As a firm deeply rooted in sustainability, ZGF is leveraging a growing body of data for a more holistic approach to understanding and quantifying our impacts in all phases of design—on people and the planet. To make sense of how far we’ve come and where we’re heading, we spoke with Dr. Flavia Grey, a senior data strategist, and Paul Diaz, a building performance specialist in our Seattle office.
With a PhD from Stanford University, Flavia has authored a variety of peer-reviewed studies examining the connection between building design, sustainability, wellbeing and productivity. An upcoming paper will explore CO₂ variability indoors and its correlation with work activities and productivity. Paul brings nearly a decade in computational design and sustainability, helping project teams with everything from environmental analyses to occupancy evaluations.
Together, Flavia and Paul are spearheading ZGF’s firmwide data and research and development team. Here they tell us more about the link between sustainability and wellness, the next generation of LEED certifications, and how we can use data to enhance design.
First off, what’s the connection between sustainability and human wellness?
Flavia: When we talk about sustainability, we’re usually talking about saving the planet. Deep down, what we really want to save is ourselves—and that means saving the conditions that allow us to remain here as a species, in an environment that allows us to thrive.
Paul: At first, sustainability was all about reducing energy use and maximizing efficiency in our buildings. Now we’re paying more attention to what materials we put in our spaces and their health impacts. Over the last 10 to 15 years, we’ve expanded the purview of sustainability to include the health and wellbeing of building occupants.
What kind of impact is the built environment having on our health? How can we use data to improve it?
Paul: One commonly cited statistic is that we spend 90% of our lives indoors. That has a huge impact to a degree we don’t fully understand yet. The field of neuroscience is young. We are still in the early days of understanding how our systems function and are impacted by space, environment, genetics, etc. Outside of neuroscience, research on wellness and public health is also young, but there is a growing body of work that continues to indicate we are impacted by our environment at much lower thresholds than previously thought. As the science progresses, so will our understanding of how those things impact our health and use of space.
Flavia: By 2050, two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities. We’re starting to see what happens when people get further away from nature. Mental and physical health issues are on the rise in urban areas; we’re getting sick more often; we’re less productive. Now there’s a big effort to understand and quantify those impacts so we can be happier, healthier, less stressed, more focused, better connected to each other and the world.
Paul: Raj Chetty, a Harvard University economist who studies the equality of opportunity in the United States, says the number one thing you can do to improve your upward mobility is move into the right neighborhood. Your zip code is the top indicator of your health because it determines your access to fresh food, fresh air, green spaces, schools, emergency services, and so on. We’re just starting to quantify these factors and understand their relative impacts.
Flavia: The more data we have, the better decisions we can make about where and how to build for the best quality of life. Through data, we can identify those opportunities that will help us achieve our sustainability goals—and how to do it in the most effective manner. I like the 80/20 rule: what data will enable me to use 20% of the effort to get 80% of the impact? Data also helps us be objective. It’s not about what I think, it’s about what the data says.
Organizations such as the U.S Green Building Council and International WELL Building Institute focus on bringing multiple stakeholders together to make sense of all the latest research and data and translate it into specific actions and design decisions through their certification processes. While each certification has a different purpose (LEED focuses on environmental sustainability, WELL focuses on occupant health, etc.), the intention is the same: to provide evidence-based guidance for the built environment.
Tell us about the changes in LEED v4.1 and what that signals. Looking ahead, what about LEED Zero and LEED Positive?
Flavia: LEED v4.1 introduces performance-based prerequisites and gives more weight to credit requirements that are directly measurable by the project, by assigning points based on actual building data. Before, it was all about documentation of compliance, not about performance. It also goes beyond the building itself to consider impacts on communities and cities. For example, it’s the first time we’re measuring carbon in a tangible way. We’re thinking more holistically about how to go from doing less damage, to going neutral, to having a positive impact.
The U.S. Green Building Council is already beta testing LEED Zero. By 2025, it’s aiming to have all new construction certified as LEED Positive (and existing buildings certified by 2050). These will be multi-track, a la carte certifications that both new and existing projects can pursue.
Paul: These new programs have the potential to create greater accountability and incentivize clients to keep doing better. There’s an audit process. You have to show the data.
In what sectors do you see the greatest opportunity for data to enhance design?
Paul: There’s a lot of potential in healthcare. Healthcare is fundamentally aligned to leverage data for wellness because advancing understanding around health is core to their work. The industry has established structures and investments in research to advance best practices and create new interventions. Many other sectors, like architecture, don’t have comparable experience and systems to support and execute the studies that will ultimately deliver the insights that drive change.
Also, the technology sector. Companies are competing for top talent and they need to create work environments where people want to go. For example, in software engineering it’s estimated that the best coders are not 1.5x or 2x more productive than the average employee, but actually closer to 10x. So, there’s a big incentive for companies to recruit and retain the best.
On the employee side, there’s data that supports characterizing the millennial workforce as ‘consumerist’ in its approach to employment. Staying in one position for a decade or more isn’t the norm anymore. People of this generation switch employment more often and are more likely to consider new opportunities. As a result, employers are trying to better understand how to keep them engaged. Often this results in regular surveying of staff to understand satisfaction levels and what elements are not working so well. I’ve read about specific efforts at Microsoft which led to changes in how meetings are used across cohorts.