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LEED v5 Preview #4: IEQ for Equitable Health and Wellness

Proposed EQ credits and prereqs would target inclusive design, biophilia, and a climate-change-adaptive approach to indoor air quality.
Paula Melton
October 19, 2023

This is the fourth post in a series on LEED v5; it focuses on new construction. Part One provides an overview of the philosophy and underlying structure of all the LEED v5 rating systems. Part Two discusses what’s new in the already drafted O+M rating system. Part Three looks at operational energy and carbon in design and construction.

panorama of a sunrise over the ocean, seen from a rocky sea wall adjacent to a forest.

My happy place is off the grid and doesn't have walls or a roof. But could LEED encourage buildings to be more like this and less like ... buildings?

Photo: Paula Melton
Finding your happy place in a conference center isn’t easy, believe me.

But session leaders at one of the v5 Greenbuild sessions suggested we try. With the lights low, biophilia expert Elizabeth Calabrese softly invited the audience to close our eyes and “visualize a favorite place or space where you feel your happiest, safest, or most accepted.”

I’m probably not the only one who chose an outdoor location (as seen in my photos of the Downeast Maine coastline).

But that was part of the point: if buildings are going to make us happy, they might need to be less like buildings and more like nature. 

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Articulating the EQ priorities

Calabrese was preparing us for a presentation on the Indoor Environmental Quality (EQ) approach for new buildings (BD+C) and interiors (ID+C) in a session titled “Inclusive Pathways to Health in LEED v5: Harnessing Biophilic and Inclusive Design.”

Calabrese joined inclusive design expert Gail Napell and IEQ specialist Larissa Oaks of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) to introduce the proposals for this category and its underlying philosophy.

close-up of an open palm with small, colorful snail shells in it.

Some of the smaller delights of the Maine coast

Photo: Paula Melton
After reminding the audience that there is not a draft yet and that things will change, Oaks noted three priorities for the category as it’s currently envisioned:

  • Prioritize indoor air quality for current and future climates.
  • Support innovation by connecting with natural systems.
  • Consider physical and mental diversity.

There’s a lot to unpack in how that first priority is written—presumably a nod to the increasing threat of smog, wildfires, and novel diseases as well as the simple fact that outdoor air (which is of course where indoor air comes from) has higher concentrations of CO2 than it used to.

But the session primarily focused on concepts that might be less familiar to attendees because they’ve previously been addressed through pilot credits. The goal is “moving these topics into the core LEED rating system for v5,” Oaks explained. 

Biophilia 101

Calabrese began with a primer on biophilic design, emphasizing the power of simplicity and the importance of place-based solutions. “Sometimes small and simple can be the most soulful and connected solution,” she said, adding, “It’s not just about the building; it’s the connectivity into the landscape.”

She also acknowledged a traditional weakness of biophilic design—that not everyone thinks of nature as a calming, welcoming place. “Different social and economic groups of people respond differently to where they feel safe,” she explained, alluding to “biophobias” (spiders, anyone?) and urging solutions that are “really specific for the user.”

a bedewed spider web, no longer inhabited, with a cemetery and trees in the background.

No, not everyone likes spiders, but the webs, now ....

Photo: Paula Melton
Calabrese also made an environmentalist argument for biophilic design, emphasizing building longevity as well as a deeper love of nature that biophilic design can reinforce. “We keep what we love,” she said, so our buildings should be lovable. And skillfully connecting people with nature through better design can be a good way to ensure that. 

It works the other way around as well, Calabrese said: by keeping people connected to nature, biophilic design reminds them of their roots. “We are less likely to take care of the natural world,” she argued, “when we’re disconnected from real life.”

If biophlic design sounds like an expensive add-on, think again, Calabrese suggested. “Sometimes it can just be low tech,” she explained. “Some of the most effective [designs] can be low-tech and simple.” She encouraged designers to think about facilitating mindfulness rather than providing “a Disney World type of atmosphere.”

