Design That Heals: The American Institute of Architects Rewrites the Rules

Apr 9, 2015, 9:27 AM, Posted by

The South Bronx's Via Verde, an award-winning affordable housing complex designed around equity and social cohesion, shows us a new era of healthy design is here—and it's contagious.

Each winter, Raquel Lizardi and her heartiest garden club members brave the New York City cold to tend their community’s apple trees. “They are very delicate,” Lizardi says, sharing her training at GrowNYC, a nonprofit that seeks to create a healthier environment in the city, block by block. Their efforts ensure that the small orchard yields barrels of sweet Red Delicious, Gala, and slightly tart McIntosh apples for Lizardi and her neighbors in the fall.

Come spring, the group turns its attention to planting enough organic spinach, collards, kale, berries, tomatoes, other vegetables, and herbs to keep all of their tables filled with free, fresh produce.

The orchard, gardens, and grove of evergreens where Lizardi and her neighbors come together are a center of community activity at Via Verde/The Green Way, an award-winning, affordable housing development that rises above a quiet street just off bustling Third Avenue in the South Bronx. Built on a former garbage-strewn lot and Brownfield in 2012, Via Verde is now an international symbol of healthy design achievement.

“The fact that a project like Via Verde can be created as affordable housing means that we can and should do this for everyone,” says Dr. Karen Lee, MD MHSc, of Dr. Karen Lee Health + Built Environment Consulting, and co-author of Active Design: Affordable Designs for Affordable Housing, a report based on Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-funded research. Her active design guidelines helped shape the project, and those in more than 40 other cities worldwide.

Redefining Design

Lee, who is part of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Design and Health Research Consortium—a group convened by RWJF in Princeton this  March—is one of a new generation of physicians, scientists, architects, urban planners, and developers supporting a global culture of healthy design.

To help make projects like Via Verde possible everywhere, the AIA group gathered to collaborate on new ideas for buildings, objects, and public and private spaces that support and enhance health. The meeting focused on sharing research from 20 RWJF grantees and others about innovative ways to work across professional disciplines to build healthy environments. .

Via Verde, winner of a 2013 AIA Housing Award, is putting many of the AIA Consortium’s principles to work.

Living Design

“Via Verde’s open play spaces for children, brightly-colored, accessible day-lit stairwells, multi-level gardens accessible by outdoor stairs [elevators are also provided], and on- site fitness facilities, are primary active design concepts,” says Lee, whose work focuses on mitigating obesity and diabetes.

“Each garden level is also a green roof that helps to insulate the building,” adds Via Verde architect William Stein. “Photo voltaic [solar] panels provide some of the building’s electricity. Solar shading helps cool units in summer months. Each apartment is constructed to have sunlight and cross-ventilation.” These features and others qualified for gold Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating as well as a LEED credit called Design for Active Occupants.  

A shaded gondola near the vegetable garden houses a rain-water-based irrigation system for the orchard and evergreens and composting barrels that supply organic fertilizer. Recycled materials comprise 20 percent of the building. These elements address sustainability and resilience.

“Via Verde’s151 units of affordable rental housing and 71 middle-income co-ops were also constructed from healthy materials,” explains Paul Freitag, of Jonathan Rose Companies. “Sealed ventilation systems prevent inhalants from leaking from unit to unit—a factor that addresses high asthma rates among children in the Bronx.”

High-quality health care is also just steps away at the new Montefiore Medical Clinic on the building’s ground floor.

A joint venture of Jonathan Rose Companies, Phipps Houses, Dattner Architects, and Grimshaw Architects, Via Verde was developed after the group won the New Housing New York Legacy competition in 2006. Government and private funds and tax subsidies supported the $99 million project.

Since its completion in 2012, it has won more than a dozen design awards and inspired newer, less costly affordable housing projects such as Paseo Verde in Philadelphia, and two others that are underway in Denver and Washington, D.C.

Awards are wonderful, but projects like Via Verde also achieve two critical AIA goals that are at the heart of healthy design—equity and social cohesion.

No “Poor Doors” Here

Unlike residents of many of New York’s new mixed-income housing developments, everyone at Via Verde is welcomed as an equal. Incomes range from $23,040 for a family of four to $134,400 for co-op owners. All residents share the fitness facilities, gardens, and rooftop patios with panoramic views of the city’s skyline. A gracious concierge greets all guests and residents at a locked front desk that ensures security.

The courtyard and an outdoor amphitheater (for movie night) are elegant and inviting, but they have a far more important effect. “It all gives you a sense of community, it creates a warm feeling,” Lizardi says. “Families bring children and elderly parents to help us harvest. We learn to cook our fresh produce and teach kids about healthy eating together in our community room. I’ve lived in New York 16 years and this is the first time I’ve really known my neighbors.”

Via Verde resident Maria Victoria Soto, a native of Costa Rica, says, “Our skyscraper there is 20 stories and everyone knows everyone else. When I came to the U. S. with my husband, I felt so pressed by the city, it created depression. Now, watering the gardens on Saturday is my peaceful time. Our home is bright and looks out on open space. The psychological benefits are tremendous.”

Lizardi adds, “I’ve lost 30 pounds since moving here. I use the gym regularly, but more important, this is not like living in a normal building in Harlem or the Bronx. Here, you don’t feel the stress of coming into a dirty building or fearing crime.”

The New Normal

Just a few years ago, creating a building like Via Verde in the South Bronx—one of the poorest and most unhealthy areas in the U.S.—seemed near impossible. This year, the project is proving a key AIA theory—healthy design is contagious. The city expects to break ground this year for a five-building, 985-unit mixed income project almost next door to Via Verde, named La Central, that will include a rooftop garden, open spaces, and a YMCA. And across the street from Via Verde’s gardens, a former New York City Housing Authority project is now converting to affordable housing. After gazing down into Via Verde’s courtyard and blooming rooftops, those residents met with their owner to ask how their black-top-covered courtyard, busted basketball net and unkempt lawns might be transformed into active spaces, gardens, and a place for residents to gather. They do not have millions in grants, but they now have the knowledge that there is a better way—and they are using that newfound wisdom to create healthier lives.

Have you seen design solutions used to improve community health? Share your examples in the comments below.