Matthew Trowbridge, MD, MPH

UVa doctor looks to change construction industry

Imagine a world where buildings do more than provide shelter — they help us become healthier in the process of walking, breathing and living inside of them.

Dr. Matt Trowbridge, a University of Virginia physician and professor, and research partner Chris Pyke, of the U.S. Green Building Council, aim to take the concept of building for health and apply it to the mainstream construction industry.

The UVa School of Medicine recently was awarded a $1.2 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to begin this work.

“Over the past 20 years, green building has figured out how to turn something that sounds fairly abstract, like sustainability, and use it to change practice,” Trowbridge said. “The reason that LEED [standards] sound really boring at this point is that it’s been very successful. What used to define cutting edge has now become normal practice. That’s the whole point.”

Trowbridge said he hopes to use the success of the green building movement and systems like LEED and apply similar frameworks to healthy building.

“I want everyone from the carpenter all the way up to the real estate investor to see [healthy building] as a normal part of doing business,” he said.

Work on the grant includes creating tools for both the project and real estate portfolio levels.

Project-level tools will include design guidelines for engineers and architects to consider while planning a building. Credits for healthy building also will be incorporated into existing programs like LEED and Enterprise Green Community Systems, a community development financial institution that develops affordable housing.

“For example, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health [a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] just made an integrative design credit with LEED,” Trowbridge said.

This credit integrates the principles of building for sustainability with the requirements of building a space that is safe for workers. Trowbridge said he envisions the grant potentially changing the way designers see the places they create.

“We need to tell architects that your building will contribute to a larger population health improvement; get them thinking on more of a population scale,” Trowbridge said. “Your building itself won’t be responsible for lowering county obesity rates. Instead, data from your building will contribute to the community’s overall efforts.”

Tools for the real estate portfolio level are being explored with the Global Real Estate Sustainability Benchmark system. The research team plans to help transform healthy buildings into valuable, marketable assets for property management investors.

Trowbridge acknowledges that changing the building industry to be focused on health won’t happen overnight, but he sees now as the perfect time to begin.

“The recognition that the construction of our buildings, roads and cities are related to health and health outcomes is becoming quite strong,” he said. “The gaps are in the tools for practice and how to translate that.”

“To reach the real population of health impact in all this work, it needs to be in the thousands of projects,” said Trowbridge. “It’s like the green movement — you don’t really make a huge difference until it gets to a larger scale. We think that there’s a potential for this to be very transformative.”

***

Putting the work of the grant into a local context, Trowbridge said he wishes the tools being designed by his team were ready right now to help shape Charlottesville’s development pattern.

“I think as a citizen who cares very much about this community, I’m excited but also a bit concerned about how quickly development is happening here,” he said. “The next five to 10 years are going to be extremely important for Charlottesville in terms of whether we want to have an extremely walkable, sustainable, safe and vibrant city.”

Trowbridge said the connection between place and wellbeing is strong, referencing lessons he learned from work in emergency medicine and preventative care.

“It’s harder to deliver fire and ambulance services to sprawling suburban areas; they actually act more like rural areas in terms of emergency response,” he said. “A lot of people buy homes without thinking about that. I think the onus is on us, as planners, as public health professionals, not to tell people where to live, but to give them better information about all the aspects of their lives that are impacted by where they live.”

Trowbridge has chosen to live and raise his daughters near downtown Charlottesville. He said he enjoys the health benefits of being able to walk most everywhere, and the social connection to the neighborhood even more.

“I do really consider the social connections that I have to be part of my health and wellness,” he said. “I love to live downtown because on my walk to my daily activities, I stay connected with my community, I meet people and I know what’s happening.”

***

Trowbridge recognizes that this lifestyle isn’t in reach for many area residents, and suggests beginning with minor changes to improve access in the city.

“Charlottesville needs to think really carefully and make aggressive moves to make living in the city affordable and attainable for a wide variety of people,” he said. “I think there are small interventions [like the bike path along John Warner Parkway] that can be made strategically to connect neighborhoods together.”

Improving local transportation networks is a key concern for Trowbridge, who said he recognizes the consequences for the elderly when they lose their ability to drive.

“I came to the realization that people don’t really love driving but they love staying mobile and independent,” he said. “I think if we reframe it that way, away from driving … I think that will make a big difference in people’s lives.”

The physician also emphasized the importance of creating places for people of all ages to share.

“I love this idea of ‘8 and 80.’ If you think about the places that you love to be, places like the Downtown Mall, they’re great for people both 8 and 80, and all the ages in between. They’re safe, accessible, walkable, and there’s a variety of activities to do that are close together. We need to think about extending that kind of environment elsewhere.”