Regenerative Design in Buildings

As environmentally aware designers, we’re often focused on balancing the negative and positive impacts of our work. Some have been questioning this balance; whether there have to be negative impacts at all, and could our designs only have positive outcomes? This approach to design is becoming increasingly popular, with more examples being built and often referred to as Regenerative Design.

Conventional design is at the left end of the scale; it’s the current common building design methods that have contributed to us reaching a climate and ecological emergency. It’s not the same as vernacular design, which uses local materials to design for the local climate. Conventional design uses materials transported over large distances, to create disposable spaces which rely heavily on active systems to maintain their internal environments.

Green design seeks to improve on conventional design. In some cases, this is by reducing the negative impacts, like using low carbon materials or using less materials. In other situations, improvements are made in other areas, but not really addressing the negative impacts that the building has caused. This could be using solar panels on the roof to balance the removal of trees and green spaces across the site. The solar panels provide a more sustainable improvement, but it doesn’t address the ecological consequences of removing the trees.

Sustainable design has long been used as the objective of environmentally considerate design; that the design won’t negatively impact future generations. However, the years of negative impacts have accumulated. There is an imbalance in the environment and were we to sustain current levels we would still cause long term damage. A growing number agree that we need to go beyond sustainability.

Restorative design seeks to repair the damage that has been caused and the positive impacts outweigh the negative ones. Through active interventions the environment and ecology are improved. This might initially require seeds, fertilizer and materials to be transported causing a negative impact, but if it restarts an ecological system and expands beyond the site it would overall have a impact positive.

Regenerative design is at the furthest end of the scale, not only seeking to renew but go beyond that and improve on what was there previously. Designs are implemented that mean the environment is better with them then without them. They clean water, enrich the soil, create more habitats and create cultures which can go on to repeat the positives.

Regenerative design isn’t easy. Sustainable design isn’t even easy. But the regenerative projects that are being produced are exciting, they balance multiple requirements and when examined show a sophisticated understanding of the place, the people and the environment. If you’re interested in reading more, I highly suggest looking into the Living Building Challenge case studies and the RESTORE publications.

There are still a few spaces for the Green Recovery course if you’re interested here.