What If? Toward a More Equitable World

Susan Kaplan

Editor’s Note: Article originally posted on USGBC.org.

Since you’re reading this, you probably work hard every day to make the projects you are involved in more environmentally sustainable. The industry has made great strides in doing so, as well. But can we say the same about making our designs more socially sustainable?

Wouldn’t it be phenomenal (to paraphrase the International Living Future Institute) if every aspect of design and construction we touch made the world a better place: a more vibrant and more equitable place for all people?

What would that take? We’d have to look hard at not only what’s best for the owner, but also what is best for all the others involved in and affected by the building: the people who work and live in the building, to start, but also the contractors and maintenance crews, the design team, those manufacturing the building materials, and the members of the community who are often unwittingly, and without input, the recipients of a changed neighborhood as a result of the building’s creation.

The actions that could provide a better life for all these groups vary greatly. They include anything from ensuring the best job conditions to creating more socially and economically mixed communities; setting aside affordable spaces for local residents as well as local businesses; offering training for neighborhood residents; incorporating design features that work for all people, regardless of age and health; and providing public open space for recreation and socializing. They could also include working with companies that have more social awareness in all their corporate actions. And they could include equal access to sunlight, healthy air and cultural elements that elevate the spirit for everyone.

I’m sure you are thinking, “Yes, of course — who wouldn’t want to do that?” So the next question is, how can we do it?

Success in social equity starts with gathering the right people together and determining what the building can accomplish for the community, especially for those who have less access to services and influence. How many times have you sat at a project kickoff meeting where every person around the table was asked what the problems and needs of the neighborhood are, or asked what could be accomplished that would make the most positive social impacts in the project? That few? I imagine if I asked how many of these meetings included neighborhood members; local religious, employment and community organizations; community officials; and building maintenance workers, it would be even fewer.

Too often, we make assumptions and design decisions based on only a few, quite narrow perspectives, and we don’t look farther afield at the project’s/community’s issues and opportunities around the project. Has the area been hit hard by changes in manufacturing? Are there too few schools around? Is there a high percentage of senior citizens in the community without transportation access or services? Does the community hope for community garden space?

How can we solve these shortfalls or meet these aspirations if we don’t find out what they are?

Clearly, this is a huge, multiheaded and complex subject. The first step is understanding how to approach it. Happily, the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) is in the forefront in many ways.

USGBC and Social Equity

I have been lucky enough to work on USGBC volunteer committees for many years and to have seen the changes in the ways the organization approaches the human side of a project.

USGBC has always spoken about the triple bottom line of a project: the economic, environmental and social attributes. The third one, social attributes, is now starting to be addressed by the organization with the same vigor as the first two have in the past.

In the USGBC board’s latest Strategic Plan, the words and concepts of equity and community show up throughout the document — from the board’s vision and mission to its guiding principles and strategies. The USGBC has created both a Center for Green Schools and a Center for Human Health. LEED for Neighborhood Development has resulted in the raising of awareness of some of these issues on the community level. And LEED rating systems now have two additional overarching goals that a certain number of credits must address: Enhance Community, Social Equity/Environmental Justice and Quality of Life, and Build a Greener Economy.

USGBC is also researching the latest thinking and actions in social equity in building projects. For the Green Building Information Gateway (GBIG), its information website, USGBC commissioned the venerated consultants Joel Ann Todd and Heather Rosenberg to examine how projects and organizations are addressing social equity. The result is a comprehensive report, Social Equity in the Built Environment, and it has been published on the GBIG website.*

LEED Social Equity Pilot Credit

One way that USGBC brings new ideas into its LEED rating systems is through a tool called the LEED Pilot Credit Library. Through this process, new or innovative technologies and concepts get tested, and the best ideas are then refined and incorporated into the rating systems on an ongoing basis.

The LEED Social Equity Working Group, which I co-chair, is working on the creation of a Social Equity Pilot Credit. The credit is organized in a way that we hope will encourage project teams to incorporate the goals of social equity into any and all aspects of the project. The project team will be able to earn points by incorporating social equity strategies in one or more levels:

  • Project: This level includes strategies that affect the people connected with the building directly. This would include the tenants/occupants, as well as construction  and maintenance workers.
  • Community: This level includes strategies that affect the larger community. Strategies include actions to address inequities that exist based on ethnicity, economic levels, and disabilities of the people of the local community.
  • Supply Chain: This level includes strategies that ensure basic human rights for manufacturing workers. All aspects of production are included, from extraction to disposal.
  • Corporate: This is a crosscutting level, which encourages any and all organizations involved in the project, including owners/investors, design teams and construction and maintenance firms, to be better corporate citizens.

We are also considering giving credit for project teams engaged in other social equity programs and certifications related to the project or organization. This is being done to encourage the uptake of these forward-thinking, established and effective programs and tools, to minimize duplication of effort by project teams, and to reward what has already been accomplished by project teams in the area of social equity.

Greenbuild 2014

This year there are numerous sessions planned for Greenbuild in the area of social equity. I will be part of a group presenting our proposed pilot credit and case studies.

I would love to hear what you think of the credit, hear about social equity strategies you have incorporated into your projects and learn of projects that you think would be great to showcase. Please email me at susan.kaplan@buildingwrx.com with any thoughts, comments and inspirations!

Susan Kaplan
Susan Kaplan is the President of BuildingWrx, Founding Chair and current co-chair of USGBC's Social Equity Working Group (SEWG), and a LEED Fellow.