not just that single person.
Perito: (15.38) Yes so you could move somebody with a pram and a young family into it exactly the same way couldn’t you.
Perito: Because they need step free access with prams.
CN: Yes but it goes past step free access. I recently moved into a, I won’t share the name but a very well-known developer, I moved into one of their houses and I go in, there’s…
Perito: (16.01) Was it a new build Chris?
CN: …yes it was it was a new build and there’s steps in and out of the house to the front and to the rear, there’s elements of the property that I can’t reach such as the fuseboard, you know, so what happens if my stairlift goes down and I’m stuck downstairs I can’t actually flip the switch and turn it back on.
It‘s completely wrong and for somebody then to tell me that I have to pay them an obscene amount of money for classing it as a variation charge to make my life easier when these thoughts should actually be implemented and thought of sooner. It’s completely wrong and it needs to change, the whole system needs to be overhauled and people’s lives need to be thought of not just how to sell a house really quickly and make as much profit on it as you can.
Perito: (16.54) There’s a new flat development that’s gone up around the corner from me and I happen to run into the construction manager on a presentation thing and I explained to him, “well if you want help looking through the plans just to make sure that’s it all good and it’s going to be accessible for you just let me know, I’m quite happy, you know what I’ll do it for you for free”. He kind of chuckled and said “no, no, no, no it’s fine” and well they’ve now finished them and there’s a nice set of steps, which I’m not even sure actually are going to pass Building Control having had a basic look at them, in terms of nosings and size but you’re thinking you’ve just built four steps running from this new build that you’ve just put in onto the street. How many people are going to go up those? It’s just bewildering as you say, from a developer point of view why that has been decided to happen and it could have easily been, and I’m not saying a ramp would have had to go in there but looking at step free access or level access would have been easy enough just with a slight tweak. Alas not, so now the 75 years or however long those flats last, we’re going to have those steps on the outside, an easily avoidable barrier and a permanent reminder of that Construction Manager’s ignorance and lack of care.
Perito: (17.57) Well as you know Chris, Perito believes that we’re all designers in some capacity even if we aren’t the principal designers like planners or architects and this Podcast is out there to help everyone become a community of exclusion experts who can then contribute to a design process and make better inclusive design decisions. Can you tell us about your day to day experiences, I know you’ve touched on your house, so that’s probably a good place to start and challenges so that people will have a greater understanding of what can exclude you from participating and what can be done to create a world without boundaries for you?
CN: Well initially it’s very difficult to create a world without total boundaries but for somebody like myself it can things as simple as level access into a property, it can be creating the correct turning circles because some may be as big as 1.2m2 but that’s for an electric chair but with me I’m in a manual wheelchair where 900mm2 is my turning circle. Level access to bathrooms is important because initially when I first moved into my property which was a new build, now a couple of years old, the issues that I had and that I found straightaway was the general access to the property was poor and that was despite Building Regs actually supposed to direct house builders to put in access that was suitable for people with disabilities. Now for me having steps at the front of my house doesn’t help me at all, it actually, it hinders me and it got to the point where I was requesting for the builder to come and take it out but the cost for variations spiral which isn’t fair when these builders should be creating houses that are suitable.
Perito: (19.34) Yeah it doesn’t sound like they’ve gone with Part M there does it at all?
Perito: (19.37) And to charge you for that seems a bit dodge.
CN: It’s not correct and they need to be held responsible for this where and I don’t understand how Building Control can let that off because having freedom to use my house as I please is a massive thing, it’s my independence, it’s my life.
I’m expecting a child soon and not to be able to take my child out would have been catastrophic for me. I’d have felt more isolated and excluded from actually using my property with being able to get in and out because I have to rely on other people. My current employer, and before I started with them, gave me plans, I reviewed the plans and the first thing that I went back to them with was “why are your bathrooms so big?” and “why are you making them so big like you can clearly fit anybody in there that requires the space to get in there even to a larger chair”. They were like “well a home should be able to be lived in by everybody not excluding the demographic that has difficulties with living in properties, nobody should be excluded from a house or wanting to live a life that gives them, you know, a lot less boundaries”.
For me that’s a refreshing outlook because many of these major developers just think about that profit. They don’t think about who’s living in their houses, who is gonna give feedback to somebody else who’s got a disability and try and sell them a house, it’s just all profit, it’s not about their reputation of being a builder for everybody, it’s about being a builder that can make a good amount of money and can make the most revenue and turnover.
Perito: (21.16) You’re kind of in a unique position being a Quantity Surveyor because part of your job is to cost the build isn’t it?
