Feature Article

Equity in Design and Construction: Seven Case Studies

From an affordable multifamily building to an iconic museum, these projects are designed and built to advance equity, diversity, and inclusion.

This article is also available as a printable BuildingGreen Spotlight Report, including the CEU quiz. Download now »

This is part two of a two-part series on equity, diversity, and inclusion in the building industry, focusing on equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) in the design and construction of projects. Part 1, “Re-forming the Building Industry: Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion,” covers EDI among people practicing in the building professions.

Interior of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

The Smithsonian Institute was committed to EDI from the get-go with the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Architect: Freelon (now part of Perkins&Will) Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup. Photography: Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC.

* * * * *

Inequity is woven into the fabric of our built environment.

Cities are endemically segregated by income and race. Many building projects seek to enhance the profits of developers, often at the expense of the surrounding community. The building professions (as detailed in part one of this series) lack diversity, leading to the unconscious but systemic exclusion of underrepresented groups like racial minorities and people with disabilities. All over the world, the most marginalized people are the most vulnerable to global warming—yet our efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change tend to focus on those who can afford these “amenities” for their own tiny corners of the built environment.

The question is, what can building professionals do about it? Perhaps more than you think.

“Our contractual obligation in architecture is to our client,” concedes Alissa Kingsley, associate at Lord Aeck Sargent. “But there is an ethical responsibility that we have, and that is to the greater community.” Built work has an impact on the environment and on the surrounding neighborhood, she adds. “An equitable project is going to be one that supports its community and allows it to thrive.”

This report considers seven projects whose owners and project teams went out of their way to include and elevate the voices of diverse project stakeholders, with the goal of promoting greater equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). 

Built-in Diversity

Exterior of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

The three-tier structure of the museum is reminiscent of motifs in West African art.

Architect: Freelon (now part of Perkins&Will) Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup. Photography: Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC.

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture—Washington, D.C.

The makeup of the project team profoundly affects design. A lack of diversity manifests as architectural uniformity—reflecting injustice in the very form of the building.

From the very conception of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in 2007, the Smithsonian Institute was committed to EDI, according to Zena Howard, FAIA, managing director and principal at Perkins&Will. “Obviously the project kind of demands it,” said Howard, who was senior project manager for the museum while at Freelon Group, the architect of record. “The expectation permeated every aspect of the project.”

Diversity in particular was a major focus. Freelon Group, before being acquired by Perkins&Will, was the second largest African-American-led firm in the country, Howard said. Other architects on the project included Tanzania-born David Adjaye and African-American Max Bond (now deceased).

But diversity didn’t stop with the architects. One of the three contractors was African-American-owned. Another “had access to a huge resource of minority contractors and vendors,” Howard told BuildingGreen. Even the food consultant was a woman-owned business.

Although valued by the Smithsonian for its own sake, the diversity of the project team also had a profound effect on the architecture itself. As Howard explained, the three-tier form of the building echoes West African art and architecture, while many of the building features, including the distinctive decorative lattice and the “front porch” style entryway, were inspired by southern African-American culture. “If we had not had that diversity, I think we probably would just have moved toward a building that might have been inspired by euro-centric values or American Modernist values and not necessarily this global perspective,” she said.

“I don’t subscribe to the fact that there is a particular look” that buildings should have, continued Howard. “The look is the process.” And that process needs to include diverse sensibilities in order to be just and produce a structure that’s right for the people who will use it. “The people who are creating the design [should] look like the people who will inhabit these wonderful spaces. That’s an equitable look.”

Art for All

Marwen exterior

The project team for the Marwen expansion used the SEED Evaluator to identify and pursue equity, economic, and environmental goals.

Photo: Wheeler Kearns Architects, Steve Hall Hedrich Blessing

Marwen building expansion—Chicago

Project teams routinely (though often unintentionally) exclude central stakeholders when planning and designing. The more vulnerable, the more voiceless.

Marwen interior

Marwen is located in an old timber-framed industrial building.

Photo: Wheeler Kearns Architects, Steve Hall Hedrich Blessing
At Marwen, a school in Chicago offering free visual arts classes to students whose schools cannot afford arts education, equity is inherent to the mission. So when it came time to expand and improve its building, Marwen looked to the SEED Evaluator. (SEED stands for Social, Economic, and Environmental Design, emphasizing the “triple bottom line.” See the sidebar for more details about SEED.)

“I think it was just embedded,” said Joy Meek, AIA, principal at Wheeler Kearns Architects. “It was a good and easy kind of fit … because of the way Marwen started and how it has always been about providing the same opportunities to all of Chicago’s children.”

