Is it possible for a building to be sustainable if it doesn’t put people first?

The Green Building Council of Australia doesn’t think so.

Buildings are more than simply shelter from the storm. At their best, our built environment enhances the health and well-being of those who live, work and play in it. Buildings and urban spaces bring people together and provide the glue that makes them stick together. They inspire, enliven and lift the spirits.

At their worst, they are unhappy, unproductive and unhealthy places that foster isolation and exclusion.

While Green Star has always rewarded building projects that are good for people’s health – particularly in the Indoor Environment Quality category – this focus on social sustainability has recently been ramped up with three new Innovation Challenges.

These Innovation Challenges have been designed to encourage and direct investment in solutions that address a wide range of sustainability issues, including the social and economic.

The first of these, Social Enterprise for Affordable Housing, is the result of a collaboration with Homes 4 Homes and the Big Issue. It is tackling the shortfall in affordable housing – which is expected to reach 600,000 homes over the next 20 years – by rewarding the use of an innovative but simple finance mechanism.

The model encourages home owners to donate 0.1 per cent of their sale price to the fund – with a home that sells for $500,000 equating to a small $500 donation. The fund then invests in residential projects across the county, from women’s housing in Redfern to low-cost housing in Hobart.

GBCA founding member Grocon has pledged that every residential project it sells will contribute to the fund. Grocon’s executive chairman, Daniel Grollo, who is also the GBCA’s former chair, says the model is a “sustainable way of trusted people coming together to truly help homelessness” and the 105,000 Australians who are currently sleeping rough.

The second Innovation Challenge is called Integrating Healthy Environments. Working with the US Green Building Council and Enterprise Community, the GBCA has developed a challenge that encourages project teams to engage with public health professionals, and apply public health data and community feedback to create better places for people.

Many features in our built environment – from the design of a staircase to the placement of park benches – play a role in promoting health and physical activity. Project teams targeting this challenge will develop a ‘health impact assessment’ to identify possible actions and guide better decision making. This is backed up by substantial research undertaken by our partners.

Finally, the Reconciliation Action Plan Innovation Challenge, created in partnership with the Sydney Opera House through their work with Reconciliation Australia, rewards the development of road maps and targets that address social inequalities and provide opportunities for Australia’s First People.

The Sydney Opera House (SOH) – which recently achieved a certified Green Star rating for its operational performance – is a unique cultural symbol, embodying the liberating power of art and ideas. More than 8.2 million people visit Australia’s most iconic building each year.

The SOH team has worked hard on a plan which builds relationships, appointing a head of Indigenous programming, hosting a range of Indigenous arts festivals and workshops, celebrating NAIDOC week, and running tours to commemorate indigenous history. They have developed protocols to guide staff on culturally respectful behaviours. And with the Australian Bureau of Statistics estimating that two per cent of Australia’s total population identifies as Indigenous, SOH has signed a covenant to ensure a corresponding two per cent of all staff are of aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander heritage.

At their heart, these new initiatives underscore a simple idea: that sustainability encompasses more than resource efficiency and the protection of the natural environment. A truly sustainable approach to the design, construction and ongoing management of our built environment demands that we think about people too.

By Robert Milagre, Director Sustainability Services & Reporting at the Green Building Council of Australia