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Buildings For the People

Posted September 25, 2009 01:09 PM by Allyson Wendt
Related Categories: The Industry
Social justice--it's a topic of conversation throughout the green building industry, but what does it mean, exactly? And how does it relate to buildings? I worked with the following definition while writing this month's feature article: Social justice ensures that all people have the ability to fulfill their basic needs and pursue social, economic, and personal fulfillment and success. It's a working definition, and is open to change and interpretation, but I had to start somewhere. So what does this mean for buildings? Well, it means that architects have the opportunity to foster social justice with every building they design, through location, transportation access, public spaces, materials, indoor amenities, and construction labor practices. As I researched this article, I began to see that social justice and environmental performance often go hand in hand. Putting an office building in the middle of nowhere means that everyone has to commute to it, raising their carbon footprint. This commute is hardest for those who have the least money and those who rely on public transit--often effectively disqualifying them from jobs at that building. Put the same building in an urban infill location, and suddenly you have access to transit and jobs closer to where many people live. Maybe you put retail on the ground floor, creating more jobs and adding to the amenities of the neighborhood. Location is a big change, and often determined well before the design team comes to the project. But small changes can make a big difference to social justice. Keep the janitorial offices out of the basement and provide them with windows, and you have spatial equity within the building. Make the lobby a place for monthly public art openings, and you've got a cultural attraction. Allow for a public courtyard with benches and tables, and you mitigate the urban heat island effect and make the building more welcoming. It's easy to think of social justice as applicable only in those projects designed for underserved communities: affordable housing, nonprofit organizations, and homeless shelters, for example. But every design decision in every building has an impact on the social fabric of a community--making that impact conscious and positive is what social justice is all about. (Image: Institute for the Built Environment at Colorado State University)

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Comments

1 Things are getting bad when I posted by Joseph E. Perry on 09/28/2009 at 01:34 pm

Things are getting bad when I am unable to provide a negative comment. A positive will have to do. It is a question.

Would it be more accurate to call it 'Social Responcability' than 'Social Justice'?

2 Joseph, You should have heard posted by Allyson Wendt on 09/29/2009 at 10:00 am

Joseph,

You should have heard the discussions we had on the editorial team about just this issue! Is it social justice, social equity, social responsibility? There's a proliferation of terms.

The two most frequently used terms in the green building world are social justice and social equity. Social responsibility is used more frequently in the corporate world. We went with social justice in this article for several reasons—recognition in the industry being one of them. There are subtle political differences between the terms too, but those are harder to pin down, at least for me.

I'm pretty happy with the term social justice, but it's definitely open for debate!

3 Chuck, you make a really good posted by Allyson Wendt on 10/02/2009 at 06:14 am

Chuck, you make a really good point that I hadn't thought about before. You're right, it's not that small a change, but I'm pretty sure there are some creative design solutions. I also wonder if an increase in leasing rates from green features would pay for the small loss of leasable space to a janitorial office. Also, I'm not sure that janitorial offices work in a windowless basement any better than any other spaces—that belief may or may not be backed up by productivity and other quantifiable measures.

I would love to see more data on the value proposition of social justice. My guess is that if you look at it on a community scale, you'll see positive numbers. I'm not sure about the building scale. I'm keeping my eyes open for that research, though!

4 Allyson - nice summary. What posted by Chuck Tackett on 10/01/2009 at 09:47 am

Allyson - nice summary. What you consider small changes may not be as small as you think. While I'm not necessarily disagreeing, the example of putting the janitor's office in a location with an exterior wall is good example of how difficult these decisions are. Doing that means that the owner / client will probably lose leasable area, probably premium space. It's possible that this could occur in an area that is already back-of-house but that does not mean that the space it displaces would work in the windowless basement. There must be value to support these types of decisions.

A good follow-up to this article would be to take an in-depth look at how social justice adds value to the project. Regardless of whether it's right or wrong, simply appealling to the morality of social justice changes likely isn't going to be enough when the changes put a dent in the pro forma.

Thanks for the article.


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