An introductory note from Laura:
At Pirie Associates, we have been working on a Framework for Positive Impact over the last year or so.
The impetus for this effort came from our desire to acknowledge and identify the impact our work has on the health and wellbeing of our ecosystem, short of a formal certification process, which many of our clients choose to not pursue due to cost, time, or other considerations. Each of our projects are marked with labels that acknowledge specific portions of the Framework that were used to develop the design response.
Melissa Kops is the lead author of this Framework. She has been a champion of health and wellbeing at Pirie Associates for the past 5 years. Her focus and enthusiasm are unmatched – and she is driven by her mission to help the world be a better place. Thank you, Melissa. Your passion has made our office, and our little corner of the world, better.
PURPOSE-DRIVEN DESIGN FRAMEWORK FOR POSITIVE IMPACT
Sustainability at Pirie Associates is not a separate category of design but integral to the entire design process. For us, is about creating places for life to thrive. We are all part of the interconnected living system, and human health is dependent upon sustaining environmental health. The most widely accepted definition of sustainability is to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. To design for future generations is to conserve and create habitat that supports life, because at a basic level we depend on healthy ecosystems to supply clean air, clean water, nutrition, and medicine for all living systems. In particular, we humans especially depend on nature for our physiological, psychological, and cognitive wellbeing.
At Pirie Associates our design process is rooted, not in a particular design solution, but in the purpose behind every design intervention and furthering the mission of an organization or the personal aspirations of our clients. The same is true for applying sustainable design strategies; we think in terms of what purpose does it serve, and what benefit does it provide? Framing a project in this way makes it easier for clients to understand how their built environment impacts their health and wellbeing as well.
We have therefore created our own framework for understanding and communicating how we integrate sustainability into our projects. The categories are based on why the strategy is important and what positive impact it has rather than what the solution is. For instance, we do not have a category for materials, yet material selection strategies appear in many different purpose-driven categories. One example of this multi-impact thinking in a recent project is we select low-emitting, nontoxic materials to benefit human health and wellbeing in situ, and we select FSC certified wood for the carbon emission reduction associated with sustainably managed forests.
The Positive Impact categories are:
- Site Ecology
- Resource Efficiency
- Carbon Drawdown
- Health/ Biophilia
- Equity/ Inclusivity
- Cultural Placemaking
Each of these categories have a positive impact on system wide health and wellbeing, while the Health/ Biophilia category focuses on immediate health impacts on individuals.
Since we live in an interconnected system on a finite planet, human health is intrinsically dependent on environmental health. A healthy ecology provides ecosystem services such as clean air, clean water, nutrition, and medicine.
Biodiversity is critical for a healthy ecosystem. Unfortunately, due to human activity, we are currently living through the Earth’s sixth mass extinction. Wildlife is dying out due to habitat destruction, overhunting, toxic pollution, invasion by non-native species, and climate change. Insects which are essential for the proper functioning of all ecosystems have been declining at an average 2.5% every year over the last 25-30 years, totaling a staggering 80% loss of biomass. Insects pollinate the large majority of plant species, keep the soil healthy, recycle nutrients, and control pests, and pollinators are responsible for bringing us one out of every three bites of food. Conserving natural habitat is critical to supporting human life.
The natural water cycle depends on soil and vegetation to absorb rainwater into the ground to replenish aquifers, recharge wetlands, filter pollutants, and prevent flooding. Impervious surfaces such as urban structures and parking lots do not allow the natural infiltration of rainwater into the soil and cause unnatural flooding and erosion that threatens life and property. Stormwater runoff picks up and carries numerous pollutants into our waterways. Many of these pollutants can cause problems in very small amounts such as damage to fish and wildlife habitat, and pollution of our water supply. Designing for stormwater infiltration is critical for ecosystem, soil, and human health.
Soil is an extremely undervalued finite resource, meaning that its loss and degradation is not recoverable within a human lifespan. As a core component of land resources, agricultural development, and ecological sustainability, it is the basis for food, feed, fuel and fiber production and for many critical ecosystem services. Threats to soil include deforestation, urbanization, erosion, compaction, nutrient degradation, pollution, and salinity.