As a central part of the process, the project team convened focus groups with both students and parents to determine what programming would be most desirable to pursue. Resulting decisions based on student feedback included the addition of spaces for animation and film, fashion and fiber arts, a kitchenette, and a portfolio documentation center. Marwen was also able to expand its college and career program, which helps students apply to art school, college, or apprenticeships.

Parents’ feedback centered around waiting areas—which were completely lacking in the existing building. These areas were vital “because of the distances some of these kids are coming in order to participate in after-school and weekend classes,” explained Meek. A badly needed new entryway provides multiple space types, including a family lounge and a loggia where students can wait for caregivers to pick them up.

There were also safety issues to consider, including the fact that the only pedestrian entrance to the building was from a very busy thoroughfare and was shared with the only vehicle entrance to the parking area. Marwen purchased an adjacent parcel in order to move the vehicle entrance to a side street. This also permitted creation of an outdoor space for students to gather in good weather.

Marwen won a SEED Award in 2016 because of the way it centered community engagement, served under-resourced populations, and prioritized environmental sustainability (reuse of an existing building, addition of photovoltaics, and permeable pavers in the parking area, among other features).

Although the project probably could have achieved LEED certification, the board chose to spend those extra dollars on programming instead. However, “SEED cost practically nothing in terms of what they were already doing,” noted Brad Guy, AIA, who is the interim SEED programs director. “The whole process was organic to them.”

School+

Faubion exterior

Children frolic outside the Faubion building, which includes services not typically provided by a school.

Photo © Josh Partee, courtesy of Bora Architects

Faubion School—Portland, Oregon

When you're hungry or sick, it’s nearly impossible to learn. Schools in under-served communities are often stressed to the breaking point by the unmet needs of students and their families.

We think of school as a place to pursue the life of the mind. But the mind doesn’t work very well if the body isn’t healthy and the psyche isn’t secure.

At the Faubion School in the Concordia neighborhood of Portland, Oregon, 80% of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch—and many come to school unfed every morning. Twenty percent of students are homeless, according to Amy Donohue, AIA, principal at Bora Architects. To make things worse, the school building was crumbling around the students before it was finally demolished and rebuilt in 2017.

Faubion interior

Faubion identifies itself as a “3 to Ph.D. community."

Photo © Josh Partee, courtesy of Bora Architects
It was all too much for teachers to address on their own. That’s why, when Portland Public Schools prioritized the pre-K-to-eighth-grade school for re-building, the community seized the chance to get all it could out of the project.

During those darker days, education students from Concordia University began teaching art classes at the school. This relationship with the university deepened and broadened when the opportunity for the new building came up: the college invested heavily in the project, and Faubion now shares digs with Concordia’s School of Education. The school calls itself a “3 to Ph.D. community” because it integrates so many levels of education.

As the project got going, the school district and Concordia formed a design advisory group incorporating Faubion parents, community members, and staff from both the school and the college. This group met not only at the beginning of the process but throughout design and beyond, said Donohue. This means the community feels “greater ownership at the end.”

Through the design advisory group, the project team identified a number of community needs that the school could potentially meet—all under one roof. The clients tapped Kaiser Permanente to provide free healthcare, including dental services, for students and their families. Supermarket chain Basics Market came on board, too, opening a discount grocery store that also provides free backpacks full of food for kids to take home over the weekend. Trillium Family Services provides mental health care, and the building even has adult classrooms (including a cooking area), community gathering spaces, and more.

None of this would have been possible without intensive community engagement and Bora’s willingness to hold tight until that process was well underway. “Everybody has something to contribute,” said Donohue, who added that architecture that is just has “no preconceived notion of what the outcome will be.” Instead of immediately starting to draw and think, she said, “let ideas have the time to get legs and grow from a broader conversation.”

Beyond Accessibility

 USO Bethesda exterior

The Wounded Warrior centers provide space for relaxing, education, entertainment, and more.

Photo: STUDIOS Architecture

USO Wounded Warrior and Family Centers—Fairfax, Virginia and Bethesda, Maryland

Accessibility for people with diverse abilities is often an afterthought, with compliance involving alternative entrances and obscure elevators. Universal design is more inclusive, and it calls for dialogue with intended occupants.

“Some days I’m exhausted, but some days I’m just bored.”

Those are the words of a wounded soldier regarding a four-hour stretch of time each afternoon with nothing to do except watch television or sleep. This came out of an interview process conducted by the project team for the USO Wounded Warriors and Family Centers. These two buildings (one at Fort Belvoir and the other in Bethesda, Maryland) offer a home-like atmosphere for recovering soldiers to congregate together or with their friends and families. A unique interview process, along with extensive research and intuitive design, helped the projects achieve their goals: creating an inviting, relaxing gathering space that contributes to healing.

