Social sustainability, the missing link

Jane Stoneham, Sensory Trust and Caron Thompson, Eden Project

Sustainable design and construction rely on balancing three interdependent aspects - environmental, economic and social, but there has been a general tendency to focus on environmental and economic factors to the exclusion of social factors. Sensory Trust and Eden Project have worked together to develop the Social Sustainability Toolkit: Inclusive Design to help designers and developers address these social aspects.

Good attention to social design creates places that are attractive and comfortable, easy to use and understand by the full range of users, support people’s physiological and psychological needs and provide a positive asset for the neighbourhood. Failure to address these elements increases the risk that buildings will be inaccessible, uncomfortable and negatively perceived by the local community. It often results in costly retrofits.

The toolkit focuses on inclusive design as the core element of ensuring a building serves the full range of users and uses. It integrates inclusive design in all stages of the design and construction process for capital builds, from initial plans through to completion and building use. It aims to make a complex set of requirements as straightforward as possible. Working through it helps meet statutory obligations and ensures a high quality, fully accessible capital build. Rather than providing general guidance, the Toolkit uses tools that dovetail with existing planning and design processes, for example as part of applications for planning and building control approval. It also includes a crib list, not intended as a checklist but to highlight the issues that need to be thought about and to give a means of recording decisions throughout the whole sequence from initial concept to completion and handover.

The Toolkit has been informed by our previous work, including Eden's education centre, the Core. The new European-funded capital build programme in Cornwall provided the framework in which to mobilize it. Use of the toolkit is now a requirement of the European funding programme for new capital build in south west UK.

Eden's Education Centre, the Core, under construction

Integrating inclusive design into the development of the The Eden Core provided a basis for the Social Sustainability Toolkit. Eden’s Core building is recognized for its high standards of social sustainable design.

Raising the standard of capital build projects in south west UK

The South West Regional Development Agency (SWRDA) governs the investment of European funding in the south west region of the United Kingdom. This includes the support of major new capital build projects, such as University buildings, transport infrastructure, offices and training facilities. Cornwall Council is the statutory body with responsibility for governance and support of the local region. Both agencies advocate sustainable approaches to planning, design and construction and have developed policies and funding requirements to apply these practices to new building developments.

In 2009, Cornwall Council and SWRDA identified a problem that new buildings were failing to adequately address many of the social aspects of sustainable design. For example, buildings were being constructed that were not accessible to the full range of users and were having to be adapted post-completion. Others had failed to acknowledge the importance of details, such as acoustic and thermal design, in creating comfortable office working environment which would then attract businesses to rent them. The use of extra materials and additional cost compromised the environmental and economic sustainability respectively. The adaptations also detracted from the overall look and feel.

From consultation with design practices and development companies it was clear that there was a general lack of awareness of the social aspects of sustainable design. In addition, SWRDA lacked any procedures to require development teams to take these issues on board in order to access funding.

Sensory Trust and Eden Project were commissioned to develop a Social Sustainability Toolkit. The aim was to integrate social sustainability aspects in all stages of the planning, design, construction and handover of a new building development. It was to be a practical guide for built environment professionals and all those involved in the commissioning, planning, design, construction and evaluation of capital build projects throughout south west UK. It would be used by SWRDA as a requirement for European-funded capital build programmes in Cornwall.

Developing the toolkit

The toolkit is based on previous work undertaken by Sensory Trust and Eden Project, working together to integrate these principles into the design of Eden’s buildings, spaces and facilities. The Sensory Trust also developed the Access Chain, a tool that addresses accessibility from the user’s perspective and follows the sequence of steps involved in making a visit and use of the building or site a success – from arriving, through the experience in a place, to leaving.

In 2005, Eden Project developed plans for a new building to act as a focus for public learning. The Core was given the aspiration of achieving the highest standards of sustainable design and its development was an opportunity to address all aspects of sustainable design and to integrate an inclusive approach to all stages of the planning, design and build.

The early stages involved the development of design briefs and setting clear aspirations and targets for the design team. One of the challenges with social aspects is that many are less tangible than environmental criteria, and there is therefore a risk of them being overlooked. The creation of clear social design targets proved an effective way of overcoming this problem. For example, a target was set to have no disabled refuges in all floors of the 3-storey building. This would ensure that all visitors could enter and leave the building on a step-free route, regardless of what floor they were on. This would also provide an alternative route between floors should the lift be out of action.

Good acoustic design was another target. This aspect is often overlooked in building design. In the Core this was given careful consideration – soundproofing was incorporated in the ceiling to reduce noise and create social spaces where people could hear each other in conversation and quieter work areas. A good acoustic environment assists those with hearing impairments and this consideration was supplemented by the use of carefully positioned down-lighters in lecturing positions in classrooms to enhance lip-reading potential.

Training with the design and construction teams also helped raise awareness of these issues. One unexpected result was from training with the on-site construction team. Following sessions based on highlighting the reasons for certain design details to be implemented, such as the adjustment of toilet locks and handles to be easy to use; corduroy paving inset into manhole covers to avoid change of surface; urinals at different heights prior to legislative requirements; heights and clarity of signage and integrating with design details such as lighting and floor details to highlight the location of key features such as lifts. A major achievement was balancing the technical requirements with an appealing design style and integrating the aspirations of the whole design team to achieve this. Training included the use of simulation spectacles with the architect, quantity surveyors, mechanical and engineering services and the regulatory Building Control department.

The toolkit was tested on the development of new buildings at the University College Falmouth, Eden Project and St Austell town centre.

Group of designers and project managers responsible for new capital builds, taking part in design crit session with us

Using the toolkit as the basis of a design crit session with design teams responsible for new capital build projects on the Tremough campus

The toolkit is now a funding requirement for new European-funded capital build projects throughout Cornwall. It is now being used by teams responsible for developing new University buildings, new park and ride schemes, office complexes, and urban centre renewal. With some of these schemes, we have provided supporting guidance and training. The use of design crits, where designers and project managers bring specific design issues to the table for open discussion of potential solutions, has proved particularly successful.

Critical inputs

Through the course of developing and testing the toolkit, we have identified some critical ingredients to ensure good integration of social sustainability criteria:

• Close working between client, designers, construction and maintenance teams throughout the planning design and constructions process

• Practical training sessions with all teams to raise levels of understanding and to increase buy-in

• Good liaison between architect and landscape architect to create best options for transitions between indoor and outdoor spaces

• Good attention to acoustic design throughout working and social spaces

• Attention to detail with regard to fixtures and fittings

• Integration of accessibility into the overall design to create a better environment for everyone

Next steps for the toolkit

The Social Sustainability Toolkit is addressing a critical gap in the sustainability agenda, helping ensure that new developments best serve the functions for which they are intended. It has been positively received as a support tool for designers and developers and we are continuing to use it as the basis for new training, project reviews and to guide design development.

We are currently working with Eden Project on their exciting new How2 project and we'll be bringing more news to the website as things develop.

There is still need for the social aspects to gain greater recognition. We still see too many developments that end up with costly retrofits because there's not enough thought given to how people will use them, the flexibility that will be required as uses change and the diversity of people that need to be considered.

More about the toolkit

Toolkit downloads - download the toolkit in a choice of formats

Access chain - reviewing accessibility through the user's perspective

Eden core - our work with Eden integrating inclusive design in the development of the Core