Design and construction

Health is the new green for some architects and developers.

For more than two decades, architects and building developers have looked to sustainable design as a way to create housing that was healthier for the environment and for its users.

These “green” buildings came with energy conservation measures and sustainable products and efforts to reduce the use of materials that may pose long-term risks and pollutants.

Now, some developers are increasingly honing their focus on resident health, looking for ways to make healthy living a bigger part of building design.

“Health is the new green,” said Katie Swenson, vice president for National Design Initiatives for the national affordable housing development organization Enterprise Community Partners Inc., based in Columbia, Maryland.

This year, Enterprise which has invested $18.6 billion over 30 years to develop and preserve nearly 340,000 green, healthy and affordable homes across the United States, revised its Enterprise Green Communities Criteria to include “Active Design” measures meant to promote healthy living.

The organization– which started up in the early 1980s to create affordable housing for low- and moderate-income people — is working with several partners, including the American Heart Association, to make its green criteria a required baseline for all affordable housing developments in the United States.

“At the American Heart Association, we understand that healthy, high-quality affordable housing has the potential to help address some of the most urgent health challenges facing low-income families and communities today,” said Nancy Brown, AHA chief executive.

To meet the criteria, developments must show improved health and well-being of residents through reduced exposure to environmental pollutants, improved connectivity to services and walkable neighborhoods and good lighting.

The 2015 criteria requires health assessments that use public health data to identify key health issues facing potential residents and the neighborhood in general, and using the information to create a project that helps address those issues, Swenson said.

“The same way that green buildings can measure how much energy is used or saved, the public health field can now measure the rate of asthma or obesity,” Swenson said.

Studies of “green” affordable housing projects have shown numerous health benefits, including reduced exposure to toxic materials and chemicals and lower incidence of asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

But the health benefits are not limited to improving indoor environmental quality, according to a study by the National Center for Healthy Housing, noting efforts to improve walking and bike paths and promote community gardens lead to increased physical activity and provide nutritional and social benefits. Other projects incorporate health services, improving residents’ access to health care.

“The health care industry has always been able to measure obesity and detect asthma, it’s just that now we are better understanding the connection between housing and its impact on public health outcomes,” Swenson said. ”

Swenson pointed to several projects that are putting those ideas to work.

At Aeon’s Minneapolis mixed-income project, The Rose, the stairs are the first thing you see, part of an effort to promote physical activity rather than using the elevator. The project, which opens in October, also includes a yoga studio and positions the community fitness room in a prominent part of the building that has plenty of natural light to heighten its appeal, rather than relegating it to the basement.

“We want to encourage active living” Swenson said, adding that Aeon is also looking into materials that are used.

The Rose, along with a South Bronx development by Phipps Houses and Jonathan Rose Companies called Via Verde, also includes extensive community gardens, providing a link to fresh food in areas where that can be difficult to find. The New York project includes bicycle storage and a tree orchard.

“Providing the house itself is not enough,” Swenson said. “Green is not going away. The ultimate outcome of our work is a healthy individual.”