Active Design Has Positive Impact on Residents’ Health

Guest post by Les Bluestone, co-founder of Blue Sea Development Co., which has developed thousands of units of affordable housing for more than three decades in New York. The firm also has dedicated itself to the development of green and sustainable affordable housing.

I’ve been developing affordable housing for about 35 years and have seen quite a few changes across the industry, from where developments are built and how they are financed to what they look like and who they serve. Some of these I have been hesitant about, while others I have welcomed with open arms.

One recent positive shift has been affordable housing developments beginning to address residents’ health, through initiatives such as Active Design Verified, developed by the Partnership for a Healthier America and the Center for Active Design to make healthier choices easier for families and individuals living in affordable housing.

We first heard about active design while developing our first LEED Platinum building in 2006. My partner and I have been developing under the Energy Star and LEED programs since 2001 and were familiar with the efficiency metrics of both programs. We liked the measurability of these metrics but discovered that the net positive impacts of meeting the indoor air quality requirements of both programs, while logical, were anecdotal at best.

Due to our initial skepticism regarding the costs and benefits of meeting these standards, we decided to work with the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in New York to study the health effects of living in a “green” building on families who suffer from asthma. This building was being built in the South Bronx, a community with the highest asthma hospitalization rate in the country. Fast-forward to two years post completion, and the results were better than we could have imagined. The incidence of daily asthma attacks in 56% of the study group dropped to 0% after 12 months, and remained there.

After our “epiphany,” we came to understand that affordable housing had the ability to not only improve the financial health of tenants, but also improve their physical health. Many years later, we realized that our healthier tenants equated to a lower rate of rent delinquency, as compared with other buildings in our portfolio.

We were charged up and wanted to do more. We continued to enhance the indoor air quality measures in our subsequent buildings but wondered what else we could do to improve residents’ health within our budgets. Around this same time, I attended a conference presentation by New York City’s Department of Health and Department of Design and Construction about the increasing obesity epidemic occurring in the city and throughout the country, and how they were trying to address this issue through the built environment. They were in the midst of developing a set of evidence-based measures to help increase the physical activity of occupants in buildings ranging from offices to apartments.

These strategies later went on to become the highly praised and utilized Active Design Guidelines—the same guidelines that inspired Active Design Verified. This was just what we were looking for and as they were in the early stages of creating the guidelines, we were able to provide feedback on these measures from an affordable housing developer’s perspective.

Active design in residential buildings encourages stair use and increases access to opportunities for physical activity and healthier eating. Affordable housing budgets are always “between a rock and a hard place” in terms of hard costs and the area median income. Our budgets were no exception. We wanted to incorporate the Active Design Guidelines but needed to better understand the changes involved to determine if we could foot the bill.

Based on our experience, designing the building so that the elevators were less prominent than the stairwells and placing signs encouraging stair use throughout the building came at a minimal cost. Meanwhile, the cost of creating the indoor and outdoor fitness areas and furnishing them with equipment was more substantial. We were also able to implement other measures, such as secure bicycle storage, glass stairwell doors, artwork and music in stairwells, and stay within the budget.

We were able to make things work within our budget, but what about the impact? The Mt. Sinai School of Medicine helped us out once more, agreeing to assess the health impact of living in an affordable active design building as compared with residents of similar non-active design housing in the South Bronx. The findings after one year showed that the body mass index (BMI) level of our residents remained stable while there was a 6% increase in the overweight and obese categories in the non-active design building. This was achieved in part by a 12% increase in stair use by our residents over the non-active design building. We now had more evidence that buildings can have a positive impact on one’s physical health, further supporting Mt. Sinai’s conclusion that “broader adoption of AD guidelines is warranted.” One resident that I came to know, who was subsequently featured in a Time Magazine issue (The Smarter Home, July 7, 2014), shed more than 100 pounds after moving in to our building.

The significant results achieved through modest spending helped convince us of active design benefits and motivated us to enroll in the Active Design Verified initiative, which offers us third-party technical assistance as well as verification of and public recognition for our efforts in our affordable housing developments. Our first property to earn Active Design Verified designation will be announced in 2016, and we look forward to watching as this trend continues to spread across the industry.

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