Paul C. Hutton
Published 3 years ago.
About a 4 minute read.
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The language and terms we use influence our approach to the problems we face. Switching from sustainable to regenerative design enables us to more easily leave behind strategies that are no longer equal to the challenges we face.
Architects and others involved in the design of the built environment have been
promoting sustainable design for the better part of the last three decades. It
evolved out of prior movements — including both environmental protection and
energy efficiency in the 1970s. In that era, however, the terms sustainable
design and sustainability were not yet in the common vocabulary. Those of us who
were designing buildings used terms such as “solar architecture” or “ecological
Beginning in the 1980s, sustainability began to creep into our vocabulary; and in 1987, the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission
defined sustainability as “meeting the needs of the present without compromising
the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” This definition
builds on time-honored traditions including the Iriquois’ Great Law of
in which our actions consider the needs of the next seven generations. By the
1990s, sustainable design was a commonplace term associated with design and
construction practices that minimized harm to the environment and has been
firmly entrenched ever since.
Now that sustainable design has been in place for nearly three decades, it is
fair to ask what has been accomplished under that banner? According to
Architecture 2030, total global floor area from
2010 to 2017 rose by 17 percent while energy use increased only 6 percent. In
the United States, building sector CO~2~ emissions declined 27 percent
from 2005 to 2020, even as building area increased substantially. More
energy-efficient new buildings are a success story of sustainable design. Beyond
energy use, sustainable buildings have made significant advances in terms of
using materials with fewer harmful
providing healthier interior
and consuming less water.
And yet, the sustainable design movement has fallen far short of the progress
needed to prevent substantial environmental damage and climate change. Our
current trajectory in energy use and resource consumption all but guarantees we
will exceed 1.5°C warming, even as critical habitat continues to be
destroyed at an alarming rate. We need to think differently about how we design
the built environment and a new term is appropriate; it’s time to retire
“sustainability” from our vocabulary. In our practice, we have begun using
“regenerative design” to describe the desired outcomes of our work.
Regenerative design seeks to not merely lessen the harm of new development, but
rather to put design and construction to work as positive forces that repair
natural and human systems. The diagram below illustrates the path from
sustainability to regenerative design. We are nearing the point of inflection on
this graph where we transition from doing “less bad” to “doing good.” We have a
long way to go, and have much to learn, before we can routinely implement
regenerative design — and, it will be a gradual process. Fortunately, there are
examples of successful regenerative designs, even though they are limited in
scope and few in number.
Sustainability applies to many more fields than design. Businesses, communities
and governments all refer to sustainable practices in their efforts to ensure
continuing prosperity. Although we take no exception to that use of the term in
such context, we believe it will eventually be replaced by newer concepts. One
of those may be circular
in which there is no waste.
The language and terms we use influence our approach to the problems we face.
Switching to regenerative design enables us to more easily leave behind
strategies that are no longer equal to the challenges we face.
One organization that has emerged as a leader in clarifying and codifying
regenerative design is the International Living Future
Institute (ILFI). Its summary matrix consists of seven
categories or “petals,” each of which has two to five imperatives. Those petals
Health + Happiness
An aspect of this approach that we find intriguing is the inclusion of aspects
normally considered outside the scope of design. Health + Happiness and
are examples. As designers, we embrace the opportunity to think more broadly
about our work and its implications for those who inhabit our creations or are
simply affected by the process of construction, wherever they are located.
In conclusion, sustainable design was a worthy movement and it helped us get to
the point where we are poised to do more. In another decade or two, we may be
ready for the next descriptor of our efforts design with, rather than in
opposition to, Nature. In the meantime, welcome to the new era of regenerative
Published Jan 25, 2021 1pm EST / 10am PST / 6pm GMT / 7pm CET
Paul Hutton, FAIA, NCARB is a LEED Fellow, and Chief Sustainability Officer at Cuningham Group Architecture, Inc.
This article, produced in cooperation with the Sustainable Brands editorial team, has been paid for by one of our sponsors.