Concentration of CO2 in the Atmosphere

Integrating Social Equity into Green Building – Part 2: Pre-Design Phase

People and Community

James Wilson

Reprinted with permission from Steven Winter Associates (SWA), Inc. blog on October 12, 2020. Part 1 can be found in the April-May 2021 issue of Green Energy Times.

The social and environmental context can vary greatly from one project to the next. To achieve social equity goals, a well-constructed plan for all project phases must be created and tracked. And, although the measures are not generally complicated, they can be numerous. In order to promote social equity, SWA has compiled this series of blog posts that teams can refer to as a guide to help facilitate the process. The goal is to help project teams understand, identify, and incorporate social and environmental goals and strategies into projects in a holistic and integrated way.

The following outline provides an overview of steps the design team can take in evaluating projects during pre-design. Throughout, references to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) credits are cited.

Site selection

If possible, support equitable development by selecting a site in which the economic and social fabric of the surroundings will benefit from the project (LEED Location and Transportation Credit High Priority Site and Equitable Development). Take into consideration access to public transportation and amenities for future occupants and stakeholders.

To be successful, it will be necessary to first define the projects potential social-shed(the radius of potential social impact) and identify all stakeholder groups that will likely be affected, directly or indirectly. Understanding the surrounding communities, and the individuals that they represent, are of paramount importance to evaluating strategies for social equity.

Once a site has been selected, perform a site assessment that includes investigation of all aspects related to how people might use the site and how their health and wellbeing may be affected. Consider views, transit connections, sources of pollution, long-term goals of the surrounding community, accessibility compliance, universal design, recreational opportunities, etc. (LEED Sustainable Sites Credit Site Assessment; LEED Universal Design Pilot Credit).

Depending on the scope of the project, it may make sense to use Geographic Information System (GIS) data to gain a greater contextual understanding. Overlaying both social demographic and environmental data onto the map of the surrounding area can reveal where issues and opportunities exist. Examples include a disparity in access to public transit or green space, a concentration of air quality-related health issues in communities disproportionately burdened by pollution, or inaccessible public rights-of-way that limit access for people with disabilities to goods and services. The team can start with the EPA’s EJSCREEN: Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping Tool or Enterprise Community PartnersOpportunity360 Measure Tool. (+ ESRI: “Mapping Environmental Racism). This is also the time to research applicable accessible design and construction requirements that apply to the built environment. And, to enhance inclusivity, assess the project for how well it meets the goals of Universal Design.

SEED Diagram (

Project Goals

Integrate the findings and research gathered during assessment into the early sustainability and wellness design charrettes so that, as the team is establishing goals for the projects performance, sustainability and accessibility, they have the opportunity to consider the social equity aspects of each.

This is the time to use the LEED Project Team Checklist for Social Impact to help stimulate and focus discussion of the projects potential effects on social equity. Refer to the requirements of the LEED Inclusive Design pilot credit for how to incorporate socially inclusive communities.

Use community engagement strategies to gather further information and provide stakeholders the opportunity to participate in the planning of a project that will impact their environment. Project teams not experienced with community engagement might partner with local community groups with expertise in the process, established relationships with stakeholder groups, and a communication infrastructure already in place. Developing trust relationships with the communities affected is critical to attaining socially equitable design. The Opportunity360 Community Engagement Toolkit cited above is a good place to start.

Develop a Project Mission Statementthat clearly describes who and what the project is planned for. This will help to unify, focus, and motivate the teams efforts. Include this mission statement as part of a larger equity plan—a living document used to outline specific social equity goals, the strategies and design principles used to achieve those goals, and the mechanisms used to measure the impact of those strategies. The Social Economic Environmental Design (SEED) Evaluator can help teams develop an effective equity plan for their projects (Social Equity within the Community Pilot Credit).

Strive to meet the eight goals of Universal Design, which can serve as a guide to ensuring that the project positively affects as diverse a population as possible by helping to improve human performance, health and wellness, and social participation.

The specific social equity criteria developed for the project should also be incorporated into the Owners Programming Requirements and Basis of Design document. It is important to make social equity goals explicit and intentional to help the team remain accountable.

This collection of documents will help the team to shape, monitor, and measure the impacts of social equity goals throughout the process and should be referred to regularly. Assigning a specific member of the project team the responsibility of championing social equity goals through each phase will help to keep the team on track toward achieving those goals.

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