DESIGN STRATEGIES include but are not limited to:
- Natural habitat restoration
- Native plantings
- Pollinator gardens
- Green roofs
- Stormwater infiltration to prevent run-off
- Reflective surfaces to prevent heat island effect
- Dark sky compliant lighting
- Bird-safe glazing
- Brownfield restoration
- No petrochemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides
- Preserve undeveloped and ecologically sensitive land.
A brownfield is a property, the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse of which may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant, or contaminant.
Dark Sky Compliant Lighting
Lighting designed to reduce light pollution, the inappropriate or excessive use of artificial light that can have serious environmental consequences for humans, wildlife, and our climate.
Ecosystem goods and services produce the many life-sustaining benefits we receive from nature—clean air and water, fertile soil for crop production, pollination, and flood control. These ecosystem services are important to environmental and human health and well-being, yet they are limited and often taken for granted.
Conserving resources is a cornerstone of sustainability. Designing for the most efficient use of resources prevents resource depletion and unnecessary waste.
It is common knowledge that consuming energy produces pollution and contributes to climate change. In fact, traditional fossil fuel energy sources produce pollution at multiple points in their life cycle: when they are harvested (fracking, drilling, and mining), when they are transported (methane leaks, and oil spills), and when they are combusted (power plants, buildings, and transportation). Human and ecological health is endangered at all these pollution points. For example, birth defects are more frequent in the vicinity of mountaintop removal mines, and as many as 8.8 million deaths are attributed to air pollution globally. The air pollution emitted from transportation surprisingly causes more premature deaths than car accidents. Climate change is responsible for many adverse health impacts including increase of disease, flooding, temperature extremes, storm severity, drought, wildfires, allergens, population displacement and food and water insecurity. Disturbingly, burning fossil fuels in our homes can produce indoor air pollutants at levels that violate outdoor pollutant standards. Eliminating our dependence on fossil fuels is essential for human health.
Potable water is a much more valuable resource than we give it credit for. In developed countries we devalue it so much that we defecate into it. Only 0.4% of the earth’s water is usable and drinkable. Access to potable water causes war and conflict around the world. The slogan “Water is Life” was popularized by the protest movement against the threat of the Dakota Oil Pipeline to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s water source. In the last century alone, water consumption has grown at more than twice the rate of population increase and, although there is no global water scarcity as such, an increasing number of regions are chronically short of water. There is enough freshwater on the planet for seven billion people, but it is distributed unevenly and too much of it is wasted, polluted, and unsustainably managed. The United States includes regions of physical water scarcity, and even in New England where water is abundant, we have experienced pollution and shortages due to drought and increased water use. Water conservation also saves the energy associated with treating and delivering water and wastewater to and from buildings and landscapes.
DESIGN STRATEGIES include but are not limited to:
- Building envelope insulation and air-tightness
- Geothermal or air source heat pumps
- Energy recovery ventilation
- LED lighting
- Lighting controls and sensors
- Radiant heating
- Low-flow air distribution
- Low-flow plumbing fixtures
- Compost toilets
- Rainwater capture
- Greywater reuse
- Water-efficient landscaping
The relationship between the water used for energy production, and the energy consumed to extract, purify, deliver, heat/cool, treat and dispose of water and wastewater.
A heat pump is a device that transfers heat energy from a source of heat such as the ground or the air. Heat pumps move thermal energy in the opposite direction of spontaneous heat transfer, by absorbing heat from a cold space and releasing it to a warmer one. An air-conditioner or refrigerator are common examples of heat pumps.
