I recently had the pleasure of serving as a guest critic this last semester for a sustainable and affordable housing studio at the School of Architecture at North Carolina State University. Taught by Professor Tom Barrie, the students first research the design and technologies of several recently built projects. The final semester project was to design an affordable and sustainable home for the local Wake County Habitat for Humanity.

During one of the first reviews, the students were discussing the value of sustainability and how it can be measured. Certainly there are the various certification programs which all measure the greenness of a construction based on a system of points. And then there’s the life cycle analysis based on the economical payback with respect to energy savings by the homeowner over a certain number of years, measuring and valuing the installation of a product or system. Lastly the students discussed the cycle of material production, from the energy cost of development or regrowth of natural materials, to delivery and installation costs.

We challenged the students to think beyond pure mathematical analyses when it comes to the value of sustainability. What about the potential for personal and community value?

What if a mom with two asthma stricken children move into a healthy home and within a year the asthma symptoms are gone? The children are sleeping better and more attentive and learning more at school, growing up to be more productive members of society. And the mom is not requiring time off from work to take them to the doctor and is saving from not having all the medical bills.

How do you measure a healthier home?

And if the homes are designed to encourage community living? Designed for social interaction with ample front porches and living rooms in the front of the home so you can keep a watchful eye on the street. With these and other simple design moves, we’ve witnessed neighbors caring for each other, sharing vegetable gardens, helping with maintenance of common areas, having potluck dinners, and watching over the children.

How do you measure a sense of belonging?

The discussion of sustainability needs to include these intangibles, as well as all the mathematical and point driven measures.

Some absolutely fabulous homes were designed by the students, and the whole picture of sustainability got much larger. We all learned a lot.