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Greater Good

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Greater-Good

By Jeff Harder

LEED steps into the arena of social equity with its newly launched pilot credits.

 

What if a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified building was as much a benefit to the people living and working around the block as it was to the people on the top floor? What if the workers who built it moved on with new skills and brighter prospects for the future? What if the building used ethically produced materials from the ground up? What if LEED buildings, beyond being healthy and environmentally sound places to live and work, were bona fide forces for social good?

With the recent launch of LEED’s Social Equity Pilot Credits, those hypotheticals are beginning to seem a little more real. The set of three one-point credits—Social Equity Within the Community, the Project Team, and

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Chicago’s Town Hall Apartments may be among the first projects to fit the criteria of LEED’s social equity credits.

the Supply Chain—accounts for the social impacts of building design and construction with a focus that the LEED rating system has never employed before. The credits earned a Malcolm Lewis IMPACT Award at Greenbuild 2014 last October, and while it’s too early to glimpse their full impact, the energy and enthusiasm for what’s to come is unmistakable, says Susan Kaplan, a co-chair of the Social Equity Working Group. “I’ve been working on LEED committees for more than 10 years, and I’ve never seen so much excitement.”

With more than 14 percent of Americans living below the poverty line during a drawn-out economic recovery, social equity remains a pressing concern, and sound buildings have potential to be forces for good in the communities where they’re assembled. But while LEED never completely overlooked the social impacts of the built environment, it didn’t address them with the same fervor as resource conservation and battling the environmental impacts of climate change. Before getting to work on LEED v4, Brendan Owens, the USGBC’s chief of engineering who helps establish LEED’s overarching system goals, surveyed how well the existing framework addressed social equity issues. “We really came to the conclusion that while we had credits that touched on aspects of each of those things—power-plant siting, energy use, and air quality are all social equity issues—we didn’t really have anything that was specifically focused. We felt there was more we could do to use the rating system to effect change.”

Susan-Kaplan3
I’ve been working on LEED committees for more than 10 years,
and I’ve never seen so much excitement.

—Susan Kaplan, co-chair of the Social Equity Working Group

With the recent launch of LEED’s Social Equity Pilot Credits, those hypotheticals are beginning to seem a little more real. The set of three one-point credits—Social Equity Within the Community, the Project Team, and the Supply Chain—accounts for the social impacts of building design and construction with a focus that the LEED rating system has never employed before. The credits earned a Malcolm Lewis IMPACT Award at Greenbuild 2014 last October, and while it’s too early to glimpse their full impact, the energy and enthusiasm for what’s to come is unmistakable, says Susan Kaplan, a co-chair of the Social Equity Working Group. “I’ve been working on LEED committees for more than 10 years, and I’ve never seen so much excitement.”

With more than 14 percent of Americans living below the poverty line during a drawn-out economic recovery, social equity remains a pressing concern, and sound buildings have potential to be forces for good in the communities where they’re assembled. But while LEED never completely overlooked the social impacts of the built environment, it didn’t address them with the same fervor as resource conservation and battling the environmental impacts of climate change. Before getting to work on LEED v4, Brendan Owens, the USGBC’s chief of engineering who helps establish LEED’s overarching system goals, surveyed how well the existing framework addressed social equity issues. “We really came to the conclusion that while we had credits that touched on aspects of each of those things—power-plant siting, energy use, and air quality are all social equity issues—we didn’t really have anything that was specifically focused. We felt there was more we could do to use the rating system to effect change.”

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The Town Hall Apartments were built in a decommissioned police station within an LGBT community.

Once LEED v4 added enhancing social equity, environmental justice, community health, and quality of life to its seven system goals, says Joel Ann Todd, another co-chair of the Social Equity Working Group, “It gave us a firmer foundation for looking at social equity and other aspects that had been ignored thus far in LEED.” After establishing the Social Equity Working Group, members Kaplan, Todd, Heather Rosenberg, and others spent hundreds of hours speaking with organizations devoted to low-income communities and environmental justice, and thinking about incentives LEED could provide to encourage engineers, architects, and managers to consider social equity in their projects. “For a lot of engineers and architects, this was a completely new world,” says Kaplan, “and it had us really scratching our heads in the best way to get project teams to understand what could be done.”