“We interviewed about 40 different individuals … on what their typical day would be,” explained Brian Pilot, AIA, principal at Studios Architecture. “From 2 [p.m.] to when they went to bed at midnight or 1 o’clock, they were sitting in their barracks room with not a lot of other human contact. As we did the research on that, that was a real incubator for depression.” A major design imperative of the projects became to “serve that downtime.”

Another imperative was universal design, said Pilot. “They spend a lot of time on each base going through physical therapy, learning to function in a world with lots of barriers,” he added—anything from stairways to over-stimulating environments. “This is a place for them to relax with families, friends, and fellow warriors in a barrier-free environment.”

Universal design goes beyond accessibility for people with disabilities; its purpose is to make spaces readily usable for as many people as possible, rather than providing separate “special” accommodations. The idea is that integrating accessibility into the main design benefits everyone. (See the seven principles provided by the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design.) In the case of these two projects, it also provides a much-needed “sense of normalcy” for the building occupants, said Pilot.

USO Fort Belvoir interior

This kitchen is designed so that multiple people in wheelchairs can cook a meal together. 

Photo: STUDIOS Architecture
And there were lots of people to consider, many of them with catastrophic injuries—amputees, victims of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), blinded soldiers, and more. So the kitchen, for example, was configured so that multiple people in wheelchairs could make a meal together. Lighting and acoustics were particularly important to avoid triggering PTSD symptoms. Such aspects of design required “a combination of evidence-based research and additional study to understand the unique conditions of those individuals who would be the patrons of the facility,” Pilot told BuildingGreen.

Through this type of research and the interviews with potential users (which included stopping by with a bunch of pizzas and questions one day), the programming took shape, and included healing gardens, art and music therapy spaces, an office area for conducting business, classrooms, and areas for hosting entertainment.

But crucially, none of that came into the picture until all the interviews and other research were complete, Pilot noted. “We put together a comprehensive package … to present to USO and their leadership before we put pen to paper.” The results show, Pilot claims. He told the story of a doctor mentioning a certain happy patient to that patient’s former physical therapist—who refused to believe it was the same person. “At the USO center, I think, … a sense of feeling at home and engaging with other wounded warriors made that person happier, and I think everyone—including the medical staff—believes that that passive healing process that the center provides is having a huge impact.”

Community Ownership

Affordable Homeownership Building Othello

The Affordable Homeownership Building will allow low-income families to become homeowners.

Image: SKL Architects

Othello Square Affordable Homeownership Building—Seattle

Gentrification, the displacement of an existing community by a wealthier contingent, is a threat to low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. But development—even sustainable development—is possible without causing displacement.

It started with a survey conducted by the City of Seattle. After that, the Othello neighborhood—an ethnically diverse, low-income community currently fighting gentrification—took over through a group called On Board Othello. “You have to put them in the driver’s seat,” argued Gladys Ly-Au Young, partner at Sundberg Kennedy Ly-Au Young Architects (SKL). “This development is community-led and -driven, and the goal is to prevent residential, commercial, and cultural displacement and to increase access to opportunity for multicultural communities in Southeast Seattle.”

Affordable Homeownership Building Othello sustainability features

Residents asked for a number of sustainability features in the new Othello Square development.

Image: SKL Architects
Othello Square will be a four-building complex comprising a school, a children’s clinic, affordable commercial space, and the Affordable Homeownership Building. This building will be a limited-equity cooperative (which allows low-income owners to purchase at below-market rates, with limits on the amount of profit they can make if they re-sell) exclusively for families at or below 80% of area median income (AMI). The homeownership building (designed by SKL) will come first, with construction beginning in early 2020. Because local families often include multiple generations as well as refugees, the spaces will be large and will include three-bedroom units. This serves the needs of the existing community and helps current families build wealth—rather than attracting more affluent residents from other neighborhoods.

Because the community is in charge, aspects of the building will reflect their priorities, like preserving their multicultural heritage. (Current residents speak more than 40 languages, according to the Hello Othello website.) One way of doing this is through a number of community gardens intended to feature “culturally sensitive food,” according to Ly-Au Young. “This will help them pass on intergenerational knowledge,” she added.

The original planning took place through a consensus-based community process, and meetings are ongoing. “Community meetings are very well organized,” noted Ly-Au Young, saying that they take place at different times of the day and week to maximize participation. They also include childcare, food, and interpreters.

