Green building and social sustainability

“Green” buildings are often labelled and measured as “sustainable” but social sustainability is missing from the list. True sustainability includes social, economic and environmental factors. The US LEED green building rating system uses the term “sustainable throughout but is focused more on environmental factors. This is confusing because green is not the same as sustainable.

Stella Shao in a thesis poster says that as a consequence we are getting “energy efficient buildings that are not designed for people”. Prioritising social sustainability is good for people and the planet.

A modern office with lots of space and workstations by windows.

Using the Tulsa City-County Library as an example of sustainable design Shao lists three key factors for social sustainability

  • Comfort rooms for people who are neurodivergent, nursing, overstimulated, or need privacy for religious rituals.
  • Universal wayfinding to help orient people to make the space legible for people of different cultures, languages and abilities.
  • Comfort options for visual, acoustic and spatial comfort so every visitor can find a space comfortable for them.

Image from the poster

Pie chart showing the breakdown of how LEED weighs aspects of sustainability. 82% environmental, 12% social, and 6% Economic.

Shao’s literature review for this study revealed very few research articles on this topic which meant there was no best practice to refer to.

The poster captures the key elements of this study and shows how little research has been done in this area. The title of the poster is, Where is the Social Sustainability in Green Buildings?

From the abstract

While green buildings today are labeled as “sustainable,” many fall short on social sustainability metrics. This study examines what the current state of research and development is on social sustainability in green buildings and what the best practices are.

Green building rating systems are a major trend in the academic research. However, they are criticized for valuing environmental sustainability over social sustainability. Document analysis confirms that LEED, the most widely used green building rating system, does not adequately address social sustainability.

The LEED-certified Tulsa City-County Library demonstrates how to properly balance social and environmental sustainability in a building. Recommendations are made for future green buildings based on the data collected.

The abstract is from The University of Arizona website.

Connecting with nature and heritage

We know that connecting with nature is essential for our mental and physical health. The recent pandemic made that clear. Creating accessible parks and wilderness areas is more than just considering how a wheelchair user might navigate the terrain. Different people have different ways of connecting with nature that is meaningful for them.

A report for the National Trust in the UK brings together practical information about accessibility for different groups of people. The report is based on a new site acquired by the National Trust in Lincolnshire. Image is of Sandilands Beach (National Trust)

The sun is setting over the ocean at Sandilands beach where people are connecting with nature.

Age, cultural background, socioeconomic status and disability are all considered in the report’s practical considerations. The focus is on the accessibility of external spaces because the overall focus is on access to nature.

The report covers detail on the usual elements such as:

  • Easy to navigate website with relevant access information
  • Lighting around key facilities
  • Toilets that can accommodate mobility scooters and wheelchairs, and relief areas for dogs
  • Signage and maps of walks and paths
A small white dog being walked on a path at Sandilands.

Parking, transport and toilets have more detail along with paths and routes.

Paths and routes

Footway treatments are especially important as well as providing multiple paths so that visitors can choose the most suitable one. In the UK the Fieldfare Trust has a guide for different types and specifications for footpaths in different locations. They cover everything from peri-urban to wilderness. Disabled Ramblers have three categories of paths that they use to describe routes and paths.

The report goes into more detail about path surfaces, widths, gradients and accessible gates. Benches, shelters, bridges, boardwalks and viewing platforms are covered as well.

Connecting with nature

This section of the report covers the diverse range of visitors and how they best connect with nature. The section of age, covers the different needs of children, adolescents and older adults. Little is known why certain ethnic minority groups are less likely to use green spaces. However, they are more likely to use them in groups rather than alone. People with lower incomes visit green spaces less often and more needs to be done to change this.

Lack of access to transport to green space is a key barrier for people with disability. Physical barriers are also a problem but the way that service people treat them is another downside to visiting nature.

The report ends with a list of recommendations covering all the issues discussed earlier in the document. The title of the report is, Nature Connectivity and Accessibility. A report for the National Trust.

Universal design and BIM

Universal design concepts in their pure form are about creativity rather than set standards. However, building practitioners want more guidance than “make it inclusive and accessible for all”. Two researchers in Canada have attempted to solve this dilemma by connecting universal design and BIM (Building Information Modelling).

BIM is a process that uses tools and technologies to form digital representations of physical and functional aspects of places. Building professionals use this information across a wide spectrum of infrastructure. Weaving universal design principles into BIM processes is essential if we are to create an inclusive built environment.

