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Product, Service & Design Innovation
Regenerative Design:
Beyond Sustainability Toward Circularity in the Built Environment

In order to achieve 2030 sustainability goals, company leaders must think beyond "sustainability," and challenge built environment teams to strive for net-positive impacts, net-zero energy and zero waste.

In our first article, we urged a new level of innovation in leadership and management to meet sustainability goals. Such innovation will be required in order to achieve your 2030 sustainability goals.

As a Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO), Chief Operations Officer (COO) or Chief Financial Officer (CFO), you should expect significant contributions from your enterprise team of real estate, properties and facilities who manage your built environment footprint. These expectations shouldn’t be less ambitious than your overall 2030 sustainability goals. Achieving them, however, will require a shared mindset of regenerative design.

In this second article, we encourage CSOs, COOs and CFOs of leading brands to challenge built environment teams to set targets for achieving net-positive impacts, net-zero energy and zero waste in this decade.

Net-positive impacts

What do we mean by net-positive impacts? In addition to the built environment doing less harm, it can also do better by actually benefiting the ecosystem services that we rely upon. What are ecosystem services? Tamanna Kalam, writing for ScienceABC, provides this definition:

Ecosystem services are all the processes and outputs that nature provides us with. These include provisioning services (food, water), regulating services (waste water treatment, pollution control), supporting services (shelter), and cultural services (recreation and tourism).”

The built environment can impact ecosystem services in many ways. For example, are the wood materials in your building projects contributing to deforestation, thereby reducing the natural ability of forests to provide ecosystem services? Are construction materials sourced responsibly, according to industry council standards? Better yet, are there opportunities to substitute reclaimed wood materials to minimize the need for original raw materials? Taking this a step further, can engineered wood products, such as cross-laminated timber, be substituted for structural steel framing as a strategy for reducing total embodied carbon? These questions require the analysis of trade-offs in terms of circular value cycles, not linear life-cycle cost models — the latter do not account for natural capital. Alternative solutions can have negative or positive net impacts on ecosystem services that support human wellbeing and planetary health.

Net-zero energy

Net-zero energy is achieved when the total annual energy consumed to operate a building, or a collection of buildings, equals the same amount which is generated onsite or offsite from renewable sources (such as wind or solar). Net-zero energy is an operational measure and does not account for embodied carbon as may be the case in achieving net-positive impacts to ecosystem services. Net-zero energy pertains mostly to reducing greenhouse gas emissions related to building operations and sources of energy. Since building operations account for 28 percent of global CO2 emissions, reducing or eliminating GHG emissions in the built environment sector should be a major efficiency initiative for existing building operations. And, net-zero energy is gradually becoming the new standard for new building construction.

Net-zero carbon

There is an unfortunately confusing aspect to “net zero” terminology. Whereas net-positive energy is a good thing and signifies a situation in which a building contributes more energy to the grid than it takes, net-positive carbon is a bad thing — it indicates that a building contributes more greenhouse gas emissions than zero. Net-negative carbon is the ultimate goal of regenerative design. In such a scenario, a building would absorb or sequester more carbon that it releases.

Zero waste

There is no such thing as waste in living ecosystems. In the natural world, waste from one organism becomes food for another organism. An ecological systems approach is the foundation of regenerative design. Such an approach aims to restore, renew and revitalize all energy sources and material flows in ways that mimic natural systems. Such a biomimetic approach is regenerative by nature. While “sustainable” solutions may continue to rely upon the efficient use of energy from fossil fuels, regenerative solutions rely upon renewable energy sources. And, while “sustainable” solutions may also rely upon the continued extraction of natural resources as raw material inputs, regenerative solutions keep materials in use longer and recover their value at an end-of-life stage — when waste becomes a next-stage input, rather than a by-product.

Regenerative design shifts thinking beyond sustainability toward circularity, from a linear supply chain model to a circular value cycle model — from a return on investment analysis based on life-cycle costing to value cycles in which materials maintain their value in closed-loop systems. Moving toward circularity in the built environment considers net-zero energy and zero waste of materials in construction, and later during deconstruction and ease of disassembly of buildings by design.

Next in this series, we will explore strategies for reducing operating and embodied carbon in the built environment.