Inclusive design 101

Napell then explained inclusive design, contrasting it with code-minimum accessibility accommodations and even universal design.

  • Accessible: Requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) have been widely written into law. “When we design to code, we design the worst building that’s still legal,” Napell said.  
  • Universal: She described universal design as better than the bare minimum but critiqued it as a one-size-fits-all approach that inevitably leaves some people out.
  • Inclusive: This approach, as currently defined in LEED, “is design for all people” Napell explained. “Inclusive design incorporates solutions that meet needs related to gender identity, race, ability, age, socioeconomic status, culture, religion, and body, and is considerate of the ways in which these needs intersect. Inclusive design makes spaces safer, easier, and more convenient for everyone.”

That means moving from one size fits all to creating spaces where people have “choice and control,” said Napell.

Like Calabrese, Napell had answers in anticipation of appeals to budget constraints when it comes to inclusive design.

She said people often quietly think, “’Those people’ don’t work here” or are unlikely to use the space. While acknowledging that certain typologies necessarily exclude some people, she said that’s not an excuse for excluding the voices of people who will be in the space, even as visitors.  

Finally, Napell pointed out “the extraordinary spending power of people with disabilities and their families.”

“A people-centered approach”

The discussion turned then to how biophilic design and inclusive design overlap and reinforce one another, which the speakers characterized as a people-centered approach.

The overarching goal is to “reduce stress, improve cognitive function, and promote relaxation” in spaces that can otherwise feel overwhelming or unwelcoming to people with physical limitations and neurological differences, explained Napell. To do that, design should “support physical and emotional needs” not only through “natural ventilation, daylight and view access, and connecting emotionally to the natural world” but also by providing multiple space types (e.g., private and silent, public and quiet, public and lively) and “a variety of tactile experiences.” Some solutions could include clear (not clever) wayfinding, wide transition spaces to allow people to walk side by side signing or lipreading, and furniture options designed for different abilities and body shapes.

“The rewards for an inclusive process are real,” Napell emphasized, and noted that both biophilic and inclusive design require “time, humility, and commitment” and demand that designers “listen to and hear the needs of those who will be impacted by the space.”

snowy vista from a hilltop, with a person wearing a coat and hat seated on a rock and visible from behind.

For your next project, how will you connect people with nature in inclusive ways?

Photo: Paula Melton

Some of the v5 EQ credit proposals

Where does all that leave the credit category?

Noting again that the language is not yet drafted, Oaks explained how the IEQ TAG has been working with the cross-cutting Equity Working Group to help ensure that the focus on quality of life reaches as many people as possible.

Some of the specific options mentioned for biophilia were:

  • A possible new credit called Connecting with Natural Systems that would combine daylight, views, and biophilia 
  • A possible new prerequisite for inclusive daylight access
  • “A more flexible approach” to integrating with nature and demonstrating a connection to place

Oaks also described some of the options under consideration for inclusive design:

  • A possible new prerequisite to “address space planning for diversity”
  • A new credit emphasizing “physical accessibility, customization, and flexibility, preventing accidents, wayfinding, accommodating neurodiversity,” and considering how to integrate support for people who “utilize assistive technology and devices.”

Bolstered by Venn diagrams, the session focused on integration and intersection of multiple concerns having to do with accessibility, enhanced engagement and user experience, and environmental responsibility and aesthetics.

Many of the words used sounded decidedly non-LEED-like (in a good way): words like appealinginvitingsensoryintuitive, and rich.

It’s no Maine coast. But for an indoor happy place, it sounds not too shabby.

Correction: This post was updated on October 23, 2023. We removed incorrect information about TAG membership for Elizabeth Calabrese and Gail Napell. Calabrese is not currently on any LEED committees, and Napell serves on the Resilience Working Group. The piece now highlights their relevant areas of expertise rather than their committee membership.

Date updated: 
Thursday, October 19, 2023

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