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.

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.

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.

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.

A school and a library join up

This is a story from regional Australia where joined up thinking maximised the social and economic benefits for the whole community. Both the school and the library facilities needed an upgrade. So here was an opportunity to develop a ‘joint use’ community hub to service the town and to support lifelong learning in the community. However, the project, underpinned by universal design, had its challenges.

David Tordoff and Julia Atkins discuss the project and its challenges in a book chapter. The title is Developing a School and Community Learning Hub: A Case Study from Regional Australia.

Understanding the place and the community who will use the facility was a key pillar in the success of the project. A strong shared vision and clear identification of needs led to the development of a highly integrated, adaptable facility that will respond to school and community needs. Photo from the book chapter

Artist impression of what the school and library facility will look like.

The New South Wales Department of Education generally encourages schools to engage in shared use of school facilities. The school controls the facility and allows community use out of school hours. However, this is not as effective as it could be due to governance barriers.

The overarching project design guidelines included universal design principles along with the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Project specific design principles were developed to embrace life long learning, celebrating art and multicultural heritage, and embedding universal design principles.

The chapter explains the issues, the processes, connection to land, place, history and people. Consultation with the Wiradjuri community had a significant impact on the design, artefacts, and the naming of places. Images help with explaining the concepts.

Policies and protocols

No matter how well the built environment is designed, they way the place and space is used by people can still raise problems. For example, spaces designed for quiet activities will only work well if users keep quiet. Likewise, spaces designed for collaboration do not suddenly give people the ability to collaborate.

This project paves the way for other communities to create community hubs within and adjacent to school grounds. With several stakeholders, a collaborative approach is needed to negotiate the way through governance issues.

An interesting book chapter for designers, local government, community groups, school staff, and library staff. It’s open access.

Older people and the smart city

The term “smart city” refers to the way local authorities use digital information to make planning decisions and create solutions. But is this linked to the real lives of older people and the notion of age-friendly cities? According to UBANAGE, a European project, not enough data is collected on people aged over 65 years.

Time to develop smart city technologies that account for older people so that policymakers can inform their decision-making with evidence from older people.

Three older women are sitting on a public seat overlooking some housing in the distance.  Older people and smart  cities.

Researchers found current data sets inadequate for analysis of older populations. One of the reasons is the need for the privacy of personal data. Here we see the dangers of trying to develop algorithms and simulation to solve problems. This is where co-creation enters the picture. Older adults, public servants and other stakeholders worked together to test solutions for addressing the needs of older people.

The title of the research paper is, Older people and the smart city – Developing inclusive practices to protect and serve a vulnerable population. The term “vulnerable” is overused in relation to older people and feeds into stereotypes. Many older people are still active in the workforce and no more vulnerable than younger cohorts.

What is a “Smart City”?

Smart city graphic showing silhouetted city outline showing links to homes, factories, offices, transport and other city services.

What is a smart city and is it different from other cities? Smart cities use digital technology and data to improve decision-making and quality of life. The aim is to gain a better understanding of current conditions and forecast future changes. The data are also used to improve city functions and create solutions. But how does it work?

More is explained in an article titled, Smart City Design Principles. For a city, town or community to become smart it needs connected technology. Smartphones, sensors and Internet of Things devices connect to the Internet and each other and share the data they collect with city staff. Managers use various applications to take this data and turn it into information they can use. This can have a huge impact on urban development and planning.

There are four key elements:

  1. Quality encompasses liveability, environment, and quality of life (which should include accessibility and inclusion).
  2. Residential Construction focuses on addressing the needs of current generations without negatively impacting future generations.
  3. Capacity is about natural and human resources – population distribution, water, etc.
  4. History and Environment is about achieving cohesive regional development, traditional practices and archaeological zones. 

Anyone interested in understanding and applying the elements of the smart cities framework will find the article useful.


A smart city should embrace the concept of sustainable growth, as it is an urgent need, and we cannot hesitate in coping with precious natural resources and plunge into crisis.

To make the city run as a smart city, several things should be included in the situation. In the long term, smart city visions that are inclusive, pluralistic, and citizen-centric, focused on developing services and resolving local challenges, would be the most effective and cost-efficient.

They are most likely to avoid potential issues by strengthening both physical facilities and amenities, as well as the city’s sense of culture.

