People are ultimately the drivers of the sustainability of our world, yet often sustainability as it relates to social value is overshadowed by talk of the environment and economy.1 What is the social value of sustainable design?
When sustainable design creates healthy and livable communities,2 social value is achieved. In order to be livable, the area must provide safe and affordable access to varied human needs conducive to fulfilling lives. In other words, we must create a world that promotes health and well-being, interactive communities, and equitable opportunities for all people.
Physical design can help contribute to the creation of this healthy and livable world. As architects we can design buildings and spaces that do not harm occupant health & well-being, that allow for physical and thus emotional connections and interactions to occur between people and that reduce boundaries and hierarchies which may impede individuals from reaching their full potential. Our designs can then become the clean canvases upon which life flourishes.
The physical state of the general population
The built environment can have a tremendous effect on the health of the local and global communities. For example, buildings contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions, which are linked to rising respiratory ailments, such as asthma.
Are greenhouse gas emissions acceptable? Does the landscape contribute to biodiversity, avoiding an over-abundance of pollen-bearing trees, which exacerbate allergies? Are the materials safe, avoiding putting toxic chemicals into the environment?
A person’s physical, mental and emotional state
The built environment can have a significant impact on health and well-being through the quality of light, views, air, sound, and material chemistry. In 2012, over half of design firms surveyed rated health and well-being as the single most important reason for building green. 3
Is the air quality good? Is there abundant natural light? Are people connected to the outdoors? Is wayfinding easy? Are materials safe?
Equal opportunity for fair treatment
The design, construction, and condition of the built environment can directly affect whether people feel fairly treated or not. For example, sitting all day in a dark or noisy space while co-workers are comfortable can seriously affect your health and attitude.
Does the design create places that are equally beneficial and enjoyable for everyone who uses them? Are buildings constructed by people making a living wage? Are materials produced under humane working conditions?
An active and engaged social network
The built environment can influence how people behave and interact. Positive social interactions and strong ties between people can create a sense of belonging that measurably improves physical health, emotional states, creativity, and productivity.
Do spaces bring people together or keep them apart? Do places connect building occupants to the larger community?
The ease or efficiency with which a building or project can be used
Design can make places easier or harder to use. A confusing workspace, for example, can create frustration and difficulty, but smart design can improve efficiency, leading to greater satisfaction and lower costs.
Does the layout make the place as easy as possible to use? Is wayfinding easy?