APHA’s Year of Climate Change and Health this month focuses on transportation and healthy community design. Matthew Welker, Assoc. AIA, senior manager of strategic alliances and initiatives for The American Institute of Architects, provides a glimpse into how design can promote health.

The George Washington University is a world-class research center with a deep commitment to sustainability leadership. So, when the university commissioned a new 161,000 square-foot building for the Milken Institute School of Public Health, they challenged Payette, in association with Ayers Saint Gross, to create an expression of core public health values — light, air, physical activity, nature — to students and the public.

The result is a high-performing sustainable building that puts people first. Health-promoting features include a sky-lit central staircase, ground-level community forum space, shared kitchenettes for students and faculty, and sit-stand desks. The building’s benefits extend beyond occupancy, with active transportation incentives and greenhouse gas reduction incorporated into the design. Many of these ideas were rooted in interactions between the architects and current Milken Institute students, faculty and leadership.

“The fact that this project set about to create a new home for a community of present and future public health practitioners and researchers — a community which deeply shares the same values — meant that we had a very attentive client from the outset of design, and a client who was keen to push us in our explorations,” said Peter Vieira, AIA, associate principal at Payette.

“While we were not able to incorporate each and every idea, the project is a strong testament to the School’s keen interest in, and deep commitment to, making their home as health-oriented as possible.”

The collaboration is paying off. The healthiest building on campus has been recognized by The American Institute of Architects with two major awards, the AIA Interior Architecture Award and AIA Committee on the Environment Top Ten Award.

For over 20 years, the AIA COTE Top Ten Award has been the AIA’s highest honor recognizing sustainable design. Projects are juried against 10 holistic measures, including the integration of aesthetics and performance; community engagement; carbon mitigation; and human health and wellness.

Photo courtesy AIA COTE

Photo courtesy AIA COTE

The high-performing firms behind AIA COTE Top Ten award-winning projects blend technical savvy and design thinking to shape a built environment that promotes human health and reduces waste and consumption. Architects are natural partners for public health professionals working on climate issues.

A signatory to the “Joint Call to Action to Promote Healthy Communities” with APHA and six other organizations, the AIA has made this nexus clear through sustainability initiatives that integrate design and health, energy use, community resilience and materials transparency. The Design and Health Research Consortium, for instance, is a unique collaboration of 19 universities working to advance the usefulness and quality of research linking design to health outcomes, and incorporate that research into practice. The Institute has also explicitly recognized the substantial impact of the built environment on greenhouse gas emissions, and stated that “it is an ethical and practical obligation of every architect to work to combat climate change.”

A pressure-equalized terracotta rainscreen minimizes risk of mildew and corrosion. Photo courtesy Robert Benson Photography

A pressure-equalized terracotta rainscreen minimizes risk of mildew and corrosion. Photo courtesy Robert Benson Photography

Reducing carbon emissions in projects with high-technology loads, like scientific learning and research facilities, can be particularly challenging for architects. Payette drew from their extensive experience with those projects to tackle the unusual challenges presented in the Milken Institute project, successfully introducing several cutting-edge sustainable technologies to the GWU campus. These include:

  • An intelligent lighting control system that minimizes the use of artificial illumination and results in a 70 percent reduction in lighting energy;
  • A dedicated outside air system that optimizes ventilation based upon occupancy and CO2 sensors;
  • A mechanical system known as “chilled beam” that uses cooled water to provide efficient heating and cooling without increasing the air change rate; and
  • A pressure-equalized terracotta rainscreen that minimizes risk of mildew and corrosion.

Despite these innovations, the project’s most sustainable attributes are embedded so deeply into its “DNA” that they are nearly indistinguishable. “These attributes may be most evident when one pauses to consider what a more conventional approach to the site and program might have led to,” reflected Vieira.

“Learning spaces would have been clustered on a few lower floors; floors would have been taller to accommodate more conventional mechanical systems; and areas deep within the middle of the building would have been given over to workplaces, leaving them disconnected from natural light and connections to the outdoors.”

Instead, what could have easily been a dense urban block is instead an open and light-filled array of multi-story voids that reflect common values of public health and architecture: light, air, physical activity, and nature.

A sun-filled staircase promotes social interaction and movement between all eight levels of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. Photo courtesy Robert Benson Photography

A sun-filled staircase promotes social interaction and movement between all eight levels of the Milken Institute School of Public Health at the George Washington University. Photo courtesy Robert Benson Photography

Research offices and classrooms are clustered around a central atrium — less than 20-feet wide in most places — that brings daylight and views into the building’s core. The architects created spaces for informal interactions overlooking adjacent Washington Circle by pulling pod-like classrooms away from the building’s edge.

In addition to a compelling, light-filled eight-story staircase, the Milken Institute promotes physical activity — and the reduction of carbon emissions — by tying into Washington’s public transportation infrastructure. One of the city’s busiest Metro stops is less than a block away, and the building hosts a Capital Bikeshare station to promote active commuting. The result? Two-thirds of respondent’s report walking, riding or taking public transportation to get to the building.

The long-standing mandate within Payette is that all of their buildings are designed to meet the LEED Silver standard; however, their philosophy extends beyond minimum standards and filling out checklists. “We avoid a formulaic approach to sustainable design and seek ideas,” said Vieria. “It’s not about pushing the envelope with the latest green gizmo. It is about smart decisions with simple, but real, impact.”