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How a Small Set of Strategies Can Benefit the Greatest Number of Outcomes

Houston-based Adele Houghton has taken an interesting route in her development as an architect and green building advocate. To expand her perspective, the president of Biositu, a building consultancy dedicated to linking environmental sustainability with enhanced community health, enrolled last year in the DrPH program at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. In June she published a piece in the Harvard Public Health Review on the importance of co-benefits in the building and community design process. The journal selected it for its “Best of Harvard Public Health Review 2014-2021” issue, due out this fall. Last week, I reached out to Houghton to talk about the co-benefits framework, which appears to hold great promise for community engagement and public health. 

MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
AH: Adele Houghton


As an architect and a public health Ph.D. student, you have a unique perspective that could be helpful to designers. You talk about the concept of “co-benefits.” What are co-benefits, and how should architects think about this as an approach? 


The concept of “co-benefits” is frequently used in fields like public health to weigh different policy options. The idea is to look for a cluster of strategies that meet a wide array of objectives. In other words: Which small group of strategies will benefit the greatest number of desired outcomes? It’s a natural fit for the design process, because the best designs seamlessly meet the sometimes contradictory requirements of building owners, investors, and code officials. Add to that the additional considerations about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, protecting buildings and their occupants from climatic events, and the increasing emphasis in our society around advancing social equity, and the picture quickly becomes complicated. The co-benefits framework can be useful in those situations, because the complexity stops being a barrier and becomes the raw material for a broader picture of interconnected benefits.

01-Co-benefits-simple diagram revised

Some architects and designers might already be using a similar approach, but not calling it that. Unpack the idea of co-benefits in more specific terms, and tell us why it would be valuable to both designers and the people they design for?


One way to imagine the co-benefits framework is as a long list of detailed strategies on the left-hand side of a diagram, a short list of desired endpoints on the right-hand side, and an empty space in between. The goal of a co-benefits exercise is to identify as many ways as possible to connect the design strategies on the left side with as many endpoints on the right side as possible. As you go through the exercise, you begin to see patterns where strategies cluster around certain co-impact pathways that benefit multiple outcomes. 

When this approach is applied to the public health context, each connection is supported by evidence. In the recent article, I proposed using the co-benefits framework within the context of Covid-19 re-entry plans, because it can sometimes be difficult to break out of linear thinking when a client comes to you with money that’s earmarked for a single use, in this case, Covid. Too often, the money is used in such a targeted way that it misses an opportunity to support other needs. Then, when the next crisis comes along, owners are asked to allocate more money to protect the building from the new threat. The co-benefits approach asks the owner and the design team to take a step back and ask themselves if the money earmarked for one thing (Covid-19 re-entry) could be leveraged to address other priorities as well (say, future proofing the building against weather events that could disrupt the power supply)?


This seems like a way to avoid siloing issues like health, equity, and climate action. Can you talk about how that works? 


Co-benefit diagrams often show clearly which impact paths will benefit the most desired outcomes and, therefore, the most stakeholders. In that way, it’s a great way to break down silos. People can see how the strategies that they’re responsible for work with other team members’ strategies to benefit everyone. 

For example: an existing building that’s going to be modified to make it safer for occupants during this final (we hope) phase of the pandemic. A co-benefits exercise might consider which design and operations strategies could perform double or triple service. Are there impact pathways that would pull together a group of strategies to address the threat of Covid and also reduce greenhouse gas emissions, enhance the building’s resilience, and advance environmental health equity in the neighborhood. An example might include a pair of impact pathways that reduce demand for fossil fuels and reduce reliance on centralized infrastructure. Here we might simultaneously address Covid, climate change, and social equity through a combination of weatherization, operable windows with screens, HEPA filters in the mechanical system, and an on-site renewable power micro-grid that connects to rooftop solar installations on buildings in the surrounding neighborhood. Most of these ideas might be value engineered out of the project, if presented on its own. But when it’s presented as part of a cluster of strategies that meet multiple goals, the business case for implementing this approach becomes self-evident. 


It also seems like an effort to diagram a more systems-oriented approach to design. Why do you think that’s necessary? At what point in the design process would you recommend introducing the concept of co-benefits?


I think that’s right. Similar to systems thinking, the co-benefits framework makes visible connections that often remain invisible throughout the design process. Over the past few decades, the building industry has moved more and more in the direction of specialization and quantification. So much so that many architects and developers feel like they’re drowning in data and metrics. They aren’t sure which data to use and to what end.

