In July 2012, New York real estate developer Jonathan Rose presented a trajectory of American housing during Enterprise Community Partners’ third annual Affordable Housing Design Leadership Institute. First, Rose said, there was housing. Then there was affordable housing. Then in the 1990s came accessible housing. Then in the 2000s we added green design to housing. Why should we stop there?  How can housing continue to add more and more value to communities?

Think about one building addressing affordability, accessibility, the environment, health, education, and employment. Via Verde housing in New York, developed in part by Rose’s company and designed by Dattner Architects and Grimshaw Architects, does this. It has a fitness center, a healthy food store, and live/work options. Nearby are a YMCA, a school, a library, bus stops and a hospital. Rose calls this enhanced  program “communities of opportunity” or “buildings that enrich people’s lives.”

Via Verde is an example of an emerging approach to design: the idea of having one project address multiple community needs. Called “social economic environmental design,” this approach takes green design to the next step, recognizing that environmental issues are not the only challenge that communities face.

Think of one building providing more bang for the buck. When financial resources are tight and the earth’s own resources are depleted, doing more with one project is a great way to add value to a community. And when public funds are involved, it also is a great way to gain popular support by increasing the number of people who utilize the value provided. 

The Social Economic Environmental Design (SEED) Network was founded at Harvard by a group of Loeb Fellows and other design activists who assembled in 2005 to ask the question, “How can architects do a better job of serving communities?” This network has grown to 1,300 members worldwide. (SEED is free to join at Relying on the combined experiences of its members, the SEED Network has shaped a mission, principles, and an online tool that guides designers and communities through a step-by-step process to identify challenges, set priorities, shape design solutions, and measure success.

Design Corps, a nonprofit that I founded in 1991, is providing training and certification in the SEED process at two-day sessions around the country. While LEED credentials have added a level of credibility for many in a competitive market, being SEED certified may be the next way to add a skill set that your clients would value.

Many of the case studies used in the training sessions are taken from the annual SEED Awards for Excellence in Public Interest Design. (This year’s awards entry deadline is Oct. 1.) Winning projects demonstrate how communities are working with the best designers to address their particular challenges through physical solutions.

One winner from last year’s competition is the Bancroft School in Kansas City, Mo. This ambitious mixed-use project includes three main parts: the preservation and rehabilitation of the existing Bancroft School building, site improvements to accommodate new community spaces and parking needs, and construction of new housing units in the historic Manheim Park neighborhood. Potential benefits include added employment, healthier lifestyles, energy efficiency, crime reduction, historic preservation, community revitalization, and much-needed housing. (The Bancroft School is featured in the latest SEEDoc, documentaries that showcase the public value of design:

To address such complex issues, the Bancroft School’s project team is made up of many experts: BNIM, Dalmark Group, Make It Right, Green Impact Zone, the Historic Manheim Park Association, JE Dunn Construction, Straub Construction, and the Truman Medical Centers. As with many SEED projects, this team approach is an effective way to draw more and more fields into collaborations with designers. The resulting projects demonstrate that design can address major problems—even those that never before have been considered design-related.

The greatest design challenge for our time may be, “How can we do more to serve more with less?”  SEED may be one good answer.

Bryan Bell is the founder and executive director of Design Corps, a nonprofit with a mission to “provide the benefits of architecture to those traditionally un-served by the profession.” He will be speaking at residential architect’s Reinvention 2012.