Adele Houghton, DrPH ’23, creates new tools to help property teams better meet the health needs of their building occupants and surrounding communities
February 18, 2022—Adele Houghton fell in love with architecture as an undergraduate at Princeton after a professor described the field as a new way of seeing the world. Much as a botanist brings a specialist’s eye to a walk in the forest, Houghton soon saw the buildings she passed on the street as the product of architects’ decisions, and noticed how they connected – or did not. – with their communities. And when she started working on her own construction projects, she realized that something very important was often left out of planning discussions: the health and well-being of future occupants. This revelation launched her on a new career path exploring the intersection between the built environment and public health.
“Unless it’s a project with specialized needs, like a preschool or a retirement home, architects tend to take the people who inhabit their buildings for granted,” Houghton said, now. in her second year in the Doctor of Public Health (DrPH) program at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. “We are not taught what makes one population similar or different from others, and how those differences can affect health.” The more she thought about it, the weirder it seemed. “I mean, buildings are built for people,” she said.
Houghton knows firsthand how the environment can influence health. She suffered from asthma as a child and now suspects it was exacerbated by poor ventilation and outdoor air pollution. When she became an architect, Houghton focused on environmentally sustainable materials and methods.
After several years of career, she became project manager within the association Green guide to health carewhere she helped develop the first quantifiable toolkit of sustainable design, construction, and operations for the US healthcare industry.
This work sparked her interest in understanding the environmental and social determinants of health more broadly. In 2011, she started an MPH at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and began exploring ways to integrate health into the building development process from the start. Ultimately, her research led to the idea of a new field of practice that she called architectural epidemiology.
“It’s important to adapt a design so that it has the best and greatest impact on its environmental and social context,” Houghton said. She describes architectural epidemiology as a framework for “translating small-scale housing decisions into large-scale actions on climate change and chronic disease.”
Houghton uses this framework to Biositu, the green building consulting firm she launched in 2008, and which this year is publishing a book outlining her methods. She came to Harvard Chan School in 2020 with the goal of building a community around architectural epidemiology and learning what it will take to change the industry.
A co-benefits approach
During her first year in the DrPH program, she started a business in Harvard Innovation Laboratories called ArchEPI, a web-based tool that leverages a range of available datasets to help local governments, community groups and property developers align with health and climate priorities, such as reducing air pollution . The goal is to inspire developers to engage in climate- and health-friendly actions they might not have taken otherwise, and for cities to provide incentives for that behavior, Houghton said. .
She was also a student ambassador for C-CHANGE (The Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment), a program that provides training and support for students working on climate change and health.
These experiences have been essential as she continues to develop her research, Houghton said. “There are structures around Harvard Chan School students that allow us to incubate our thoughts so that they can be more crystallized and successfully presented to the world.”
For his summer immersion project last year, Houghton worked with HKS, Inc., a 1,200-person global architecture firm based in Dallas, Texas, on a new framework for developing building projects using what she calls a co-benefits approach. Rather than having separate conversations about factors such as energy efficiency, air quality and return on investment, this approach encourages builders and customers to look at projects holistically.
In the process, it may reveal blind spots “like the fragility of urban office buildings that have prioritized energy efficiency over all other risks, including an airborne virus and an increasing number of power outages. caused by climate-fueled extreme weather events”. Houghton wrote in a September 2021 post on Harvard Chan’s DrPH program website. An HKS representative shared the co-benefits approach at the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow, Scotland last fall.
Now, Houghton is working on defining her doctoral project while preparing to launch her book. After graduation, she likely sees herself teaching architectural epidemiology methods to students in public health, architecture, and related fields, while intensifying her efforts to transform the building industry from a contributor to chronic disease and environmental damage to a driver of positive change.
“Adele is here for the long haul,” said Fawn Phelps, director of leadership development in the Office of Educational Programs and advisor to the DrPH program. “She is dedicated to the slow work of changing the practice of architecture and construction to better align with the harsh reality of climate change in the face of well-funded interests that thrive in the current culture of outdated property development. She sees obstacles with clear eyes and is deeply dedicated to advancing towards a better constructed world.
“I want to demonstrate that this approach is possible and anyone can win,” Houghton said.
Photo: Kent Dayton