Defining Design Excellence | Measure 2: Design for Equitable Community

By Kira L. Gould posted 12-05-2019 12:06


In September, the AIA formally adopted the COTE measures as the AIA Framework for Design Excellence. In the October issue of the COTE newsletter, we talked about Design for Integration. In this issue, we tackle Design for Equitable Community. Coming issues will explore the remaining measures. 

The AIA Framework for Design Excellence is written as a set of 10 measures. These are very different from design guidelines (such as those that track to sustainability rating systems); they are a construct for open dialogue that leads to a deeply integrated design solution. Each measure includes questions to inspire inquiry and encourage teams to address concepts of culture and place. The language is accessible; the measures are an ideal framework for conversations between architects, clients, consultants, and stakeholders. Design for Equitable Community reads:

Sustainability is inextricably tied to the wellness of communities. Describe specifically how community members, inside and outside the building, benefit from the project. How does this project contribute to creating a walkable, human-scaled community inside and outside the property lines? How were community members engaged during the design and development process? How does the project promote social equity at local, regional, and global scales? Because transportation-related emissions negatively affect public health, and because CO2 emissions associated with how these reach a building are frequently comparable to the CO2 emissions associated with operating the building, describe how the project, by its siting and operations, helps reduce transportation-related emissions.

There are also a host of community equity measures to consider. This measure, overall, represents a kind of broad listening to the place and its peopleand a simultaneous recognition that communities and regions are systems. Individuals projects contribute toand depend uponmany aspects of that system.


We are asking owners/clients and their design teams to think beyond the building. But this is a good moment to remember, as consultant Joel Ann Todd likes to say, that wethe AEC/RE industrycan walk and chew gum at the same time. “We can do equity and climate work at the same time,” she says. “Taking care of people, helping them improve their lives, this is part of what the climate change challenge is about.” 


I asked some architects, educators, and consultants, including Todd, for their take on why this measureabout community engagement and equity in communitiesis so important. 

Jennifer Devlin-Herbert, FAIA, with EHDD Architects, served as a juror on the COTE Top Ten Awards in 2018. Community and engagement are aspects of the design process that Devlin-Herbert often addresses in her work. She says that the first step is to understand that individual buildings do not stand alone: they make up and are a part of an ecosystem. “I think there is a trend toward the community engagement element of a project being understood as something to make the project more successful, not just to ‘get it through,' ” she says. “This represents a positive shift. I think the development/real estate community is starting to see and value the benefit and take it seriously. There is a swing toward a ‘what are we building together?’ ethic.” Return on investment still drives developers and owners. Architects and project teams need to better make the business case for these efforts.”


Former COTE chair Sandy Mendler, AIA, LEED Fellow, is a principal with Mithun. Mendler was a COTE leader when the 10 measures were first formulated. “Designing for equitable communities requires a focus on process (whose voices are heard as decisions are made?) as well as product (integrating public space and signaling that all are welcome),” she says. “For example, walkable streets with trees to filter air and water, and entries oriented toward pedestrians rather than parking areas enrich the public realm.” Mendler suggests that this measure speaks to a broader issue, too. “Design for equity is fundamentally about our professional obligation to serve the public interest as we practice. How can our designs make the built environment better for all, not just the client that hired us?”

Stephen Kieran, FAIA, LEED Fellow, is a founding principal of KieranTimberlake, a firm known for innovative and award-winning work. Kieran served as a COTE Top Ten juror in 2017. “Sustainability is as much a process, a way of thinking and living, as it is a physical outcome,” Kieran says. “The process of community engagement must be our first act of design. We should begin and end with all who will live and work in and around the architecture. Without broadly based, open engagement, there will be no transformative sense of shared responsibility that traverses scales and integrates communities across time.” He notes that “the conclusion of design and construction is only the beginning of the life of a building. Engaged processes offer the prospect of commitment by owners and users to sustainable operation and use over the life cycle of architecture. This commitment will impact long term sustainable outcomes even more than design decisions made at the outset.”


Architect/educator Brook Muller, Dean of the College of Arts + Architecture at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, has worked with student teams that have won Top Ten awards the past two years. “I find it essential is to establish a framework that embeds matters of equity in the very problem definition statements students are tasked to respond to,” he says. “The studio I taught this past spring involved a collaboration with my architecture students at University of Oregon-Portland and those in Professor Noelwah Netusil's environmental economics class at Reed College. She asked her students to write synopses of emerging models of valuation that focuses on matters of inclusivity, such as community investment trusts and the crowd funding of buildings as examples. My students explored the architectural and urban design implications of these models. It altered dramatically the kinds of conversations and design inquiry that took place.” 


If we are talking about equity, we need to discuss barriers such as gentrification and the reality that some members of our community are not benefiting from intergenerational wealth-building due to unfair policies and lack of ownership. To that end, architects and architecture students will gain and contribute a lot by understanding policy, following the money and thinking through how to ensure members of our communities have a stake in their futures.


Architect Laura Lesniewski, of BNIM, was part of the BNIM team behind the Asilong Christian High School in Kenya, which was a 2019 COTE Top Ten Award winner and one that really embodies Measure 2. She has written about the Asilong experience as transformative: “When we visited Asilong the first time, it was a desolate place. Now, 10 years later, the difference is palpable. Everything feels vibrant, people’s spirits are brighter. Along the way, the voice of women in the community has been elevated; and the plight of young girls has improved dramatically. Typically, girls were taken as young teens to become wives, and that was their future. Now they can go to school and get an education. That piece has really been transformational. Enhancing the human condition is more apparent on this project than any other that I’ve worked on, and that does not just refer to the people of Asilong.  The human condition of everyone involved in this place is enhanced.” 


Consultant Joel Ann Todd focuses on the integration of human health, social equity, and ecosystem health. She contributed to AIA’s Environmental Resource Guide, which predated LEED, co-founded the USGBC’s Social Equity Working Group, and has worked on the LEED for Cities and Communities Working Group. As she points out, communities are like ecosystems. We need to think about building in them in a way that considersand charts positive contributions tothe entire system. She admits that this measure can be challenging to teams who already have a lot on their plate. But the returns can be immense.


“When a project comes into a neighborhood, it helps to remember that it affects many people beyond the building,” she says. “We think about those who work or live in the building, but there are many more who should be considered. People who clean the building at night may depend on nighttime transit (that may not be available, even if a project has met some requirements for transit). People who work on the landscape may not be getting a fair wage. And what about the people connected to the supply chain of your project materials? It may be hard to find out, but it’s something we need to be thinking about.”


Stories about projects that do this in a direct or proactive manner are powerful, Todd adds. “For example, a project owner/team finds out that there is a lack of fresh food in the neighborhood and the team helps to organize a farmer’s market, then sets aside some of the site to help train people to grow produce, harvest, and market it. That is teaching people ‘how to fish,’ in the truest sense.” 


While this may seem beyond scope to some A/E teams, engagement in the real issues of the community can have many benefits to the project, its owners, and far beyond, and there are usually local organizations available to help make it happen. A nearby school might benefit from some mentoring or other STEM support for students; diversity and inclusion in STEM fields, including architecture, is greatly needed (for the people and the industries).