We can already see the effects of climate change. Heat waves, heavy downpours, and sea level rise pose growing challenges to many aspects of life in the Northeast United States. Infrastructure, agriculture, fisheries, and ecosystems will be increasingly compromised.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change maintaining the global temperature increase below 1.5°C is critical to avoid the most devastating effects of climate change. At that level of warming, adaptation will be less difficult. Our world will suffer less negative impact on intensity and frequency of extreme events, on resources, ecosystems, biodiversity, food security, cities, tourism, and carbon removal. To meet this goal, we must halve our emissions by 2030 and reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
BUILDING SECTOR EMISSIONS
The building sector accounts for almost 40% of global greenhouse gas emissions, making it the single largest contributor to global climate change. As the industry has been working to increase energy-efficiency and reduce emissions related to building operations, the emissions associated with building materials and construction has become more important (embodied carbon) which accounts for a whopping 11% of global greenhouse gas emissions. These emissions, of which concrete and steel make a large part, are emitted all at once at the outset of a project and can account for up to 75% of the emissions associated with new construction between now and 2050. If we are to reduce total emissions by half between now and 2030, embodied carbon must be significantly reduced. One tactic for reducing embodied carbon that we fully endorse is choosing to retrofit existing buildings instead of building new.
MEETING THE CHALLENGE
To meet our climate goals, Architecture 2030 has determined that new construction should reach net zero carbon by 2030 and all existing buildings should be retrofit to net-zero operations by 2050. We have the expertise and technology now to build to zero energy at little if any additional cost depending on the project type. One initial step to achieving net zero energy is building electrification – the electrical grid in CT provides up to 80% renewable energy, and Governor Lamont through executive order has directed the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection to evaluate pathways to transition to a 100 percent clean energy grid by 2040.
DESIGN STRATEGIES include but are not limited to:
- Reduce embodied carbon
- FSC certification
- Biobased materials
- Rapidly renewable materials
- Salvaged materials
- Recycling and compost
- Onsite renewable energy
- Adaptive reuse
- Battery backup
- Building electrification
- EV charging
Replacing on-site combustion-fueled technologies with electric technologies for building end uses such as space heating, hot water, cooking, etc.
The carbon emissions emitted producing a building’s materials, their transport and installation on site as well as their disposal at end of life.
Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)
An environmental accounting and management approach that considers all the aspects of resource use and environmental releases associated with a project from resource extraction to end of life.
Zero Energy Building
An energy-efficient building where, on a source energy basis, the actual annual delivered energy is less than or equal to the on-site renewable exported energy.
The environments we inhabit affect our physiological, psychological, and cognitive health in multiple ways through building materials, water and ventilation systems, spatial configurations, and connection to the outdoors.
INDOOR AIR QUALITY
One of the largest sources of indoor pollutants is from cooking, especially with gas appliances. Disturbingly, burning fossil fuels in our homes can produce indoor air pollutants at levels that violate outdoor pollutant standards. We have been advising our clients to consider switching to induction stoves for this reason. Building materials can also off-gas indoor air pollutants such as Volatile Organic Compounds which have been shown to have short- and long-term health effects. Even after reducing the sources of indoor air pollution as noted above it is important to provide high levels of outdoor air ventilation through operable windows and mechanically balanced ventilation to dilute indoor air pollutants and lower CO2 levels. High levels of ventilation have been shown to increase health and cognition. Added benefits of mechanically provided ventilation are the ability to use high levels of filtration to reduce airborne particulate exposure and heat recovery to increase energy-efficiency.
We are passionate about the concept of Biophilia, a term coined by the biologist EO Wilson in 1984 to describe humanity’s need for a connection to other living things. Having a connection to nature has been shown to reduce stress, lower blood pressure, and speed healing. Because we spend an unprecedented 90-95% of our time indoors and 70% of the human population will live in urban environments by 2050, it is critically important that the nature experience be incorporated into our buildings and cities. The nature experience takes many forms on the interior of buildings including daylighting, visual and physical connections to the outdoors, indoor vegetation and natural forms, natural materials, and spatial configurations that recall those experienced in nature.