Singapore’s Long-Term Plan

Singapore’s rapid urban development didn’t happen without a plan – indeed, it took several integrated plans. The aim of Singapore’s Long-Term Plan is for liveable and sustainable homes and built environments for residents. It’s basically a land use and infrastructure plan with a 50 year view. The broad ideas in the plan are translated into Master Plans with detail about land use and density.

Given geographical constraints, Singapore has adopted innovative solutions to achieve a high standard of living for residents.

A high rise building showing mixed use and greening for Singapore's Long Term Plan.

Singapore’s Liveability Framework

A conference paper by Koh and Lee explains how the Singapore Liveability Framework has brought liveability, sustainability and prosperity. Developing state-owned land comes with government conditions. Consequently, developments are aligned with the Liveability Framework and master plans. Universal design is considered in all built environment plans.

Housing for All

In 1960 there was an acute housing shortage. In five years they built 50,000 flats to solve the shortage. Then they turned towards providing better housing to meet the aspirations of the population for a better quality of life. Singapore encourages home ownership and supports occupants to purchase their government owned flats.

Planning for Mixed-Use

Public housing is not excluded from prime locations and is mixed with retail, commercial and residential zones. Mixed use developments are also found as part of integrated transport hubs. The integration of mixed-use districts starts at the planning stage and encourages innovative development concepts.

Planning for Polycentricity

Decentralisation is key to being able to live, work and play without the need to travel long distances. Each regional centre has industrial estates, business parks, and educational institutions. At a more detailed level there are schools and shops and a transport node.

Connectivity and Walkability

Roads and expressways take up 12% of the land. Consequently, similarly to other countries, plans are prioritising public transport, walking and cycling, and extending the rail network. Better first and last mile connectivity is a must. Covered linkways connect transportation with residential areas to make walking more comfortable in the tropical weather. Repurposing roads for pedestrian space is also part of the plan.

Convenient access to green and blue

Singapore is more than a concrete jungle. The idea of a garden city began in 1967 as part of transforming Singapore into a clean and green haven for tourists and investors. Of course, residents benefit too.

A city for all ages

Life expectancy has risen by 20 years in the last 60 years and the population is therefore ageing. One in four Singaporeans will be older than 65 years by 2030. While there are various options for older residents, the government has introduced new public housing concepts. Co-location of housing with healthcare facilities, retail and dining areas, and community gardens is one solution. Community Care Apartments are another idea where residents can live independently with support services.

Living in a disrupted world

The conference paper is long and detailed with many case studies and photographs. Having government control over development and developers means strategies are implemented according to the plans. Climate change and COVID are now part of life and Singapore has to move beyond liveability and sustainability to build resilience.

The title of the paper is, Strategies for Liveable and Sustainable Cities: The Singapore Experience. It’s open access from The Palgrave Encyclopedia of Urban and Regional Futures.

An aerial view of a densely populated area with rows of high rise tower blocks

Universal design and psychosocial disabilities

The COVID 19 pandemic has given rise to new thoughts about planning and design of the built environment including public transportation. People with psychosocial disabilities respond in different ways to situations. Travelling was easier for some because of less crowding, but others feared contamination. Facial masks increased anxiety in some, but others found that people not wearing masks a problem. This is where a universal design approach can help.

” … universal design should include the social and organisation environments, in addition to physical design, in terms of making the transport system accessible to everyone.”

A man stands on a train platform looking at his smartphone. He is wearing a hat and has a bright yellow backpack.

Between 20% and 25% of the population have a mental illness at any given time. People with psychosocial disabilities travel less than others leading to social isolation and worsening symptoms. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that by 2030 mental health conditions will be the leading burden of disease.

Improving travel with universal design

Few studies include mental health with reference to universal design. Anja Fleten Nielsen’s study asks “How can a broad understanding of universal design be used to improve travel for people with psychosocial disability?” She investigated the impact of COVID-19 and the main barriers to using public transport.

Nielsen’s study involved in-depth interviews focusing on barriers, travel behaviour during the pandemic and suggested solutions. Recruiting participants was difficult in terms of getting written consent – signing a consent form could raise anxiety levels. Nielsen explains more about methods and the literature review.

The key results are fell into: physical environment, social environment, organisational environment, and individual aspects.

The roadway is marked with the words "bus stop" in yellow lettering.

Physical environment: Crowding, important information during the journey, lack of toilet facilities and sensory overload.

