In the past few years, Vitamin D deficiencies have spiked to occur among nearly 42% of all Americans.

The trend of increasing Vitamin D deficiencies tracks right along with recent lifestyle and demographic changes. As a population, we're increasingly spending more time indoors. The National Center for Biotechnology Information reports that 50% to 90% of our Vitamin D comes from sunshine. But that’s a hard level to meet because, on average, Americans spend less than 8% of their time outdoors, and that time isn’t necessarily when the sun is high enough in the sky to produce Vitamin D.

Why does Vitamin D deficiency matter and, more important, what can housing designers and developers do about it?

How Design Can Help
People with insufficient Vitamin D run the risk of contracting chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, autoimmune disease, schizophrenia, and multiple sclerosis. Other overwhelming data show the rise in infant deaths from Vitamin D deficiencies, and inadequate Vitamin D absorption during pregnancy is related to pre-eclampsia, miscarriage, low birth weight, and even social development and behavioral disorders.

As part of its role on the 2018 MFE Concept Community project team, architect Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) is working to help overcome potential Vitamin D deficiencies among apartment renters by incorporating Vitamin D–friendly features into the development's design. In partnership with AMLI Residential, the Building Positive + Living Well project is putting the spotlight on sustainable building as well as cutting-edge ideas and technologies for improved health and well-being.

“Exposure to sunlight not only gives us Vitamin D, it also gives us daytime circadian cycle anchoring,” says Luke Leung, director at SOM. “To stay healthy, people need to be exposed to the sun for 15 minutes, mostly on the arm, hands, or trunk of the body, when the sun is at 50 degrees or more, so most likely a south-facing location. It appears large doses of Vitamin D only stay in the body for two months, so we still need food supplements.”

For the MFE Concept Community design, SOM interns Yvonne Rong and Yujing Chen are measuring the critical sun angles on the project and how residents can best absorb Vitamin D on sun decks designed for that purpose as well as to foster social connectivity.

The Array of Things
The Array of Things (AoT), a collaboration of scientists, universities, the Chicago government, and the city’s communities, is collecting real-time data on environmental conditions, infrastructure, and activity for research and public use. A goal of the AoT initiative is to provide data that would support collaboration between researchers, policymakers, developers, and residents to make the city healthier, more efficient, and more livable. The group’s data are collected via sensors throughout the city.

The Array of Things (AoT) has sensors around Chicago to gather data that can be used to inform residents on healthier living.
The Array of Things (AoT) has sensors around Chicago to gather data that can be used to inform residents on healthier living.

The AoT devices have upward-facing cameras plus ambient, ultraviolet (UV), and infrared (IR) sensors and report readings every 30 seconds. The sensors give a good idea of how light, including UV, accesses different spaces in the city, therefore showing how different urban forms, like the Chicago Loop and residential spaces, affect people's access to sunlight. That information will then be made available to the public to address Vitamin D deficiencies.

“This is one of the most exciting aspects of the Array of Things project—all data is free and open,” says Charles Catlett, director of the Urban Center for Computation and Data at the Argonne National Laboratory. “We publish the data as a general download, updating daily, and we also provide access to fresh data, within five to 10 minutes, through an application programming interface.

"One could develop a mobile app, for instance, that tells you something about your access to sunlight by having the app track how long you're indoors versus outdoors and, when outdoors, whether the general neighborhood you're in has sunlight while you're there. Our [work encourages] groups to develop such apps,” adds Catlett.

Technology may offer access to sunlight patterns to combat Vitamin D deficiency.
Technology may offer access to sunlight patterns to combat Vitamin D deficiency.

“This could be an amenity for occupants to use as a smartphone app to calculate Vitamin D generation and learn the appropriate time to go outside to a communal space,” says Leung. “Plus, it could offer additional circadian rhythm benefits with brighter daylight.”

The AoT is also working with multiple groups to make the data more "legible" by adding visual overlays on maps and other graphics. The organization expects to have some of these visualizations in interactive form later this year.

AoT now has several months worth of data from 100 test sensors that the group will use to validate its work to date, including some studies done in collaboration with the EPA on air quality.

The MFE Concept Community team is exploring other innovations in healthy living as well. Learn more about them at www.multifamilyexecutive.com/concept-community.