“Accessibility is a compensatory strategy conceived to prevent discrimination while universal design seeks to change the consciousness of those who create the built environment to address a broader conception of the human body.” – Prof Ed Steinfeld in, The space of accessibility and universal design.

Image of an access ramp – not universal design.

picture showing a zig zag concrete ramp with blue railings

In their paper, the researchers describe the process of developing a model that integrates the BIM database with universal design. In a nutshell, the researchers established a database of universal design elements for designing homes. Then they turned it into a plugin for the BIM system.

“It is recommended that the construction industry starts following the universal design guidelines in new buildings… to increase the lifespan… and reduce the need for future adaptation.”

Three men in hard hats stand on a building site looking at architectural design plans.

Beginning at the conceptual stage

The paper explains in technical terms the creation of the model and database leading to the BIM plugin for universal design. The authors claim designers can instantly access universal design standards and incorporate them at the conceptual stage.

The title of the scientific paper is, Integrating Universal Design Standards and Building Information Modeling at the Conceptual Design Stage of Buildings.

There is a similar shorter version of the same study on ResearchGate, titled, Building Information Modeling with Universal Design Requirements for High Accessible Homes. This paper has a case example of a four storey home with four apartments on each floor. Universal design “families” – windows, doors, floors, etc are applied to create a 3D view and and floor plan. The images in the paper show the results. The paper explains in technical terms how the model was developed and then applied in the case example.

From the abstract

A projection of the Canadian population shows that in 2024 one in five Canadians will be over 65 years old. This shift forces designers to consider the entire lifetime of occupants during the design of new buildings. Universal design aims to house people irrespective of their age, ability, and chronic health conditions.

Building Information Modeling (BIM) significantly helps advance the development of the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction industry in a more collaborative and automated way. Integrating BIM and universal design allows designers to incorporate universal design at the conceptual design stage using the functionalities of BIM tools.

This study presents the development of an automated computer model to facilitate the adoption of universal design processes. A newly created plug-in will assist designers to incorporate universal design at the conception stage.

Microsoft’s new inclusive design toolkit

Microsoft wants designers to see beyond physical and sensory disabilities. So they have updated their popular Inclusive Design Toolkit to include cognition – the brain. Cognition is about getting, storing and retrieving information. It’s also about focusing, learning, memorising and making decisions. So how to design for people who process thoughts in different ways?

Microsoft launched it’s first inclusive design toolkit in 2015, but it only focused on physical and sensory disabilities. The second edition takes a broader approach to address cognitive exclusion.

A black and white graphic of stick people in various states of being. Microsoft's Inclusive Design Toolkit

The new toolkit has three key principles for cognition, which can be applied in many other design contexts:

  • Understand the user’s motivation, and the goals and tasks they are trying to complete.
  • Discern the cognitive load required to reduce that mismatch.
  • Co-create the final product with a diverse community of people across the spectrum.
A man wearing a black t-shirt holds his hand to his forehead in an act of desperation.

The toolkit is not about specific industries or specific conditions. Rather it encourages designers to collaborate with users and find out first hand how they learn and think. The Inclusive Design 101 Guidebook has the basics. The Inclusive Design Cognitive Exclusion is a separate document.

The toolkit and guides are useful for anyone who wants to learn how to design inclusively – to take a universal design approach to design.

FastCompany has an article about the Inclusive Design Toolkit’s development. Christina Mallon, Microsoft’s head of inclusive design, discloses that she has ADHD. She couldn’t complete certain tasks and felt stupid. When she learned about inclusive design she realised that she was not stupid, just designed out of products. Now she just wants her job to be just a designer, not an inclusive designer. The title of the article is, Microsoft’s new Inclusive Design Toolkit is designed for the brain.

Architecture of inclusion

Assigning people with disability to group homes last century has meant a gap in learning for mainstream building designs. Building standards for disability access have both filled this gap and held back learning at the same time. Then there is the problem of few people in the architectural teaching community with lived experience of disability. So how can we get an architecture of inclusion embedded in educational institutions?

The architectural teaching profession updated their National Standard of Competencies to include Indigenous knowledge. However, designing with disability is yet to be fully included in their competency standards.

Who can design and evaluate professional development opportunities for architects without lived experience, but who must now demonstrate competency? Who teaches the next generation of architects through the university system? In short, who can speak for disability?

