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The Committee on the Environment (COTE®) is an AIA Knowledge Community working for architects, allied professionals, and the public to achieve climate action and climate justice through design. We believe that design excellence is the foundation of a healthy, sustainable, and equitable future. Our work promotes design strategies that empower all AIA members to realize the best social and environmental outcomes with the clients and the communities they serve.

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Top Ten Awards Updates: Quantifying Equitable Communities / by Helena Zambrano

By Kira L. Gould Hon. AIA posted 08-24-2023 01:04 PM


By Helena Zambrano, AIA 

The architecture profession has recognized social equity to be a fundamental outcome of good design. A widespread desire for equitable design is a positive development, but one that is vague and has been interpreted in various ways. When approached successfully, equitable design can increase the number of people who benefit from architecture, help individuals thrive, and result in safer, healthier communities. Other times however, the idea of equitable design is used to get away with less desirable outcomes, such as offering everyone equal access to subpar results or insisting that everyone has the right to pollute as much as everyone else. The risk of leaving a concept like equity undefined is that it can be appropriated to serve any agenda.  

The concept of equitable design has been integrated into the AIA Framework for Design Excellence and the COTE Top Ten awards mainly through the Equitable Communities Principle, and has mostly manifested through the lens of community engagement. It is important for people to have the opportunity to contribute to the design of the environment that surrounds them, and it is a tool for architects to uncover the communities’ needs. But, as valuable as community engagement is, it remains a narrow slice of the full potential of equitable design. A broader approach to equity in the built environment would address inequalities from the local to the global scale. Recent updates to the Top Ten awards measure Design for Equitable Communities introduce new metrics to define the full depth of equitable design at four scales of impact: 

Scale 1: Building Occupants. How does the project enhance equity among building occupants? And among occupants of different buildings located in different communities?  

This scale focuses on the impact that interior building environments have on mental and physical health. For example children in a school located in an underserved community, despite potential proximity to air quality pollutant sources like highways and manufacturing plants, should have access to an equally high indoor air quality as children in a school located in a privileged community. Access to recreational green space and large shade trees and access to adequate daylight and healthy materials have influence on both momentary wellness and long lasting consequences of higher test score outcomes.  

This layer also addresses principles of Universal Design to provide universal access beyond ADA by advocating for choice in furniture, light levels, temperature, and sound levels to accommodate a wide range of human preferences and needs. Acoustic design for the hard of hearing, as well as ESL and neurodivergent learners is referenced, as well as addressing equity through prioritizing people and alternative modes of transportation, over private cars. 

Scale 2: Surrounding community. How does the project enhance equity within the surrounding community? Equitable design is not limited to the project site, but positively impacts the neighborhoods and local ecology. 

Community engagement remains at the center of this scale, but changes the focus from the engagement itself to what was learned from it, and how it influenced the project.  

This scale also asks the project team if they conducted a social site analysis using tools like Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, EJ Tool, or similar and how information on local social and economic conditions was applied to the design. This encourages project teams, whether or not the project had a stakeholder engagement, to deepen their understanding of the community. 

Scale 3: Distant community. How do design decisions for this project affect distant communities? Equitable design recognizes and provides support for everyone connected to the design and construction process, including those impacted by the extraction, manufacturing, and transportation of building materials and fuels. 

This scale pushes the manufacturing and construction industry to move towards cleaner extraction and manufacturing, and provide better working conditions for all involved. It also pushes designers to be more intentional about tracking where materials come from. 

The goal is twofold, to avoid using materials/manufacturers that perpetuate exploitative labor practices like child and forced labor; and to avoid products that are harmful to the community where they were extracted or manufactured such as vinyl, tropical hardwood or natural gas. 

Admittedly, as an industry, we don’t have all the information to fully answer these questions. But we need to start asking them if we want to ever be able to answer them. Historically, the COTE Top Ten awards has been an awards program, but also an educational exercise to push design excellence. 

Scale 4: Global impacts. What is the aggregate impact that arises from design decisions on this project?  

The effects from Global Warming are most damaging for disadvantaged communities and countries. The ultimate equity measure is addressing the underlying cause for many of the disasters that burden these communities: global warming. Hence, decarbonization is central to equity. This layer accounts for the total (embodied and operational) carbon footprint of the project and multiples it by the social cost of carbon.  

Using the social cost of carbon as a metric is unprecedented in our industry, the goal is to give our carbon accounting a social dimension. What is the societal harm of putting another ton of carbon in the atmosphere? 

Architects often talk about Equity and Sustainability separately, but the new Equitable Communities Principle redefines this conversation, and shows how the two are inherently intertwined.  

Helena is a licensed architect in the United States and Mexico with over 10 years of national and international experience. She is a Project Architect at Mahlum with a passion for environmental systems, and a strong advocate for the use of evidence to inform design. Emphasizing the design of daylit spaces, Helena’s work has been recognized with local, national, and international design awards.
She currently serves on the national Leadership Group of the AIA Committee on the Environment, in which capacity she worked to establish the Framework for Design Excellence and led the development of both the COTE Super Spreadsheet and the AIA Common App, tools that reframe the way design awards recognize architecture.