Perito: (21.23) You work out how much has got to be removed, how much has got to be put in.
Perito: (21.26) Are you sitting there with MH Stainton saying, you know what Michael this is gonna cost you an extra so and so percent or are you sitting there and going actually this doesn’t really cost anymore than doing it in the right way. Doing it first time, not only saves costs further down the line for people like yourself but also makes the building better for ageing in place.
Perito: (21.47) Is there a definite line there or is it just a fallacy that these bigger developers, or any developers frankly, like the one down the road from me, are using as an excuse?
CN: In my personal opinion, and after reviewing costs of looking at for example different shower trays, different types of bathrooms, types of spaces and having level access, you know, it’s here nor there the cost difference in fact in some cases it’s actually less putting in say a fully ramp up to the house that looks amazing, that doesn’t look like it’s specified for somebody that’s disabled with a nice big concrete ramp and steel handles on it…
Perito: Yeah, exactly.
CN: …and steel rails, it doesn’t have to look like that. That’s just the Government being ‘right well what’s the most cost-effective way’ but as a Quantity Surveyor looking at the percentages of cost against somebody for having a disability and somebody without a disability. We can’t cater to everybody, it’s not going to be fully boundless, there’s always going to be one or two boundaries that maybe can’t be considered for somebody with more severe disabilities but the cost that these developers are saying they will have to incur is so extreme that it would actually put them out of business is wrong and I don’t know how they can stand by that statement and suggest that when the data that I review daily with my Managing Director and the PQS who overlooks the work that I do and take data suggesting there doesn’t really cost that much more, if not a little bit less. These builders get away with murder and in my opinion it’s not correct.
Perito: (23.29) What did you do to overcome those barriers with your particular home, You’ve been there a couple of years now, do you have level access now?
CN: I’ve had to bear the cost myself and with the support that I’ve received from charities, but I’ve taken out the step. I’ve made sure that my turning circles are enough, made sure that I can get in and out of my shower correctly, obviously I still have the limitations of getting out to my back garden and the width of the paths that they put round the side of your house with those fetching concrete slabs that they put down, you know, there’s obviously still limitations that I have in my property. I don’t expect to be there forever but for me as the customer having to amend my property because it doesn’t meet the current regulations and current standards and it has to come out of my pocket when I’m already paying a small fortune for a house, it’s wrong, and again its criminal, in some respects, what developers can get away with.
Perito: (24.25) Well I guess Building Control have a part to play in this as well don’t they?
CN: Yes 100% yes.
Perito: (24.29) In terms of, they really should have been coming up and placing a bit of emphasis here that hasn’t met visit-ability. It certainly doesn’t sound like it’s met Part M 4 at all which is bizarre but how do you find moving away from your house then, how do you find just your day to day experiences on the street, like the way people look after pavements that you use or ways to the office, is the disabled parking at work is that usually being abused by, cos I know that’s a regular problem for many people?
CN: I have a big problem when I go out. Especially when I go to supermarkets, I get told that I’m not disabled enough to park in Blue Badge bays even though I’m getting my wheelchair out and trying to access just local amenities like everybody else and when other people who are sat in their cars, in a disabled bay with no Blue Badge up it’s very frustrating. At work there’s access for me to access the building, there’s access for me to park safely enough that I can get my chair out safely and not affect anybody else or, you know, other people who work close by us, you know. So work generally is fantastic I think if we go outside of work and my home life the paths, pavements, dropped kerbs, they’re a massive issue. I think Councils should be made to rectify all these issues because it’s not just potentially an issue for me, it’s potentially an issue for somebody who’s on their feet and then trips up over un-level ground which then is an insurance claim against the Council, so the money that they could have spent to rectify a path, they’re now being sued for.
Perito: Yep, they’ve lost.
CN: That doesn’t benefit anybody that just unfortunately benefits the person who’s unfortunately damaged their ankle due to the Council’s negligence and I think that’s all the way around the country, there’s issues for access, there’s issues for just general amenities and access in those amenities to which is disabled people aren’t thought of and people with certain limitations aren’t thought of. Now everybody can’t be catered for but there should be things in place to try and cater for everybody to be able to go out and access their day to day lives and explore the world because you miss out on so much because people don’t think.
Perito: (26.46) It’s a really relevant point there I think the opportunities that you’re denied, essentially you should be able to have equal opportunity to go out and do these things, there’s very little change that needs to happen but people just don’t tend to think.
