Is the design and construction industry overlooking critical links between indoor environmental quality, sustainable community planning and development, and human health?

Over the past three years, Hanley Wood has consulted building and architecture experts under its  Vision 2020 program to discuss the role of sustainability in the future of the design and construction industry between now and 2020. The consensus is that we must change the way we design, construct, and operate our buildings, and we must do it now. So what does this mean?

I recently chatted with  Hanley Wood Sustainability Council members Vivian Loftness, FAIA, the Vision 2020 Indoor Environmental Quality section leader and professor of architecture at Carnegie Mellon University, and Ellen Dunham-Jones, AIA, professor of architecture and urban design at Georgia Tech School of Architecture and our Vision 2020 Sustainable Communities section leader, about the intersection of IEQ and community design. is it too often overlooked?

Let’s pick up on a topic that Vivian raised in our first Vision 2020 conference call: widening the scope of indoor environmental quality (IEQ) to examine how it may include larger-scale initiatives such as land use and walkability. How could this shape practice going forward?

Vivian Loftness: IEQ becomes a community issue when you look at transportation because most of the transportation that we use today generates pollutants that become problems for people both outdoors and indoors. If we don’t provide walkable communities or plan for walkable lifestyles, everyone will drive point to point and generate acoustic issues and outdoor air quality issues that become indoor air quality issues. So, one of the big issues that needs to be addressed for sustainability is a commitment on the part of every sustainable designer to mixed-use walkable communities.

Ellen Dunham-Jones: I certainly agree and would add that we need architects to recognize that for every square foot of indoor space that is designed, we typically add one to three square feet of asphalt for parking cars. Architects have a tendency to think their job is the building while stormwater is the engineer’s problem or that anything to do with the site is for the landscape architect. That compartmentalization ignores how interdependent all of these things are.

Loftness: Those three feet of asphalt not only create heat island effects, but they also downplay the viability of walking and contribute to flooding problems that come back to bite us in the form of mold, pests, and destruction of property. If we had a commitment to downsize the amount of asphalt outside of buildings while still addressing ADA accessibility, we could use a fraction of the concrete we’re presently using.

We’re currently caught in a vicious cycle where the need to park more cars leads to more surface parking, which decreases walkability so that people are driving more and needing to park more. It’s incredibly unaffordable. If you ask people what percent of their income do they spend on housing, it’s easy math. But if you ask them what percent they spend on transportation, very few people can tell you. They might know the monthly payment for their car, but if you add in the costs of gas, insurance, and parking, and you’re in the lower half of the income brackets in the U.S., chances are you’re spending more on transportation than you do on housing—and those costs won’t go down any time soon. We can’t afford this auto-dependent lifestyle.

Dunham-Jones: It’s interesting to think about costs because there are less tangible costs such as stress or the time you spend in cars, and how that affects your wellbeing.

Loftness: The time people spend commuting is constantly ticking up, and it’s transforming attitudes about real estate and work processes.

Dunham-Jones: In discussing health and design at the community level, some people are focusing on mental health, and there is some research on psychological stressors, road rage associated with driving, lower rates of depression among men in walkable neighborhoods, and lower rates of depression when given a view to green space, even if it’s just a street tree. Most of the health focus has been on physical activity and controlling obesity and there’s a lot of research that clearly shows the benefits of walkability. Another area is research on emissions, toxins, and safety from accidents.

What’s interesting now is this conflict that arises in looking for more transit-oriented development (TOD) when the only place transit agencies can afford is along existing highways. As a result, we’re putting stations adjacent to the highways and building TOD there, but then are exposing people to those emissions.

Loftness: Another issue is the importance of being part of a social network and having diversity where you can start to understand what it is to be poor, to be a different race, or to be a different religion. If you don’t have that setting, you tend to breed an intolerant society.

Dunham-Jones: The number one indicator to determine how healthy you are is whether you are poor or not. Poverty absolutely trumps any other consideration. Of all the health impact assessment tools that are coming out to help designers create healthier communities, 80 percent of the conclusions are to include diversity and fixed incomes, and extend benefits out to existing poor neighborhoods. It affects mental health, physical health, and safety.

Loftness: Let’s talk about breaking down barriers between indoor and outdoor space. The notion of externalizing space is a strategic one. You can look at architects such as Ken Yeang who make the stairwell and elevator core outdoor spaces, questioning whether we need to condition this narrow band of space. This does a couple of things that intrigue me.

One is that it engages people in the environmental diversity of a space. It’s important to humans to not be in space that is uniformly lit and thermally conditioned. This allows us to connect visually or physically with green space which, as Ellen noted, is highly important to us, and it also reduces our environmental footprint because we’re no longer conditioning such large quantities of space.

Dunham-Jones: You tend to see that more in warmer climates. The interface between a building and a community—how the building meets the street—is also interesting. Can that opportunity with a stairway expose occupants to green spaces as well as the people on the street? It’s addressing the feeling of being part of something larger than yourself, a larger place.

