Regenerative design: The evolution of sustainability
Understand how sustainable design is changing.
What if the buildings we design produced more energy than they used? In theory, it’s a simple question. But sustainable design can be complicated.
As Sustainability Director at Henderson Engineers, I lead the firm’s efforts to create building systems that are healthy and resilient, and support clients on their path to net zero. I’m a firm believer that sustainability is a blend of design, equity, and social good, and am committed to ensuring Henderson nurtures our environment now and for future generations.
As our industry transitions from “do less harm,” to “do no harm,” to “design for abundance,” we’re asking big picture questions that could help get us there:
- What if buildings didn’t need a sewer line because they only exported clean water and compost to recharge aquifers and fertilize local farms?
- What if they harvested carbon dioxide from the air to be used in a refrigeration system?
- What if they utilized reusable building components that never enter a landfill?
Could our designs achieve this kind of abundance and become regenerative?
Designing for abundance – aka regenerative design – is essentially applying the same processes to building design that Earth has utilized for millennia to sustain life. Our design, construction, and operations teams at Henderson have instituted regenerative design thinking as the focal point of our sustainability framework. This focus puts us in a position to uncover solutions that restore and replenish sources of energy and materials while benefiting clients, communities, and ecological systems.
Does regenerative design differ from sustainable design?
Architect and sustainability expert Bill Reed highlighted the difference between sustainable design and regenerative design in his 2007 Building Research & Information article, “Shifting from ‘sustainability’ to regeneration.”
“Sustainability, as currently practised in the built environment, is primarily an exercise in efficiency. In other words, the use of environmental rating systems and other mechanisms allows a reduction in the damage caused by excessive resource use. However, instead of doing less damage to the environment, it is necessary to learn how one can participate with the environment by using the health of ecological systems as a basis for design … The role of designers and stakeholders is to create a whole system of mutually beneficial relationships. By doing so, the potential for green design moves beyond sustaining the environment to one that can regenerate its health – as well as our own.”
This figure represents what Reed coined the “trajectory of environmentally responsible design” and sheds light on how terminology matters when defining design intent.
Why regenerative design?
At Henderson, our culture of continuous improvement helped us realize we can no longer sustain or maintain the status quo. For the last 30 years, societal demand for ecological resources and services has exceeded what Earth can regenerate, thus putting us in a deficit. Today that deficit is reflected primarily in the excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere. Breaking out of this deficit model requires us to think about design as a platform to restore, to create surpluses, and refill the tank. Regenerative design forces us to shift design thinking beyond the property line to a whole systems approach that reframes our design challenges to include the health of communities and local ecological systems – our life support systems!
Turning theory into practice
So how are we applying regenerative design theory to our work and addressing it in a timely manner? The first step, and arguably the most difficult, is transitioning where we identify value. Typical industry thinking values designs that focus on a rapid ROI and lowest cost per square foot. How do we transition to designs that achieve these financial metrics AND value gallons of clean water, cubic feet of fresh air, acres of nutrient rich soil, quantity of diverse species, metric tons of carbon sequestered, and healthier citizens? At Henderson this transition is happening and supported by three important organizational elements: our commitment to quality, our culture of continuous improvement, and the affirmation of our vision – Be the firm that builds a better world. Having these critical organizational pieces in place allows our basis of design to evolve and identify value in maintaining ecological health.
As this value transition takes root, we’re blending regenerative design, our quality mindset, and our habit of continuous improvement to identify and prioritize design strategies. Topping the list is a focus on building decarbonization. In a regenerative framework, building decarbonization translates to carbon positive designs that sequester or capture more carbon and greenhouse gases than they emit.
More specifically, our decarbonization effort begins by establishing a solid foundation that prioritizes all-electric buildings and utilization of low impact and natural refrigerants. These two moves aren’t necessarily regenerative by themselves, but lay the mandatory foundations on the road to regenerative design. With that foundation in place we can move toward the idea of designing for abundance.
This might involve:
- deploying on-site renewable energy systems that produce enough energy for the building and a dozen neighbors in the surrounding community, or
- designing microgrids and grid integrated buildings that can optimize when to use, store, or deliver renewable energy to and from the grid, or
- modular duct work produced with zero waste and designed to be installed and reconfigured again and again without ever being sent to a landfill, or
- building water treatment systems that export more potable water than they use.
It’s surprising how fast this list of opportunities grows once we adopt a regenerative mindset and uncover integrated solutions that seamlessly fold into the architecture, landscape, infrastructure, local ecosystem, and community fabric.