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Researchers develop healthy housing measure

The Mehr housing project in Parand, Iran.
As their case study for the project, the team used the Mehr housing project in Parand, Iran.

A group of researchers has for the first time developed a way to measure the social sustainability of large apartment and housing complexes.

The work is expected to help architects and planners design and build housing that creates healthier communities for people. The researchers, including Mohammadsoroush “Tommy” Tafazzoli, assistant professor in the School of Design and Construction, have published their work in the Journal of Sustainable Cities and Society.

Architects and developers began building large housing projects around the world after World War II to provide affordable housing for poor and middle-class families. Mass housing is one of the primary solutions used by the construction industry to meet growing housing demand. But, research has shown that it has contributed to negative social outcomes, such as social inequality, creation of disadvantaged neighborhoods, and immigration from rural communities to cities.

For architects and planners, social sustainability is considered to be one of the three pillars of sustainable development, along with environmental and economic sustainability. In particular, it addresses how mass-housing projects can promote healthy and livable communities and provide a satisfactory quality of life. Designing physical spaces and infrastructure that support social amenities, cultural life and general well-being are all seen as key aspects of social sustainability.

In their study, the researchers, led by Ali Karji at Pennsylvania State University, developed metrics to measure social sustainability in mass housing projects, looking at community and construction interactions; health, safety, and risk; livability; and neighborhood characteristics. They found 33 indicators for their assessment, such as job opportunities for residents; social interactions among the community; enhancement of livability and social well-being; crime prevention; and mitigation of natural disaster risks.

Closeup of Tommy Tafazzoli
Mohammadsoroush “Tommy” Tafazzoli

“This is the most comprehensive method to assess social sustainability of mass housing in the real world,” said Tafazzoli. “We also took into account whether the project was designed in a way that respected the local character and identity of the community.”

The research fills the gap in the existing rating and certification systems that aren’t focused on mass housing or on the social aspects of sustainability in large housing projects.

“We have tried to develop an assessment model that is transferable and applicable in various projects regardless of their location,” he added.

As their case study for the project, the team used the Mehr housing project in Parand, Iran. Located in a developing country, where population pressures are typically high, Parand provided an ideal case study to assess the social sustainability of mass housing construction. During the last couple of decades, the Iranian government has promoted such construction to accommodate a burgeoning urban population.

When they’re building such massive projects, contractors often don’t provide basic civic facilities because they’re in a rush to finish construction.

“Speed is emphasized, while social aspects and implications are typically compromised,” he said. “If they have money to invest, they tend to just invest it in building more houses.”

Equipped with questions based on the 33 identified indicators, the research team interviewed building residents and people in the construction industry who had worked on the project to assess the livability and other social aspects of sustainability.

“With such indicators, we developed a framework that can be used to determine how socially sustainable mass housing projects are,” said Tafazzoli.

“Our work provides a blueprint for governments and the building industry on what aspects should be considered to facilitate a good social life for residents of mass housing projects by introducing the indicators of social sustainability that must be taken into account,” he said.

“We believe that governments should pass more stringent regulations to force builders to embrace socially sustainable construction,” he added. “The information we provide through our framework is useful because it can be incorporated into a project even before it is built.”

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