Affordable housing typically incorporates the cheapest possible materials because of constrained budgets, but that won’t be the case for the Othello homeownership building. This community demanded sustainability, including solar panels, efficiency, daylight, and the regional Built Green certification. In addition, “the project is part of the Living Building Challenge Affordable Housing Pilot Project, where we focus on including healthy materials,“ said Ly-Au Young, who added that the project is pursuing LBC Petal certification. The group is aiming to hit requirements for the Place, Equity, and Materials petals.

This is in keeping with the number one community goal elicited by On Board Othello: “All people are healthy regardless of race or means.”

Local Jobs

41 Eco Living housing

41 Eco Living was a co-winner of the domestiCITY design competition to redevelop a transitional-housing complex and an abandoned motel site in Atlanta into a dense, mixed-use neighborhood.

Image: Lord Aeck Sargent, a Katerra Company

41 Eco Living—Atlanta

Building projects—particularly those located in low-income neighborhoods—have often-unrealized opportunities to create jobs.

It sounds like a dream project: mixed-income housing that includes supportive and affordable units; a community “maker space” and economic development services; a computer lab and library; and green infrastructure and other sustainable building practices, including photovoltaics and use of mass timber structural systems.

This is 41 Eco Living, winner of the domestiCITY design competition to redevelop a transitional-housing complex and an abandoned motel site in Atlanta into a dense, mixed-use neighborhood—without displacing current residents of the area.

41 Eco Living maker space

The community includes a maker space, library, and training center for job development.

Image: Lord Aeck Sargent, a Katerra Company
But this project aims to do more for the neighborhood than usual: it promises job training and job creation directly tied to construction. “We included a training and multipurpose part of the overall site that allowed for workforce development in solar technology and installation of mass timber construction, under the assumption that mass timber has been very hot in the Northwest and is coming to the Southeast,” explained Kingsley of Lord Aeck Sargent.

The idea doesn’t come out of nowhere; it’s already been tested elsewhere in Atlanta, according to Kingsley. “We used the Kendeda Building as a case study,” she said. Kendeda is a Georgia Tech building aiming for LBC certification (see “Boost Happiness and Save Energy with Adaptive Thermal Comfort” to read about some of Kendeda’s other features).

The owners wanted to use nail-laminated mass timber for construction but did not wish to bear the financial and carbon burden of importing it from Canada or the Pacific Northwest. So instead—working with the nonprofit Georgia Works!—the team hired and trained workers to nail the required 389 timbers together. The first person hired “left for a better-paying job at a competing construction company,” Kingsley said. “It was a new skill and marketable, and he was able to move on.” This is the kind of success story the team was aiming to replicate on a much larger scale with the 41 Eco Living proposal.

The Missing Zip Codes

Climate Action and Adaptation Plan—San Antonio, Texas

Too often, the voices of the most privileged frame conversations and shape actions on green development and resilience. But marginalized communities are actually the most vulnerable to sustainability failings and climate change.

Heat waves, smog, and wildfires: these are the three greatest risks associated with climate change in San Antonio, Texas. Low-income communities, communities of color, seniors, and people with disabilities: these are the four populations there that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

These findings come from the San Antonio Climate Action and Adaptation Plan (CAAP), adopted in October 2019. In addition to targeting carbon neutrality by 2050, the plan calls for a number of resilience measures. And it describes climate equity as “the ethical framework grounding the CAAP.”

How did this come about?

Actually, it all started years ago with the city’s sustainability plan, said Douglas Melnick, chief sustainability officer for the City of San Antonio. “Nobody had really called it out before,” he said. “We just started to define equity and use it as a cross-cutting theme.” This served as a “springboard” later on. “When we began working on the climate plan, we wanted to do more than simply highlight equity.”

The sustainability plan set the city up to make equity the keystone of its climate plan. “We had a consultant who worked with us on a social vulnerability assessment” that looked at “demographic information, health outcomes, access to transportation, access to jobs, access to healthy food,” and more, said Melnick. By “crunching all those numbers,” the city managed to identify zip codes where the most vulnerable residents lived. However, “during the community engagement process for the climate plan, it became very clear we were missing those targeted zip codes,” he told BuildingGreen.

Back to the drawing board. “We went out into those districts to do in-person, face-to-face engagement at libraries, senior centers, and parks, in order to make sure we were having conversations in those districts,” Melnick explained. In order to promote equity in this way, he warned, “It comes down to a resource issue. It really takes having staff to go out and talk face-to-face with people.”

It was worth it, though. “Having those face-to-face conversations with people allowed us to understand some things that we wouldn’t necessarily think of,” Melnick said. For example, one staff member talked with a homeless man who pointed out that there no access to water fountains in the downtown quarter. The addition of publicly accessible water fountains became part of the climate adaptation plan.

