Social Venn Diagram

July 6, 2023

Maureen Smith, AIA


“Effects on human performance matter as much as building performance when it comes to green design." - Eve Edelstein

This holistic approach towards architecture encourages one to zoom out and re-focus on the bigger picture of design. Sustainability is essential to successful design, but we cannot let that drive for efficient, resilient buildings allow us to forget how the buildings impact the health and wellness of their inhabitants and communities.

Architectural conversations about sustainability often hyper-focus on the environmental aspects. This is understandable, given how tangibly our work contributes to society. Still, there are two other pillars of sustainability that we must also be mindful of: the economic and social factors. Economically, design should support long-term economic growth and payback, which is often a natural result of environmentally cognizant design strategies. Socially, design should promote the development of functional, diverse communities that support quality of life for current and future generations.

Health and wellness are also considered to have three supporting pillars: physical, spiritual, and social. Physical activity promotes strong, able bodies. Spiritual connectivity cultivates peace, purpose, and ethics. Finally, social health provides fellowship and community that offer meaningful relationships. This overlapping “social” factor is the critical element to both sustainability and wellness, creating an important link within the realm of design.

How can we design spaces that sustainably support social wellness? The first step is researching the community being served and the interrelation of members that make up that community to develop an understanding of its needs and existing dynamics. This challenge is intensified in cities where a range of social demographics and cultures mix. Design must artfully cater to users’ needs while maintaining the flexibility to grow with the community. The USGBC added “social equity” pilot credits to support environmental justice within the project team, the supply chain of materials, and the project’s community; additionally, the International Living Future Institute has stringent requirements in their imperative category of Equity for Universal Access and Inclusion. These design strategies can help create a culture of wellness throughout the lifespan of a project. A great example of this being implemented at AMD is the Mental Health Center of Denver’s Dahlia Campus for Health and Well-being.

The MHCD Dahlia Campus in North Park Hill sought to create value on a well-worn site. Previous developers, schools, and non-profits had come and gone, as had the neighborhood’s optimism for the success of this new campus. The designers fought hard to get to know this community; the project visionary, Dr. Lydia Prado, attended church services, went to gang member’s houses, attended neighborhood groups, and spoke to anyone and everyone she could find to develop a better understanding of who the residents were and what they needed. The result was a building cherished by the community, offering food security and access to services. The program included community gardens, an aquaponics greenhouse, an urban farm, a teaching kitchen, a dental clinic, mental health services, a gym, a preschool, and educational services. Communal interaction and ownership were promoted by the physical design of the building. Their “front porch” was a key design element that acted as an inviting community space to intentionally cross paths with the campus’ visitors. A deliberate connection was made with the senior housing across the street, renewing multi-generational engagement. This LEED Gold project successfully encouraged social wellness and community health while embracing sustainable practices.

MHCD’s outward-focused design process is an excellent precedent for effectively engaging and nourishing the neighborhood. Design can spark a sense of pride in a community, promote interactions, bridge barriers, and initiate conversations, awareness, and interconnectedness - both in today’s culture and, if crafted successfully, into cultures beyond.

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