Understanding regenerative design

Challenging the orthodoxy of current green building practice
Friday, December 4, 2015
by Ray Cole

There are many factors that shape and influence building design priorities—from cultural and environmental implications, to issues like security threats and economic instability. Priorities in design are also influenced by the types of tools and methods used during the time of construction.

Performance assessment and rating systems, such as the Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design (LEED), have been instrumental in mainstreaming green building practice. Almost two decades after their introduction, they have profoundly influenced the range of considerations deemed important in design and are now embedded within the parlance and decision-making processes of building procurement, design and construction, and operation.

Although significant adjustments have been made in response to shifting environmental priorities over time and seeking efficiencies in the certification process, LEED remains profoundly shaped by its initial aspiration of market transformation and its emphasis on mitiga­tion—creating buildings that slow the degeneration of natural systems.

Green design is primar­ily directed at reducing the degenerative consequences of human activity on the health and integrity of ecological systems—or, more generally, “doing less harm.” While clearly necessary, this is both an in­sufficient requirement for charting an ecologically sustainable future and, argued here, an insufficient aspiration and motivator for design professionals and their clients.

Current green building practice also remains primar­ily focused on individual buildings typically without acknowledging the larger system context. Moreover, the com­plex array of stakeholders associated with the pro­duction and use of buildings have a limited under­standing of each other’s particular motivations and drivers, and most agencies directly and indirectly shaping environmental policy, operate largely inde­pendently of each other. To some extent, these have begun to change through the introduction of neighbour­hood scale assessment tools (e.g., LEED-ND) and the blurring of profes­sional boundaries as a result of integrative design practice.

Many North American architectural practices have a wealth of accumulated experience in green design and, in­deed, in producing buildings achieving “Platinum” —the highest levels of performance within the LEED program. As such, they continue to seek more challenging performance goals. Although the notion of a “sustainable” building is often used seemingly as an advance beyond one demonstrating green performance, it doesn’t withstand serious scrutiny when judged against key issues, such as social equity and intra and intergenerational environmental equity that are key to sustainability.

A building, in and of itself, cannot be sustainable but it can be designed to support sustainable patterns of living and thereby suggesting that it is the role the building plays rather than the building itself, is potentially of greater consequence. Such a viewpoint is central to the emerging notion of regenerative development.

Regenerative development emphasizes “doing more good” and promotes a co-evolutionar, partnered relationship between humans and natural systems (rather than a managerial one) and, in doing so, builds, rather than diminishes, social and natural capitals. By definition, it offers a positive framing of environmental issues that can both inspire and create the cognitive space for transformative practices to emerge. Such an approach requires design to acknowledge and respond to the unique attributes and potentials of ‘place’ and attempts to secure sustained stakeholder engagement to ensure a project’s future success.

In contrast, the structure and emphasis of current green building assessment tools offer little instruction regarding understanding and engaging local ecosystems and their processes—or, more generally, of the systems thinking emphasized in regenerative approaches. While the technical strategies of green design will remain valid, the intention and language of regenerative development, particularly for the partnering and coexistence of human and natural systems, offers considerable potency for a broadly-based environmental approach. Moreover, the more comprehensive framing of regenerative development offers con­siderable potential to accelerate the development of the necessary systems-thinking, shared vision, shared ownership and shared responsibility.

Regenerative approaches challenge the orthodoxy of current green building practice, the design tools that support it, and, perhaps most significantly, what constitutes “successful” performance. Successful green building performance can be readily established and communicated – the percentage reductions in energy and water use, carbon emissions, etc., or the attainment of a level of certification within LEED – gold or platinum. These can be estimated at the design stage and verified during operation with a degree of certainty.

But how can one know at the outset if and to what extent a project can be acknowledged as offering value to the context in which it sits, given the uncertainties inherent in the evolutionary nature of complex systems? How can regenerative design practitioners convey their ambitions to clients who expect a high level of certainty to what they are committing significant financial resources?

We are faced with the need, as complex adaptive systems scholar David Snowden declares, to devise ways of measuring success without knowing in advance exactly what that success might be. Such a task will clearly not be easy.

Ray Cole is a professor and past-director of the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of British Columbia and the academic director of UBC’s Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability.


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