A long room with a long table with students sitting both sides. They are working on a design project.

Kirsten Day and Andrew Martel discuss the issues of developing competencies in their 2022 conference paper (p 129). They briefly cover the history of disability, regulation and architecture before moving on to current ideas of co-design. The new Livable Housing Design Standard in the National Construction Code is mentioned as a step in the right direction. This Standard provides basic access features in all new and extensively modified homes from October 2023.

The evolving nature of creating an inclusive society is yet to be reflected in mainstream architectural learning. Finding ways to attract a diversity of architectural students representative of the population remains elusive too. This is a situation where Universal Design in Learning has a role.

National Standards of Competencies

The authors list the competencies, but find they are not supported by legislation or university teaching structures. Nor are they supported by instructors with knowledge of disability or Indigenous knowledge. With very few people to draw on as experts with lived experience, who can set examples?

There is a fundamental issue with the education of architectural students and so the question becomes, is the training inclusive? Is the studio method suitable for a diverse body of students? Universal design principles should be applied to the physical layout of space and the type of technology used. And presentation techniques favour sight over all other senses.

The title of the conference paper is, An architecture of inclusion: Can the profession adapt to the diversity of design demanded by people with a disability? (Page 129 of the conference proceedings.)

From the abstract

From the 1840s, Australia encouraged the committing of people with disabilities to institutions and asylums. By the 1970s the preference was to house people in group homes. Consequently, knowledge of designing for people with disabilities within the architectural profession was low and teaching the design skills required within universities negligible.

The UN Convention on the Rights for People with Disability, and the introduction of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, have highlighted the need for education and knowledge among architects and architectural students.

The tendency has been to conform to existing regulations, rather than being a driver of innovation. New references in the National Standard of Competency for Architects around designing for disability require demonstrating these competencies by graduates.

This paper explores the difficulties the profession and teaching institutions may encounter around identifying people with lived experience working in architecture, or as design teachers. Issues around who is allowed to speak for—and engaging with people with an intellectual disability or neurodiversity pose serious challenges to rectifying decades of neglect.

Paths for all

The Paths for All organisation in the UK has devised a guide for all types of outdoor situations. The aim is to help make outdoor places and spaces more accessible and more enjoyable for all. The guide is for anyone managing land for public access, including volunteers and recreation teams.

The Paths for All Outdoor Accessibility Guidance is a practical reference with tools and design details. It covers everything from remote paths and trails to more intensively managed parks and community spaces. The aim is to go beyond compliance using examples of good practice.

The guide is 200 pages, which indicates the number of contexts covered and the level of detail provided. The key sections are guidance for:

  • Developing an inclusive approach
  • Paths and routes
  • Facilities and activities
  • Inclusive communication
  • Review tools
Front cover of the Outdoor Accessibility Guidance showing two pictures. One is a grassed walking trail in open country.The other is a woman on a bench seat with a man sitting in a wheelchair next to her.

The Paths of All guide brings together many of the features found in other access guides. For example, ramp gradients, seating and toilets, and information materials and wayfinding. Changing Places toilets also feature. The reviewing tools are for assessing the “Access Chain”.

Each section has a box with the question, “What does inclusive practice look like?” followed by a section on design guidance with examples. Cyclists, children, birdwatchers and boating enthusiasts are thoughtfully included.

The guide is titled Outdoor Accessibility Guidance: Supporting inclusive outdoor access in the UK. The downloadable guide is 14MB. The Sensory Trust produced the guide.

Dilemma of autism disclosure

Choosing whether to disclose that you are autistic is an individual decision. But what happens when an individual tells others they are autistic? Under what circumstances do they disclose their autism? And how can this information help others decide about their own autism disclosure? These key questions were the focus of two studies by Aspect Research Centre for Autism Practice.

Feeling excluded and misunderstood has implications for both physical and mental health. Personal interactions are part of the story, but the way we design policies, places and services also add to exclusion.

There is a lot of research on disclosure for Autistic individuals; however, the information is not easy to understand or use when making personal decisions about whether or not to disclose.

Part of the front cover of the full report with a sign saying I am Autistic.

Study one – disclosing

Most participants participating in an online survey told at least one other person they are autistic. About one third told most of their regular contacts. Only 2% didn’t tell anyone. Half the participants preferred to tell people face to face. Delving deeper into the responses, a lot depended on who they told.

