Architects committed to sustainability have focused, rightly, on minimizing damage to the environment. But today, thanks to new research, innovation and technology, it is clear that designers can do even more: they can use their work to improve the environment through what is known as regenerative design.
Regenerative design is when the building itself can be used as a catalyst for positive change, allowing natural systems to become stronger or more resilient. For example, imagine if rain could change its pH balance when it runs off a particular kind of cladding, or if a roof could help create a habitat for endangered butterflies.
Over the last decade, sustainable practices – from the USGBC’s LEED rating system, to net-zero energy and the Living Building Challenge – have become increasingly common in architecture and construction. While it’s clear that regenerative design is the next frontier in this continuum, there needs to be industry guidelines and standards for how to achieve it.
The industry has already made great progress in its efforts, bringing regenerative processes that have a positive impact on the surrounding natural systems into design. But here are three ways to add momentum to this nascent movement:
1. Apply regenerative design principles wherever and whenever possible.
Even when architects are committed to establishing regenerative goals, it might be tremendously difficult to find a way to measure these goals on a site. For example, at the University of British Columbia’s Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS), the urban site was devoid of flora and fauna. Even in this setting, regenerative design strategies like stormwater collection can recharge the underground aquifer. The construction of a planting wall and a green roof gave the building an opportunity to regenerate nature through design. Similarly, Boston’s Spaulding Rehabilitation Center has several regenerative features that were part of the building’s resilient design. Large swaths of grass atop the roof moderate stormwater runoff while providing some insulation. The green roofs and terrace also present patients with a space for therapeutic gardening. Finding creative sustainable solutions lets teams use regenerative principles that may have otherwise seemed too difficult to integrate into design. Start with regenerative ideas incrementally, over time we will learn more and the regenerative aspects of all projects will improve.
Vancouver’s VanDusen Botanical Garden Visitor Centre focuses on addressing the needs of humans, but within the ecological context of the site. From the rammed earth design, in which natural raw materials are compressed into a wall, to the water treatment systems that feed into an adjacent lake, the project gives back to nature more than it takes. Nutrients from the black water treatment system and compost from the café feed the gardens of the facility. The building’s rooftop was designed to include five different ecosystems, including one section that supports a species of endangered indigenous butterflies. The roof also slopes gently toward the ground at a point to encourage animal species to explore – a coyote has even been spotted atop the roof, showing that the ecosystem is in full swing and welcoming to creatures small and large.
2. Bring ecologists into the design process
At Ontario’s Vale Living with Lakes Centre for Applied Research in Environmental Restoration and Sustainability ecologists who had been studying the lakes for decades gave the design team the expert insight that informed how the laboratory, which was completed in 2011, could actively heal the lakes that had been polluted over time. The ecologists’ research informed the design of a system that channels rooftop rainwater over a base course of the building made of limestone. This alters the pH of the acidic rainwater, and as each drop makes its way toward the lake it slowly helps to correct the acidity of the body of water. Collaborating with ecologists allows architects to integrate new considerations into the design process and open up avenues for regeneration in new ways.
3. Develop a tool that is not a tool
Without industry standards in place, committing to regenerative design remains challenging. Tools like LEED, the Living Building Challenge, the Passive House Standard and others are useful systems that guide us toward cleaner solutions, but there are many regenerative design features to consider that do not necessarily fit into neatly defined standard systems. Take the smart water systems at the Sanford-Burnham medical Research Institute at Lake Nona. In the humid environment of Central Florida, this design includes native plants to create bio-swales – an element designed to filter surface runoff – around the building. The site also saves more than 750,000 gallons of drinkable water each year by using a whole-building energy model that focused on energy recovery. These techniques illustrate regenerative principals at work, benefitting both occupants and the environment.
Facilities like the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute can look to a set of standards to codify sustainable efforts, but the idea of finding harmony with nature is less tangible. Having some sort of “tool that is not a tool” remains ideal in the industry, and would encourage further regenerative design. A design standard with a looser framework to address water, energy, materials and land will give designers and architects a way to consider the impacts and benefits of each decision made along the way. This approach could be more useful for the industry than a standard checklist.
Committing to regenerative design is about making conscious choices in the way we design, build and operate buildings and communities that benefits nature in all ways. And we need a thoughtful framework for how to approach this new frontier of architecture – one where our fragile biosphere is healed by our actions.
Peter Busby, C.M., FRAIC, MAIBC, LEED® Fellow, is the managing director of Perkins+Will’s San Francisco office and is a founding member of the Canada Green Building Council. He has been internationally recognized for his contributions to architecture and planning.