Feature Article

Building for People: Integrating Social Justice into Green Design

Sustainability is the ability to “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” – Brundtland Commission

“In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation, even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.” – Iroquois law

Sustainability is the ability to “meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” – Brundtland Commission

“In every deliberation, we must consider the impact on the seventh generation, even if it requires having skin as thick as the bark of a pine.” – Iroquois law

 

The Eco-Laboratory was designed by Weber Thompson for the Natural Talent Design Competition. Although the project has not been built, the social justice thinking behind it has made its way into some of the firm’s other projects.

Rendering: Weber Thompson

As hard as it can be for green design teams to define “sustainability,” one thing pops up again and again: the social element. In addition to having positive impacts on the earth and the long-term financial bottom line, truly sustainable projects must benefit the people that live in, work in, and use them.

The term social justice, long applied to political and economic issues, is coming up more often in conversations about green building to describe the need not only to save the planet as a place humans can live but to build a society we’d all like to live in. The term covers everything from accessibility and affordability to indoor environmental quality and materials sourcing. Broadly speaking, just about every decision made by project teams and building owners can be said to have a social impact.

Social justice may feel like a distant cousin of the green building movement, but it’s actually quite central. Buildings in the developed world have a large impact on global climate change; the building sector in the U.S. accounts for almost half the country’s carbon emissions. The climate change resulting from these emissions is going to be felt by everyone, but the poorest people in the world will be the least able to adapt. So energy savings in a high-end condo building in New York City are connected to the need for disaster-resistant, affordable housing in New Orleans.

Buildings do not exist in vacuums. They are part of the community in which they exist and can contribute to, or detract from, their surroundings. In some cases, the social imperative is obvious: a nonprofit job center in an underserved neighborhood, for example. In other buildings, the social justice impact is more subtle: the location of an office building and its accessibility by transit determines who will want to fill lower-wage jobs as well as higher-paying positions.

But how do you incorporate these ideas into your work? And what does social justice really mean for a green building? Design professionals are struggling with these questions and coming up with creative and inspiring ways to address them. This article looks at both the theory behind social justice’s place in green building and at how it has been incorporated into projects of all sorts.

Published September 25, 2009 Permalink