The Berkeley Group represents a conglomerate of residential development companies with a striking level of commitment to sustainability. During 2012, Berkeley delivered 3,565 new homes across its portfolio of developments in London and the South East of England. Over the last five years, the Berkeley Group has become a champion of environmental issues. It was the first residential developer to publish a climate change policy and the first to commit to certifying every new home to Level 3 of the U.K. Code for Sustainable Homes. For the last six years, Berkeley has also achieved first place in the NextGeneration Sustainability Benchmark of the 25 largest home builders in the United Kingdom.

Management has committed to raising standards even higher with its own Vision 2020 initiative. Among other objectives, the group committed to zero-carbon developments across all brands and all price points. Berkeley’s Vision 2020 plan focuses on four key areas: Building greener homes, delivering sustainable communities, enhancing the customer experience, and running a sustainable business.

To achieve the goal of creating sustainable communities, the Berkeley Group has come to regard the human (or customer) experience as anchoring to the long-term success of the company. Beyond the sales and purchasing experience, it has taken interest in the long-term social success of its developments. While environmental concerns remain critically important, Berkeley considers that too little emphasis is placed on the social dimensions of sustainability in both government policy and industry practice.

This was brought to a critical attention during the U.K. riots of 2011. (It’s telling that a similar reaction did not take place in the United States following the Rodney King riots in South Central Los Angeles.) On the heels of the English riots, professor Tim Dixon, chair in Sustainable Futures in the Built Environment in the School of Construction Management and Engineering at the University of Reading, published an article called “Putting the S-word back into Sustainability: Can we be more social?” It argued that people, places, and the economy are as important as, and closely intertwined with, environmental issues. Following publication of the “S-word,” Berkeley set out to find a way to define and measure social sustainability.

To find out how the social dimensions of sustainability affect the success of a housing development, and how to better address these issues, the organization commissioned a study by Social Life and Professor Dixon. Social Life is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to “reconnect place-making with people’s everyday experience and the way that communities work,” according to the organization’s website. Social Life recently published its findings.

Researchers argue, “Housebuilders have made significant progress in improving the environmental performance and design quality of new housing and public spaces in the past 10 years. The challenge now, for all the stakeholders involved in creating new developments, is to build on this progress and ensure that new housing routinely creates strong communities.” Although the report focuses on assessing Berkeley Group projects specifically, lessons can be drawn for the success of green-built, intentionally sustainable neighborhoods that echo in social welfare terms similar findings to those in public health. Namely, people in green-built, intentionally sustainable communities are more likely to feel reasonably happy than average people nationally and are more likely to feel safe.

The report points out that not all aspects of long-term sustainability fall under the developer’s control, a large part of success depends on resident governance through an effective and community-oriented owners association. But it attempts to determine the elements that are under a developer’s control, and to design a preliminary method of assessing the social success of a development in the planning stage. Social engineering in the same sense structural engineers can predict the strength of a structure before construction.

The report is divided into two main sections: Part one discusses what social sustainability means for housing developers, presents the findings that can be drawn from testing the measurement framework, and sets out a series of recommendations. Part two includes a detailed description of the process of development of the measurement framework and how it was tested. It reports on the evidence base used to develop the framework; how indicators were selected; methods of primary data collection; data treatments for secondary analysis; and strategies for testing the framework with some lessons learned.

The report proposes methods to measure and concludes that it is possible to design criteria for assessing the social sustainability of a community that can inform design decisions. Berkeley plans to try the assessment framework on a number of sites during pre-planning or in the early stages of development and then consider rolling out this approach across all of their business units, “building social sustainability into the way it approaches every place,” according to the report.

This approach and the report should provide valuable insight and inspiration to the U.S. home building and development industry, as an example of integrating sustainability with core business practices that provide value to shareholders, as well as society at large and the environment.

Click here to download the “How to Measure the Social Sustainability of New Housing Developments ” report.