 The co-benefits framework can help the design team and project stakeholders map out the reason each analytic tool is being used, what outcome it’s benefiting, and how. From my perspective working in public health, this is a great benefit. It makes it easy for me to show team members how prioritizing a public health endpoint (like reducing outdoor air pollution) connects back to energy modeling, landscape design, and decisions about whether or not to include operable windows. 

The other major benefit of this approach is that it gives the community a stronger voice in the design process. For better or worse, building codes and best practice guides are not tailored to the needs of individual properties or neighborhoods. And project delivery schedules are often too rushed to allow for sustained engagement with the community. As a result, a building could be certified LEED Platinum and receive multiple design awards without making any tangible improvement to the environmental health of its surrounding neighborhood. Bringing the community into the co-benefits conversation gives them the opportunity to help develop clear definitions for the desired project impact. They’re often the best positioned to identify which pathways will make a tangible difference to their daily lives. 

A few years ago, I worked on a project that both measured the environmental exposures from a freeway in Houston and proposed design changes to nearby schools to help protect their students and staff from the negative health consequences of a proposed expansion project. A number of our recommendations for one of the most highly exposed elementary schools were standard, given the fact that the school campus was located across the feeder road from an eight-lane freeway. But we also noticed that the school backed up to a park, which the kids used as their play space, because the school did not have dedicated fields or a playground on site. When we asked the school nurse and principal to share their most significant health concerns for the students, they quickly pointed to traffic safety (many kids walked to school along the feeder) and asthma (they were constantly exposed to traffic-related air pollution [TRAP] at school and at home). Those insights led the team to look for design solutions outside the boundaries of the school campus. To address the concerns about traffic safety and exposure to TRAP, our final recommendation included changes to the sidewalks connecting the school and the neighborhood where many students lived. 


This feels like an idea ripe for adoption in design education. How would you envision teaching it?


I’m so glad you asked that question. I went back to school to earn a Master of Public Health (MPH) after practicing architecture and green building for seven years, because I felt that I did not have the technical background I needed to recommend which health priorities were most important for any given project. One thing led to another, and I am now pursuing a Doctor of Public Health degree at Harvard. Having said that, it’s not realistic to expect all building professionals to pursue MPHs. 

 I have dedicated part of my professional career to facilitating workshops and educational sessions at professional conferences to teach practitioners how to make use of public health co-benefits frameworks in their daily work. In June, I facilitated an online workshop on the topic at USGBC Live. I am also co-authoring a book called Architectural Epidemiology, which walks through the steps to pull together the context-based data that is needed to run a successful co-benefits exercise. Our publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press, expects to release the book late next year. 

 My approach is inspired by my experience as an undergraduate architecture student at Princeton. I remember the professor of our first architectural history/theory class telling us that she was going to teach us how to see our surroundings in a new way. Similar to the way a biologist notices more plants and animals during a walk in the woods than a lay person would, an architect learns new ways to notice his or her surroundings. A walk down the street might become a meditation on weatherproofing details—where they did their job, where they failed—on a street of building facades. When I talk in workshops about the links between public health and building design, I provide another way to look at that facade. How will it perform when the power goes out in a heat wave? Do the windows open? Are there screens to keep the mosquitoes out (and the diseases they carry)? How easy is it to walk to the building? And, crucially, what are the health needs of the people who live and work in this neighborhood? What is this building doing to contribute to a safe and healthy environment for its residents?


There’s been a dramatic increase in interest in these issues over the past three years. Why?


My hunch is that interest may come from a growing sense of frustration within the industry that 20 years into the green building movement, the carbon footprint of buildings continues to increase, and trends in health conditions that are strongly influenced by the built environment—like obesity and heart disease—are moving in the wrong direction.

The role of indoor environments in transmitting the SARS-CoV-2 virus only added to the desire within the design community to begin to engage with the fundamental questions posed by epidemiology. Where did the disease originate? How is it spreading? What can be done to stop it? It is my hope that methods like the co-benefits framework and the problem-solving framework laid out in my book will help demystify the ways buildings influence community health, for better or worse. As designers begin to understand how their work influences the health of both building occupants and the surrounding community, it’s my belief that they will begin to take a more proactive role in shaping the future we all want to inhabit.

Featured image: Via Verde in the Bronx, New York. Developed by Phipps Houses and Jonathan Rose Companies, the mixed income, multi-family residential development was designed to support healthy eating, physical activity, and good health. Houghton calls it “one of the best examples I have seen of a project that took a co-benefits approach to the design process.” All photos and diagrams courtesy of Biositu. 


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