When it comes to that interface between a building and a community, how do you provide privacy when it is needed without walling off the space from the surrounding community?

Loftness: If you study an urban street in Paris, you’ll find private space and public spaces with layers in between that blur the lines between the various aspects of your life. It’s like the old front porch, which is a semi-private space that becomes protected when it is lifted up two steps. There are some really interesting design innovations that you can offer when you think about layers of ownership rather than just public and private realms.

Look at how schools have evolved. We abandoned the urban school that you could walk to for the suburban school where a car or bus drops you off, and then moved to schools where thousands of kids are bused and driven in. Schools used to be porous with multiple doors to the outdoors, and then moved to a single door that was secure and watched. It’s taken us a while to understand that what means. Kids are getting much less physical activity and are losing the natural learning environment. We’re beginning to see school designers look into outdoor classrooms, which opens up discussions about how the walls can become more porous again.

Dunham-Jones: Outdoor classrooms are interesting in a school context if you think about schools using their indoor spaces for community use at night to either generate extra income or just bring the community in. Could outdoor classrooms be used as community space as well?

Loftness: Edible classrooms have engaged both kids and their families, where they go down on Saturdays and weed or pick tomatoes or run a farmer’s market, and that is a definite shift in the engagement of families.

Dunham-Jones: The schools often influence the larger neighborhoods. I was just invited to check out a site that’s raising money for an edible neighborhood in Atlanta that has been planting fruit trees and herbs along the sidewalk, essentially creating a community garden. The community gardens and urban agriculture are creating local infrastructure.

Loftness: And there’s a happy marriage between the urban agriculture movement and storm sewer crises, where we understand the importance of having plants that can withstand drought and urban patterns that can withstand a deluge. The forces are aligning here to have us come up with solutions that aren’t gray infrastructure and big pipe solutions.

That brings up the topic of resilience, as well.

Loftness: Design for resiliency does open doors, but is also raises the question of whether we have gone overboard on technology-centric solutions. One example is the big pipe for storm sewers, which is a technology-centric solution that is extremely costly and does not enhance the community. HVAC is another one, where the mechanical solution is being driven by the notion of sealing the box and finding an HVAC system to keep it comfortable, dry, and uniform. It’s very energy intensive and in a power failure, you’ve got to abandon ship. Security is a third example. We’ve become fearful that humans and nature are inherently evil, so we create a safe, conditioned box with single points of entry. We’re locking children in a box that creates physical and emotional weaknesses instead of doing risk analysis to decide which issues we want to address most critically.

Dunham-Jones: There is a bit of risk when we trivialize climate change and resilience by thinking about putting in a raised garden bed on the roof without thinking about the maintenance needed. In response, some communities are putting in orchards that are harvested once a year because they’re less work. I love seeing community gardens going in, but I think there is a tendency to romanticize them and not get serious about them. Communities are excited at first but when the work really gets going, participation tends to drop off.

Are there things that that builders and architects need to change to address these issues going forward?

Loftness: One thing that’s changing in practice is that landscape architects have a new role in early design. The HVAC and lighting engineers need to take on a new role, too, to recognize that nature is not inherently evil and that it can be a partner in conditioning. Is there a strategic way to engage in solutions as if it were a technology that can be quantified?

Dunham-Jones: My impression is that IEQ is fundamentally about health and while architects are committed to health, safety, and welfare, most view it as needing to meet a minimum requirement. They aren’t trying to improve health—they’re just trying to not make people sick. We’re beginning to see and understand that there are opportunities to increase wellbeing through design and that’s incredible empowering. Yet architects and designers are wary of guidelines that are too specific.

Loftness: It’s not just the architects. In some cases, engineers and landscape architects are reticent to get away from what they know is code compliant and non-risky.

But what if you are nudged into a direction? Look at some of the evidence-based design that the hospital community is working with. It’s becoming clear that having early morning sunshine in a hospital room affects healing. As a designer, that means you’re going to start organizing your building around early morning sunlight. The immediate response is that it will curtail creative design. But look at Alvar Aalto’s Paimio Sanatorium that has an undulating façade that faces southeast where every hospital room has a balcony with large doors so a bed can be pushed onto the balcony during the day, which was considered to be a critical aspect of tuberculosis treatment. It made Aalto famous worldwide. The constraints were the seed of creativity.

Dunham-Jones: The key is figuring out how to provide information so that architects don’t feel that the direction is prescribed.

Stay tuned for future conversations between the 2014 Hanley Wood Sustainability Council participating in our Vision 2020 program. Scroll over points in our on-going timeline to learn more about the path ahead in green building. Track our progress all year as the Hanley Wood Sustainability Council shares its perspectives on initiating, tracking, and ensuring progress toward these sustainable priorities and goals. This year's program will culminate in an exclusive Vision 2020 Sustainability Summit in conjunction with Greenbuild International Conference and Expo in New Orleans, and with a special Fall edition of ECOBUILDING REVIEW.