New Design Standard Creates Metrics for Social, Economic Sustainability


A group of architects, designers, activists, and community leaders interested in “public interest design” came together in 2005 at Harvard University Graduate School of Design and conceived of a set of principles and tools that would feature a greater focus on the social and economic facets of buildings and neighborhoods. Five years later, a team has launched a new standard called SEED (Social Economic Environmental Design). SEED is designed to provide guidance, evaluation, and certification on the social, economic, and environmental aspects of buildings and neighborhoods.

According to Residential Architecture, one of the key forces behind SEED is Bryan Bell, AIA, founder and executive director of the non-profit Design Corps. Bell said: “SEED is a guide, a combined wisdom that hopefully is transferrable. I don’t think people have taken this rigorous of an approach before.”

There’s a focus on local community participation in the standard. SEED’s Web site outlines this idea: “SEED maintains the belief that design can play a vital role in the most critical issues that face communities and individuals, in crisis and in every day challenges. To accomplish this, the SEED® process guides professionals to work alongside locals who know their community and its needs. This practice of ‘trusting the local’ is increasingly recognized as a highly effective way to sustain the health and longevity of a place or a community as it develops.”

SEED’s guiding principles include:

  • Advocate with those who have a limited voice in public life.
  • Build structures for inclusion that engage stakeholders and allow communities to make decisions.
  • Promote social equality through discourse that reflects a range of values and social identities. 
  • Generate ideas that grow from place and build local capacity.
  • Design to help conserve resources and minimize waste.

In addition to setting principles, the group also released the SEED Evaluator, an online tool to guide the process of creating a socially, economically, and environmentally- sensible building or community. “The Evaluator addresses issues such as public safety, job creation, and sanitation. And it requires strong evidence of community participation and input for a project to be eligible for SEED certification,” writes Residential Architecture

The SEED team says that completing the SEED Evaluator can lead to SEED Certification, which “allows communities to develop their leadership and decision-making from within while using a proven method and recognized standard of success.” Certification will require third-party verification.

SEED team member Kimberly Dowdell, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP, of HOK, told Residential Architecture SEED can be used at many levels “it could be applied to a project of almost any scale.”

Eric Field of the University of Virginia School of Architecture, R. Steven Lewis, AIA, president of the National Organization of Minority Architects, and Maurice Cox, former National Endowment for the Arts design director, were involved in SEED’s conception and development.

Learn more about the new SEED Standard and see their case studies outlining “community design in action.”

Image credit: Hollygrove Market and Farm, Louisiana / SEED Case Study

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