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The Shift from Sustainable to Regenerative Design

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 design.”

Beginning in the 1980s, sustainability began to creep into our vocabulary; and in 1987, the United NationsBrundtland 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 IriquoisGreat Law of Peace, 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 CO2 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 chemicals, providing healthier interior conditions, 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 design, 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 are:

  • Place

  • Water

  • Energy

  • Health + Happiness

  • Materials

  • Equity

  • Beauty

An aspect of this approach that we find intriguing is the inclusion of aspects normally considered outside the scope of design. Health + Happiness and Equity 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 design!

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