Perito: (26.58) Do you ever sit there sometimes and think I can relate to their ignorance and their lack of courtesy because when I was younger I kind of felt the same and I didn’t care. Or would you even at 21/20 never done these things like park in a disabled bay?
CN: I’d have never have done them. Sometimes if there’s a large car park I’ll try not to park in a disabled bay because I know somebody that could be more disabled then me and I’ll try and find a space that allows me to get access to these amenities but, and save a space for somebody else, but there’s certain things that I was very short sighted with, I was very tunnel visioned on what I wanted to achieve in my life and, you know, I don’t regret that but I regret how I couldn’t see how other people could struggle from the simple things of me being able to access a shop, and how people are disadvantaged because someone can’t think about putting a level access in to allow somebody with a disability to access something, and it’s being disabled has been a massive learning curve for me. I’d challenge anybody to actually live a weak in the life of somebody that’s disabled and not say that they’re not moved by the struggles that, that person has to go through day in and day out because being disabled’s hard.
Perito: (28.12) Well it’s exhausting isn’t it and then extra costs associated with it that people don’t think about.
CN: It is, yes, yes.
Perito: (28.17) Are there any final thoughts in terms of top 5 things if you could talk to a designer of the street or a house what top 5 things would you say, you can have top 20 if you like that should always be included for you as a wheelchair user and what would you like them to do that they should already be doing but obviously aren’t or at least if there are designers out there wondering what they should be doing, how you can help them to design better?
CN: Yes I’ll give you my top 5 because it’s not actually that bigger thing that these designers need to do. They need to think of the space and how the space is used. Pinching from one room to another and making door frames smaller just to make one room slightly bigger, okay you know, people might like a bigger lounge but it limits somebody’s access to these rooms. Let’s create rooms that people can access that can be accessed by everybody not just by the majority. Now my next point sort of moves onto like bathrooms and how we pinch the sizes in our larger rooms, our bedrooms, our kitchens, why can’t we make downstairs bathrooms a little bit bigger, you know, or main bathrooms bigger and have that space so somebody can turn in those areas if they’re in a wheelchair or, you know, have disabilities that affects their mobility, let’s give people space, let’s give people, let’s already think ahead rather than thinking of what’s the best way to profit from this.
Perito: (29.42) Or the minimum that can lead to the maximum profit.
CN: Yes exactly. Let’s look at trying to maximise the consumer’s ability to use their property whilst trying to maximise profits at the same time. It can go hand in hand, it then increases your customer satisfaction rating, then increases the general perception of the company and your homeowner wants to live there. And doesn’t have to rip their house apart down to the simplest thing here James of making sure that it’s got level access. What’s so hard about putting a ramp in?
There’s nothing hard about it, people have paving in their back gardens. They have steps in their back gardens that’s been provided by these developers so what’s wrong with putting a level access through this house or to any building in fact, there’s nothing wrong with that. MH Stainton have just completed an apartment building, they’ve made sure that if they don’t know something they’ll go out of their way to find it out and make sure that buildings can be used by everybody and that it’s for everybody not just for a single market and I’d massively implore these designers on my fifth point to go out there and find the knowledge. If they’re unsure about something find somebody with a disability and say right well what could make your life easier? What’s the bane of your life in this moment in time that causes you to feel restricted in your own home and the honesty and the knowledge that you’ll get from that will be second to none and it will give you so much knowledge and clarity on what you need to do as a designer, or as a director to increase these buildings sort of access and diversity and inclusion and just listen and learn. Knowledge is a very powerful tool that these designers could use just by going out and asking people who are disabled what can be done to make your life easier that we can include in our properties, it’s just something as simple as that.
Perito: (31.40) Some excellent points there Chris thank you, so any final thoughts from you before we start to think about closing the Podcast?
CN: James I’m just really grateful for you allowing me to voice my opinion and put across my knowledge to others so they can then look at trying to improve their construction process but also to not only think about if you’re able bodied, think about somebody who’s disabled and, if somebody needs a hand, give them a hand. Don’t just sit there and watch. Encourage people who are disabled to get out there, see the world and if there’s limitations help them to overcome their limitations, if those boundaries are broken down you’re making a massive change to somebody’s life that’s really important.
Perito: That’s a good summary. It’s been excellent to find out more about you and your future Quantity Surveying career, Chris thanks for joining us today and best of luck going forward.
CN: Cheers James.
Perito: Perhaps we could do a catch up in a year. We could do another Podcast to see how things have changed for you in that period and whether you’ve got more interesting stories to tell your listeners.
You’ve been tuning into the Perito Podcast Our World Without Boundaries. Thanks for listening everyone, everywhere.