The result, unveiled at Greenbuild, is three credits added to LEED’s Pilot Credit Library, each devoted to measuring and fostering a piece of the social equity puzzle. The first, Social Equity Within the Project Team, concerns the workers directly involved with design, construction, and ownership of the project. The cornerstones involve paying fair wages—commensurate to specific local or national guidelines, depending on the project’s location—and providing access to training programs designed for workers to leave a project possessing more job skills, life skills, and opportunities than when they arrived.

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The interior of the building uses sustainable materials to promote a healthy environment for its senior residents. Photos: Gensler

Social Equity Within the Supply Chain aims to source building materials from suppliers who foster healthy, just environments for the workers who produce them. Among other criteria, the credit requires that suppliers provide safe working conditions, fair wages, and ethical labor practices that avoid using child labor or sweatshop conditions.

Finally, the Social Equity Within the Community credit seeks to connect projects with the folks living in their vicinities—especially those most vulnerable to the impact of the project—and develop strategies for addressing broader social needs. The specifics vary by community, but the approach involves reaching out to religious and civic groups, neighborhood organizations, and other parties to figure out how to engage communities for positive results. “We’re really trying to reward project teams and give them incentives for actively engaging in a conversation with the community that they’re moving into about what a successful project in that community would look like,” Owens says. “It’s about what the neighborhood can do to support the project, and what the project can do to support the neighborhood.”

While several projects have applied for the credits, Chicago’s Town Hall Apartments are likely to be among the first to achieve them. Built within a decommissioned police station, the 79-unit senior housing complex in the heart of the city’s LGBT community helps a demographic facing a lack of affordable housing. “Providing these seniors the ability to age gracefully within their community not only reduces their annual carbon footprint by half, but it also keeps them connected to a healthy, walkable urban lifestyle with access to amenities, such as healthcare and public transportation, that support their daily lives,” says Gail Borthwick, design director for Gensler, the architecture and design firm that helped bring the project to fruition.

Features of the complex’s design include two green roofs to collect stormwater runoff and healthy building materials that avoid toxic off-gassing. “We also were careful to specify a high percentage of our materials from local sources, in part to promote employment growth and product innovations in our larger Chicagoland community,” Borthwick says. During the project’s execution, previous contamination on the site from leaking gas storage drums was restored to safe levels. By repurposing a structure that had been part of the neighborhood for more than a century, the project maintains a sense of authenticity in the broader neighborhood, while simultaneously reducing the raw materials that needed to be processed and shipped to the site. Today, the complex incorporates measures to improve the lives and health of its tenants, like a fitness room and a therapist on staff, as well as access to the services at the adjacent Center on Halsted senior community center.

When Borthwick discovered the Social Equity Pilot Credits at Greenbuild 2014—in the midst of Town Hall Apartments’ LEED review and a few months after tenants began occupying the building—she was immediately interested. “Generally, for LEED credits, you need to develop a strategy to achieve the credit at the beginning of a project, but we had intuitively met all of the criteria they seemed to be looking for,” she says. Now that the credits are within reach, Borthwick is eager to see how the complex could make a broader impact. “The designation would allow us to not only showcase the project, but also bring the issue of the shortage of affordable senior housing and the importance of community in sustainability to the forefront.”

Along similar lines, Kaplan and Todd say there has been a deluge of emails, phone calls, and face-to-face conversations expressing interest and excitement around the Social Equity Pilot Credits. “Everyone has said, ‘This is an idea whose time has come,’” says Todd, adding that the enthusiasm has gone international. “People from developing countries are saying that this is what we need to bring green building to countries where developing social infrastructure is as important as the environmental side of things.”

When LEED was first launched, Owens says, so many projects exerted so much time and energy getting up to speed on the system’s energy efficiency and indoor environmental quality elements. Today, the fact that social equity is now under LEED’s umbrella is a sign of the system’s maturity. “I think [a greater focus on social equity] is a signal that we can deal with a more integrated, holistic approach in developing LEED projects. There’s definitely been a very positive market transformation: We’ve gotten people so familiar with the way the LEED rating system works that now we can have a broader, more interesting conversation that includes other critically important topics.”

And one more thing, Owens says, “This is just the start.”