Some other priorities that came out of these conversations included:

  • a heat risk assessment that would focus on low-income and public housing, and city-subsidized residential buildings
  • protection of transit riders with additional tree cover and better shelters to protect them from extreme weather
  • building retrofits for vulnerable populations
  • a resilient design program for affordable housing projects
  • provision of mobile health clinics
  • an equity assessment of sustainability programs
  • prioritization of socially vulnerable residents
  • anti-displacement measures in vulnerable neighborhoods

Part of the process was mapping social vulnerability against climate vulnerability. For example, “we took the social vulnerability index and overlaid an urban heat-island assessment,” said Melnick. This looked at tree canopy, air quality index, and flood maps. Not surprisingly, there was a lot of overlap between these risks and already-identified vulnerable populations. It helped the city begin prioritizing where to make its initial investments.

San Antonio Climate Ready report

The equity focus of San Antonio’s climate plan started with its sustainability plan years before.

Image: City of San Antonio
Melnick identified several lessons learned that he would like other cities to think about. First of all, “climate equity and equity in general is such a big topic that you need to look at your timelines. … We spent a good six months with [the equity] group just trying to define what climate equity is. What we’ve been telling other cities is, if you want to do this, start working on the equity work a year in advance.”

Another lesson: don’t expect everything to go smoothly during a process that prioritizes social justice. “It definitely hit a nerve with some people because you are calling out racial issues, calling out government decision-making over generations as root causes of current inequities, and a lot of people didn’t like that.” Awkward and even angry conversations may be part of the picture.

Finally, you may need to go slowly: don’t expect equitable implementation to flow naturally from the plan. “We have a lot of work to figure out how do we actually move this forward equitably,” according to Melnick. “It comes down to decision-making and power. Who’s at the table, who has the ability to influence outcomes, and are we comfortable with shifting how decision-making occurs?”

In other words, achieving true community ownership won’t be easy. “I don’t want to assume that myself or my team knows what’s best for the community,” Melnick noted “We are really trying to expand our connections and better improve our relationships with different communities” In some cases, the city is working with trusted groups in vulnerable communities in order to begin building those relationships. “My realization recently is we have to do a better job of reaching out and listening before we say, ‘Here’s how we’re going to do it.’”

Steps toward More Equitable Projects

Each of these projects has a unique focus and uses different strategies to bring in stakeholders. But in our conversations with project teams and equity experts, we heard a few things that projects pursuing greater equity have in common. Here are some of the takeaways from those conversations.

  1. Own your privilege. Framing your own story in the context of social justice is going to help you seek and hear others’ stories. Without that starting place, you will have a harder time seeing things from the perspective of those less privileged than you. For more on doing this internal work, see “Re-forming the Building Industry: Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion.”
  2. Bring owners along. As with other sustainability conversations, like those about carbon or water, you may have a role in bringing your clients’ awareness to problems and solutions. Some of these exemplary projects could be a starting place.
  3. Dedicate resources for equity work. Compared with some other aspects of sustainability, promoting greater equity is not typically a big line item. But it still takes time and other resources; make sure you’ve accounted for and protected these resources.
  4. Look around you. Working together, make a list of people and groups the project might affect. Are all these stakeholders being heard?
  5. Include and listen. Once you’ve identified your stakeholders, ensure they are included throughout the process—not just at one opening charrette. Find groups that have deep roots in the communities you’re seeking to include, and look for ways to work together. If possible, provide food and childcare at events.
  6. Act. EDI isn’t an empty exercise. If promoting equity is integral to the project, then all stakeholders’ visions will be integral to design.

Published February 10, 2020

Melton, P. (2020, January 22). Equity in Design and Construction: Seven Case Studies. Retrieved from https://www.buildinggreen.com/feature/equity-design-and-construction-seven-case-studies

Continuing Education

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) has approved this course for 1 HSW Learning Unit. 

The Green Building Certification Institute (GBCI) has approved this course for 1 CE hour towards the LEED Credential Maintenance Program. 

Learning Objectives

Upon completing this course, participants will be able to:


1. List four ways in which inequity is endemic to our built environment and discuss how this affects human well-being.
2. Describe how frameworks like LEED, SEED, and the Living Building Challenge address equity, diversity, and inclusion, and how these efforts can promote the well-being of building occupants and communities.
3. Discuss strategies for community engagement and the outcomes that advance equity and well-being.
4. Understand the six steps building professionals can take to be more inclusive and equitable on projects.

To earn continuing education credit, make sure you are logged into your personal BuildingGreen account, then take the quiz.