Telling healthcare workers, family and friends generally received a positive response. However, telling co-workers had a higher negative impact. If the individual feels that being autistic is part of their identity, they are more likely to tell others.

Study two – experiences

In study two, participants used a smart phone app to record disclosure opportunities over a 2 month period. Telling others in a conversation was the preferred way to disclose. The experiences of disclosing in different settings was generally positive overall. Surprisingly, disclosing at home had the lowest positive score while the community had a high score.

The researchers found that disclosure led to a wide range of reactions and the decision to disclose was influenced by the context. However, participants learned from telling others, and developing skills in disclosing was important.

Disclosure guides

The findings from these studies were used to inform a set of guides for autistic people and non autistic people. The Autism Spectrum Australia website has separate downloadable guides:

  • Disclosure opportunities resource guide for autistic people
  • Disclosure opportunities resource guide in Easy English
  • Supporting autistic people who may want to disclose guide for non autistic people
Autism disclosure guide infographic. Do I feel safe, Do I have a reason, Do I have emotional capacity, Am I prepared for the response.

The full report

The full report, I am Autistic: Disclosure experiences of Autistic adults, summarises the two studies with more detail than the guides. Two quotes from the report illustrate the importance of identity:

”I didn’t feel I had my own identity until I was diagnosed. I also never felt part of any community until I was diagnosed.”

“Finally knowing where I fit in life and being able to embrace that and then tell other people about my autism – it all is connected and leads to a greater me.”

Road rules should put walking first

Do vehicles cross pedestrian paths of travel, or do pedestrians cross vehicle paths of travel? We probably assume that unless it is a designated pedestrian crossing, vehicles have the right of way. “Giving way” is complicated. Drivers must exercise duty of care, so whose fault is it if there is a collision with a pedestrian? Janet Wahlquist of WalkSydney, says road rules should put walking first. That includes wheeling as well.

The published advice in NSW is: Drivers must always give way to pedestrians if there is danger of colliding with them, however pedestrians should not rely on this and should take great care when crossing any road.

Two women using wheelie walkers are crossing the road in a country town.

However, the above statement is not supported by a road rule, according to Wahlquist. Does this mean a slow moving person can’t cross the street because they might cause a collision? The law gives the benefit of doubt to the driver who can choose whether to give way or not. A person walking into a car makes no sense, but a car hitting a person is life threatening. Wahlquist references the UK Manual for Streets which reverses our ideas of who has right of way.

A diagram showing the order of who should be considered first. The order is Pedestrians, Cyclists, Public Transport Users, Specialist service vehicles, and last, other motor traffic in the road rules.

A recommended hierarchy of street users from the UK Manual for Streets.

Pedestrians first

Public policy aims to promote walking (and wheeling) but preference is still given to motor traffic. However, drivers and pedestrians alike are not aware of the current road rules of who gives way to whom and under what circumstances. This is particularly important for slow moving pedestrians who fear a collision if they are not quick enough to cross the road.

The title of Wahlquist’s article is, Why road rules should be rewritten to put walking first. The article presents a good arguments for putting pedestrians first. The article was originally published in The Conversation.

Intersections as continuous footpaths

“We believe all intersections without signals – whether marked, courtesy, or unmarked – be legally treated as marked pedestrian crossings. (It might help to mark them to remind drivers of this.) We should think of these intersections as spaces where vehicles cross an implicit continuous footpath, rather than as places where people cross a vehicular lane.”

All-gender restrooms

Three architects discuss their experiences and challenges in a paper about moving to all-gender restrooms. The context is a university campus and the need to be inclusive of all students.

The title of the article is All-gender restrooms: embracing change in the built environment. The article includes case studies of rest room renovations. Building codes and certifiers present barriers to these inclusive designs, and they explain how they overcame them.

The authors provide several floor plans of restroom options. They advise that privacy, safety, and comfort must be kept in mind for all designs and explain a little more about this. In taking a universal design approach they advocate for bringing many voices to the table.

We recommend involving stakeholders and users through a variety of engagement strategies. That includes staff who will be responsible for the maintenance and cleaning of these spaces in the future.

All gender restroom sign. Black background with white text and icons.

The language used in relation to all-gender restrooms is as important as the architectural changes themselves. Words and identity graphics typically show gendered restrooms, so the authors recommend using neutral signage. Inclusive designs are not just about inclusion, they are also about creating a sense of belonging and of welcome.

