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All Inclusive: An Authentic Approach to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

Scott Alan

With the recent observance of Equal Pay Day, an equity issue that needs much more attention, it is timely to dig into some of the positive initiatives in the built environment arena that help to address diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), recognizing the interconnectedness of daily human life with the state of the Earth. In my August 2018 column, I talked about the rise of social enterprise, including certifications and reporting structures like B Corps, Just and GRESB. Along with a personal journey to acknowledge my own privilege and become a better ally, I am also learning a lot through a consulting engagement with a public entity, and through volunteer board service with an environmental nonprofit organization which both seek to better incorporate DEI and sustainability within the execution of their missions. Too often, efforts to address DEI in design and construction end up as tokenism or box-checking exercises, not due to lack of good intent, but because they bring up multifaceted issues that can be uncomfortable to address.

People often confuse equity with equality, as equality means everyone gets the same, regardless of intuitional barriers that some face, while equity aims to remove those barriers, giving those who have been disadvantaged a leg up. Another factor is that people often jump first to race when they think about DEI, a critical issue that is also highly charged, which often prevents a broader recognition of the many other intersectional identities that cut across society, including gender expression, sexual orientation, age, ability, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, etc. Third, an authentic effort to engage with DEI requires cultural competency (or at least cultural consciousness), respecting the backgrounds and experiences of others before imposing what we think are the best solutions based on our own.

To guide project teams in a more comprehensive and authentic process of addressing DEI in projects when they don’t have similar standards already in place, several leading sustainability frameworks have attempted to outline guidance, including LEED, Envision and EcoDistricts.

A dedicated working group of volunteers developed a set of three LEED social equity pilot credits that the USGBC has added to the Pilot Credit Library. These pilot credits focus on social equity in community, on project teams and within the supply chain, respectively.

• IPpc90 Social equity within the community: This credit encourages project team members to identify and address the social and community needs and disparities among those affected by the project. This involves understanding the various constituencies in the community where the project will be developed and giving them a voice in the process.

The credit can be earned through partnering with a local community service organization, or by using the Social Economic and Environmental Design (SEED) Evaluator, an interactive software program that guides teams and helps them document, evaluate and communicate the social, economic and environmental outcomes of design projects.

• IPpc90 Social equity within the project team: To earn this credit, project team members must advance social equity by implementing strategies that address the social and economic needs and disparities impacting those working on the project. This may include issues like fair pay, skills development, healthier work environments, and corporate social responsibility. A primary means to demonstrate compliance is for several key team member firms to conduct transparent reporting or achieve certification using frameworks like B Corp, Just, GRI or GRESB.

• IPpc90 Social equity within the supply chain: This credit requires members of the project team to initiate procurement strategies with suppliers that advance social and community issues, needs and disparities among those affected by the extraction, manufacturing and distribution of building materials. This includes promoting fair trade and human rights, prohibiting child labor, and supporting healthier environments for those impacted by the manufacturing and supply chain. This is documented through supplier assessments or review of manufacturer code of conduct commitments.

The Envision rating system (developed by the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure) is designed to improve sustainability performance and resiliency of physical infrastructure projects such as roads, bridges, airports and other public works. In addition to credits that address energy, water and sustainable materials, Envision also encourages meaningful social equity initiatives. The first credit category, Quality of Life, is focused on purpose, well-being and community, and includes credits addressing civic engagement, stimulating sustainable growth and development, and building local workforce capacity, skills and capabilities. Other credits address public health and safety, community mobility (access to multi-modal transportation options) and additional aspect of wellbeing. Because Envision applies to a wide array of project types, and supports varying levels of commitment to the strategies in each credit, the equity-focused credits can provide a useful guide for non-infrastructure projects as well.

EcoDistricts is a framework focused on social equity, civic engagement, economic opportunities, connectivity and ecological health for vibrant, sustainable neighborhoods. Its three imperatives are Equity, Resilience and Climate Protection. The equity imperative encourages ecodistrict teams to identify and acknowledge the most vulnerable communities and ensure that they have meaningful opportunity to participate, lead and thrive as part of the neighborhood transformation.

A few of the priority areas for equity include:

  • Place
  • Prosperity
  • Health and well-being
  • Connectivity

Similar to Envision, EcoDistricts is broadly applicable and lends itself as a guide to authentic and inclusive community engagement for projects of any scale.

By truly engaging the communities that DEI programs are meant to serve, and by co-creating robust solutions that are integrated with capital projects, we can move beyond superficial policies and create real and lasting impact, both enriching communities and improving project outcomes. When authentic inclusion happens, everyone benefits. The frameworks noted above provide a solid start to guide you on your next project, and I invite you to borrow from them, regardless of certification pursuits.

Alan Scott, FAIA, LEED Fellow, LEED AP BD+C, O+M, WELL AP, CEM, is an architect with over 30 years of experience in sustainable building design. He is a senior associate with WSP in Portland, Ore. To learn more, visit and follow him on Twitter @alanscott_faia.