Social environment: Negative experiences with fellow passengers and interaction with transport personnel, and being afraid to ask for help.

Organisational environment: Availability and ease of access, and lack of seamlessness between modes with long waiting times.

Individual level: Planning difficulties, travel induced fatigue and financial barriers.

COVID-19 made barriers more apparent

Nielsen’s paper discusses each of the four aspects in detail. The pandemic increased symptoms in many participants and has made them more visible to transport planners. To answer the question about universal design, Nielsen claims that environmental factors are of greater importance. This is because the individual factors are related to special and customised solutions.

The title of the study is, Universal design for people with psychosocial disabilities – The effect of COVID-19.

Planners and designers need to look beyond physical impairments. Universal design is just as relevant for people with psychosocial disabilities. Social and organisational environments are of equal importance for this group. These are factors that also improve journey experiences for the travelling public.

From the abstract

During and after the pandemic, most informants travelled less and/or used their car more than before. Some stopped using public transport due to fear of contamination, while others found it easier to travel during the pandemic due to less crowding.

Use of facial masks were perceived by some as an additional problem increasing anxiety, while others found it more problematic with fellow passengers not wearing masks. In general, findings support prior studies in terms of barriers related to crowding, lack of seamlessness, financial issues, problems with staff, lack of access in rural areas, and low knowledge of support systems.

Lack of toilet facilities, negative experiences with other passengers, sensory overload, travel-induced fatigue, and problems related to planning are considered problematic. Station areas may pose a barrier for people with former drug addictions. Hence, universal design should include the social and organisation environments, in addition to physical design, in terms of making the transport system accessible to everyone.

Evaluating universal design in built environments

What’s the best way to evaluate the application of universal design principles in a project? Is it a checklist? A professional opinion? Or something else? And what kind of evaluation are we talking about? Surely evaluation is about the usability of the building from a user perspective. A group of researchers decided to find out how stakeholders were evaluating universal design in their projects.

Evaluating universal design requires knowledge in many areas … Should not be done by a single person (e.g., architect), but by a board of people knowledgeable in the building environment, universal design, and of course representative users with varied ranges of disabilities.

Architect plans with a rule and other drawing instruments.

The Australian researchers undertook an extensive study involving 157 participants. More than half reported experience of disability, either themselves or a family member. Academics and access consultants represented the largest number of participants. When asked who is involved in universal design evaluation, the most common response was access consultants (45%). Disability advocates represented almost thirty percent (29.8%).

The research paper explains the processes used and the data gathered. Participants used specific tools or methods with checklists being a favourite, followed by access audits. This is where the understanding of universal design comes into question. However, some respondents were incorporating user feedback from the design conception stage.

Overall, almost all participants rated evaluation of universal design as being important. When asked who should do the evaluation, building users, building construction stakeholders and multiple stakeholders were identified. There was a trend towards access consultants being the people to do the evaluation.


The researchers claim that evaluation of universal design is being called for and carried out in practice. The results appear to divide into two camps. Those who think of universal design as a standard, and those who understand universal design as an iterative process.

However, evaluation from the perspective of meeting standards (did it comply?), or meeting the project scope (deliverables) does not tell you if the design is usable. The researchers conclude the paper with this sentence:

“[We need to] … better understand how people with disability can effectively participate in design processes, and what factors serve as barriers and facilitators to participation.”

Not sure that more research on how stakeholders evaluate universal design is the issue. Understanding the difference between access standards and universal design is still the key point.

The title of the paper is, Evaluating universal design of built environments: an empirical study of stakeholder practice and perceptions. The researchers are based at Deakin University.

From the abstract

Universal design aims to reduce environmental barriers and enhance usability of buildings for all people, particularly those with disabilities.

This study aimed to gather information on current practice and what stakeholders perceive as important to universal design evaluation. A mixed methods approach was employed, and data were collected via online survey (n = 157) and semi-structured interviews (n = 37).

Participants included industry professionals, policy makers, government officials, academics, and people with disabilities. Just over one-third of participants stated that they had experience of evaluating universal design in public built environments.

Checklists were most commonly used, yet participants expressed concern with their suitability for this purpose. Almost all participants perceived evaluation of universal design as important, citing its value to advocacy, professional development and strengthening the evidence base of universal design.

Findings from this study highlight a tension between a checklist approach, and a multidisciplinary method that encompasses the complexity of universal design application.

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