Overview of discussion

As architects and designers, we face design challenges that are rooted in the built condition. In our collaboration with student activities professionals, the effective use of space to service, engage, and welcome the campus community is at the forefront of design and planning discussions. We must consider the social implications of our physical designs that evolve as social and cultural norms change.

The all-gender restroom has been a topic of conversation in the projects we have been designing over the last decade. This piece will help bridge the gap between student affairs practitioners and architectural designers with information and understanding of how code influences the design of all-gender restrooms. Campus communities will therefore be better prepared to advocate for building all-gender restrooms.

Computing students show age and gender bias

As we know, bias sits in all of us whether we realise it or not. Some biases we are aware of, such as liking certain people and things. But what about those biases we are not aware of that sit silently in the background of our thoughts and ideas? And how much do they impact on the things we say and do? Age and gender bias has an impact on how things are designed.

Older people are thought less likely to use desktops, laptops and smartphones, and to have less expertise with them. Women, both young and old, are thought to have some experience with devices, but less expertise than men.

A young woman wearing a black beanie sits in front her her laptop. Behind her are icons of cog wheels indicating technology. Age and gender bias in computer science.

A group of researchers in Austria wanted to find out the perceptions of computing science students about age and gender. That’s because they are going to be designing the digital technology in the future. In a nutshell, they found several biases.

Age and gender bias

Students (aged around 21 years) started to see people as old at the average age of 57 years – several years younger than their grandparents. Older people are thought to be less likely to have experience with all types of devices. While younger people are thought to want aesthetic designs, older people are thought to need error tolerant systems.

The bias between the genders was smaller than that of age. Women were seen as less likely to use a desktop than men and to have less expertise than men overall. This fits the continuing stereotype that computing for men is ordinary, and exceptional for women. Consequently, older women were seen as less capable in using computers and laptops.

The article has a lot of statistical analysis, but the key points are in the findings, discussion and conclusions. The information is useful for teachers, and the authors recommend designing with users as a way to overcome bias. And, of course, more women should be encouraged into the computing sciences.

The title of the study is, How Age and Gender Affect the Opinions of Computing Students Regarding Computer Usage and Design Needs.

From the abstract

This study aimed to understand the perceptions of young computing science students about women and older people about computer literacy and how this may affect the design of computer-based systems. Based on photos, participants were asked how likely the person would be to use desktop computers, laptops and smartphones. And also, how much expertise they thought they would have with each technology. We asked what design aspects would be important and whether they thought an adapted technology would be required.

The results draw on 200 questionnaires from students in the first year of their Information and Communications Technology (ICT) studies at an Austrian university of applied sciences. Quantitative methods were used to determine if perceptions varied significantly based on the age and gender of the people depicted.

Qualitative analysis was used to evaluate the design aspects mentioned. The results show that there are biases against both older people and women with respect to their perceived expertise with computers. This is also reflected in the design aspects thought to be important for the different cohorts. This is crucial as future systems will be designed by the participants. Their biases may influence whether future systems meet the needs and wishes of all groups or increase the digital divide.

Gender and Mobile Apps

An academic paper, A Study of Gender Discussions in Mobile Apps, provides some insights into gender bias in app development.

From the abstract

Mobile software apps are one of the digital technologies that our modern life heavily depends on. A key issue in the development of apps is how to design gender-inclusive apps. Apps that do not consider gender inclusion, diversity, and equality in their design can create barriers for their diverse users.

There have been some efforts to develop gender-inclusive apps, but a lack of understanding of user perspectives on gender may prevent app developers and owners from identifying issues related to gender and proposing solutions for improvement.

Users express many different opinions about apps in their reviews, from sharing their experiences, and reporting bugs, to requesting new features. In this study, we aim at unpacking gender discussions about apps from the user perspective by analysing app reviews.

We first develop and evaluate several Machine Learning (ML) and Deep Learning (DL) classifiers that automatically detect gender reviews. We apply our ML and DL classifiers on a manually constructed dataset of 1,440 app reviews from the Google App Store, composing 620 gender reviews and 820 non-gender reviews.

Our best classifier achieves an F1-score of 90.77%. Second, our qualitative analysis of a randomly selected 388 out of 620 gender reviews shows that gender discussions in app reviews revolve around six topics: App Features, Appearance, Content, Company Policy and Censorship, Advertisement, and Community. Finally, we provide some practical implications and recommendations for developing gender-inclusive apps.

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