WATER, MOISTURE, AND HEAT
Water systems and poorly designed exterior envelopes can cause mold and bacterial growth that are dangerous to our health. Lead-free plumbing fixtures and water filtration can reduce waterborne pollutant exposures. Well-insulated and air-tight buildings also significantly increase thermal and acoustic comfort by reducing heat loss, drafts, and sound transmission. Balanced ventilation is an important tool for moderating humidity inside buildings, especially those that are more insulated and air-tight and preventing air infiltration through the building envelope. Ensuring that moisture laden air and condensation do not penetrate exterior building cavities reduces the risk of mold and allergen exposure.
When COVID disrupted our current way of life, we snapped into action and used our evidence-based design expertise to identify measures for how to reduce transmission in the built environment. Many of these measures build upon what we already knew about supporting occupant health such as providing high levels of outdoor air, filtering the air of pollutants/aerosols, and spending more time outdoors. In addition, reducing the risk of transmission of COVID through ventilation and filtration improves general health and reduces the risk of transmitting other airborne illnesses such as Measles, Influenza, and Tuberculosis.
DESIGN STRATEGIES include but are not limited to:
- Low-emitting materials
- Fresh air
- Air filtration
- Induction cooking
- Access to nature
- Thermal comfort
- Acoustic comfort
- Design for movement
- Urban agriculture
- Spatial comfort
- Indoor vegetation
- Natural materials
- Nontoxic materials
- Safety and security
- Infection prevention
- No onsite combustion
Balanced Ventilation (HRV & ERVS)
A balanced ventilation system (as opposed to supply-only or exhaust-only system) has two fans: one bringing outside air into the building, and the other exhausting stale interior air, resulting in roughly balanced airflows. These systems do not significantly affect the pressure of the interior space with respect to outdoors reducing the amount of air infiltrated through the building envelope. In most balanced ventilation systems, heat—and sometimes moisture—are exchanged between the two airstreams, reducing the heating and cooling loads caused by outside ventilation air. These systems are known as HRVs (heat recovery ventilators) and ERVs (energy or enthalpy recovery ventilators). HRVs only exchange heat between the airstreams, while ERVs exchange both heat and moisture.
“Love of Life” a term coined by EO Wilson in his 1984 book “Biophilia” meaning that humans possess an innate need to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. His hypothesis posits that built into our DNA are pre-programmed responses to our physical surroundings, developed as we evolved in a natural environment.
The process of learning from and then emulating nature’s forms, processes, and ecosystems to create more sustainable or regenerative designs.
Evidence-Based Design (EBD)
The process of basing decisions about the built environment on credible research to achieve the best possible outcomes.
Health And Wellbeing
Complete physical fitness, mental stability, cognitive clarity, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease.
Induction is electromagnetic. Magnets excite metallic pans to create heat. Pans essentially become burners, eliminating heat transfer through the glass cooktop surface unlike regular electric cooking, thus making it more efficient and safer.
A phrase coined by Richard Louv in his 2005 book “Last Child in the Woods” meaning that human beings, especially children, are spending less time outdoors resulting in a wide range of behavioral problems.
There is a strong need for meaningful communication with the residents of the communities for which we design. Instead of swooping in and deciding what is best for a community, tapping the knowledge of residents and organizers and involving them in the design process is critical to the project’s success. The community holds the knowledge of what they do and don’t need, and involving them also yields a feeling of ownership and agency over the project that makes them more likely to support and root for the project’s success. It is becoming more apparent that meaningful community engagement does not consist of the status quo series of charrettes with a preselected group of residents. Authentic community engagement is a concerted effort to communicate with project stakeholders of all backgrounds, including those that are not already engaged.
UNIVERSAL DESIGN AND INCLUSIVITY
The best designed spaces provide dignity for those of all backgrounds, abilities, and persuasions. Spaces should feel inviting and welcoming to all. Generous entrances, clear circulation paths, places for people to connect to each other, thoughtful design that accommodates people with disabilities without feeling separate or an afterthought, and gender-inclusive restrooms all help people feel welcome and included.
