Connecting sustainability with the human experience (USGBC Colorado) | U.S. Green Building Council
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USGBC Colorado partner DLR Group's approach to design starts with conversations about how sustainability can enhance the human experience.

Sustainability is an ever-evolving conversation. It’s now moved beyond resource conservation efforts to include climate change, human health and well-being, resilience, regeneration and ecosystem integrity. Such a broadened definition of sustainability today requires new perspectives in processing competing design parameters to provide a holistic solution that values the health of end users, the immediate local communities and the larger ecosystems.

The typical design process begins by looking at programming and functional needs, often executed with a kind of “check box” approach. In this approach, conversations about sustainability are sometimes delegated to footnote status or sprinkled in at the end as an afterthought. This process doesn’t allow designers and end users to look at a project holistically. Instead, it encourages pragmatic conversations that help us get from point A to point B, but exclude the most important conversation: the user experience. Literally and figuratively, we must move beyond the (check)box to a conversation about what the people inside the box really want.

Simply put, we must think beyond the building.

How do we do this?

Sustainability discussions frequently center on characteristics of environmental responsibility and resource efficiency. These are, of course, important considerations, but they stop short of asking the questions that truly help designers tailor a strategy to the needs of each individual client. Expanding these discussions allows clients to create their own set of personalized, organically derived “good-better-best” sustainability criteria that can then serve as a guideline for every environmental factor that influences the experiences of a building’s users.

Changing our approach to design means starting with conversations about how sustainability can enhance the human experience. We build buildings for people, and so these discussions should stem from people. A growing body of research shows a strong connection between the built environment and the health and well-being of those who occupy the space. When it comes to buildings, User Experience (UX) encompasses the totality of the effects felt by a user as a result of interaction with the building. This includes the influence of usability, usefulness and emotional impact during interaction, as well as savoring the memory after interaction.

More succinctly, good UX design is one that creates a positive emotional and psychological connection to the location. Our goal should be to focus on the experience first, and then create a sustainable building around that experience. My colleague Shona O’Dea and I believe we can do this by Viewing Architecture through the Lens of User Experience for Sustainability, or by taking a VALUESTM approach. This solution, adaptable and scalable, evaluates sustainable design and its impact on user experience.

What does this look like in the real world?

I have seen this approach play out firsthand during on the visioning sessions for the new Agua Fria High School in Arizona. The integrated design team, including various end user representatives such as faculty, district leadership, community members and students, participated in a Co-Lab to explore values related to key sustainability aspects of building design, construction, and operation.

Five broad categories were explored: Environmental Stewardship, the Indoor Environment, Indoor Air Quality / Health of Occupants, Student-Centric Design, and Beyond Buildings (site, concrete, bike paths, etc.). Under each category, a set of topics were introduced, with examples explaining the concept and reinforcing their importance. The team also prioritized each category based on UX on a scale of 0 to 10, with 10 being critically important to the success of the school.

Through the phases of facility visioning, program verification and early design, it became clear that the District’s vision for “all students, college- and career-ready” would rally the stakeholders to amplify existing success and cultivate instructional evolution. Driven by this vision, our design progressed from a concept to include many design strategies that impact UX, the end result of which will be a well-thought-out, 21st century learning facility that not only encourages high-energy, spontaneous collaboration between students and teachers, but also propels human health, resource conservation and an ecological future.

Using a VALUES framework, we can create such facilities, and also place value on end user success and the meaningful experiences these buildings can create.

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