Specifying non-toxic materials prevents direct health impacts to a building’s occupants but it also avoids health impacts over the entire life cycle of that material which can be even greater. During material harvesting, extraction, and manufacturing toxins can be released into the environment causing impacts to workers and adjacent communities. During installation, construction workers can be exposed to harmful toxins in or off gassed by a material. If the installed material is exposed to fire, toxins released during combustion can endanger first responders. In fact, fire fighters in Massachusetts are among those advocating for banning the use of halogenated flame retardants after a noticeable increase in rates of cancer amongst their ranks. Even though the bill was passed, it was vetoed by the governor under lobbying pressure from the American Chemistry Council. And finally, at a material’s end of life, it can end up at an incinerator or a landfill where it can contribute to air or ground water pollution. For instance, when chlorinated plastics such as PVC are manufactured and burned, they release dioxins which are highly carcinogenic persistent organic pollutants.
It was not long ago that environmentalism was perceived as an elite preoccupation, disadvantaged communities being more concerned with more immediate challenges. It is becoming more apparent that disadvantaged communities already bear the greatest impact of climate change and pollution. Responding to climate change is going to take massive investments in infrastructure. Unfortunately, in this country we do not have a good track record of making massive changes to the built environment equitably. In fact, efforts like the New Deal and Urban Renewal intentionally left behind people of color and destroyed their communities. We have an opportunity to lift up vulnerable and frontline communities while ambitiously addressing climate change. The building industry needs to lead the way by meaningfully engaging communities as partners in the reshaping of their environments. Sustainability is not truly sustainable if it doesn’t address social justice and equity.
DESIGN STRATEGIES include but are not limited to:
- Universal design
- Community engagement and empowerment
- Public access
- Occupant control
- Community resource retention
- Generational wealth building
- Nontoxic material selection
- Gender Inclusive Restrooms
The establishment of an ongoing partnership with the community whereby community values, concerns and aspirations are sought out, incorporated into a transparent decision-making process or processes, and continue to shape future activities.
Welcoming to all, regardless of their gender identity or expression.
Universal design is design that is usable by all people, to the greatest extent possible, without the need for adaptation or specialized design
Environmental Justice reflects the fundamental reality that vulnerable communities are all too often subject to the disproportionate burden of pollution and contamination, and calls for the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.
We believe that successful design takes into account a project’s context. Vibrant and lively neighborhoods are a result of publicly facing functions that are unique to their location and reinforce a sense of identity. Cookie-cutter, generic development threatens the success and identity of our neighborhoods and can also limit sense of belonging through unconscious application of character and place that are not suitable to residents or visitors.
Oftentimes, community engagement is thought to be simply notifying people about what development is happening in their neighborhood, town or city. This methodology disrespects and disables those who live in that community from having a hand in shaping their places. We believe that good ideas, and in fact intimate knowledge of what’s important about a place, is best elicited form the residents. Authentic community engagement is about empowering people to have a hand in making the places where they live. We engage communities in five steps to engage, empower, and invite a community’s creative authorship of their places:
- Team: Define Partnerships & Local Leadership
- Outreach: Survey & Discovery
- Collaboration: Design Together
- Realize: Development & Delivery
- Storytelling: Share the Making with Others
Retaining historic fabric is critical for maintaining a unique sense of place and belonging. Preservation has a double benefit of using extant resources (the most sustainable approach there is) and evolving a place with the root character intact, connecting a community to its place in culture and time.
Engaging local craftsman and custom design. Being able to see the hand in creation provides an indirect human connection. Standardized, mass manufactured design and products is recognizable as generic and static. Putting a custom twist on something makes it feel special.
Creating space for artwork, or better yet, creating artful public places, allows for local interaction and creates a truly unique identity and destination. Art can inspire and create awe – an emotion known for provoking change.
DESIGN STRATEGIES include but are not limited to:
- Activities, things to do, ways to engage
- Engagement through Design Process
- Historic preservation
- Artwork integration
- Human scaled
- Craft making
- Local sourcing
- Inspiration, awareness, education