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Regenerative Architecture | Beyond Sustainability - Design to Actively Heal the Environment

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What is regenerative architecture?

Regenerative architecture, and the regenerative mode of thinking is to move beyond the linear throughput model of inputs-consumption-waste that characterize all of our current development. Beyond being zero energy or being carbon neutral, it is a fundamental repositioning of the question. Regenerative seeks to go beyond doing no harm - it is the co-evolution of human and natural systems, to design to actively heal the environment.



The current dominant industrial development model is a linear throughput one. This process generates waste and results in environmental pollution and degradation when the waste generated is greater than the capacity of the sinks. This has pretty much been the way human consumption patterns have ever been, but waste from our current consumption patterns are now breaching the capacity of Earth to absorb. There is habitat destruction, resource depletion, watershed degradation and waste generation.

Nature in contrast, presents a very different model of production and consumption. It is a closed loop model where the effluents of one organism serves as the raw material of another organism. This is a cycle where material flows are constantly exchanged and renewed.


The Sustainability Equation

The primary difference between these two models lie in their end goals. To much of human consumption and production, the primary objective has been efficiency as the end goal. Even in the current sustainability drive, efficiency has very much been the main focus of efforts. What regenerative thinking seeks to overturn is this concept of efficiency.

In contrast, regenerative systems have a very different focus. Rather than asking the question of "Is it efficient", the primary question that regenerative systems ask is this -"is it EFFECTIVE?" For example, we keep seeking to produce more and more fuel efficienct cars, but ultimately that is a zero sum game. Instead, the 1st question we should have asked is whether cars are good, whether cars are an effective mode of transport in the first place!

Thus, for regenerative systems and architecture, the key principles are the following:

  • Effectiveness as end goal
  • Close loop system
  • Integrate human processes with natural processes
  • Symbiosis between different elements
  • Multiple pathways to the same goal
  • Within renewal capacity

Principles explained

  1. Effectiveness - This is mainly concerned with making good decisions. 'Good' is not defined as for the sole benefit of the human species, but good in terms of all species. We are not detached from the ecosystem and we need to start to recognize what is good for us may not be good at all for the ecosystem.
  2. Closed looped system - We need to design and remake our production processes to form closed loops where material flows are cycled and remove the concept of waste. This field of study is termed industrial ecology. An industrial ecosystem is a system in which the consumption of energy and materials is optimized, waste generation is minimized and the effluents of one process serves as the raw material for another process.
  3. Integrate human processes with natural processes - We are very much part of nature, as much as we don't realize it. Plants covert carbon dioxide to the oxygen that we breathe. The hydrological cycle constantly replenishes our freshwater supply. We need to start to redesign our processes to be aligned with natural processes, to protect, reinforce and strengthen them where possible. For example, rather than building seawalls to protect against erosion and flooding, it's far more effective to use natural vegetation to do the same work!
  4. Symbiosis between different elements - We nee to start designing our systems to take advantage of share linkages that would provide mutual benefit. This is similar to processes in nature where bees and flowers for example share are mutually dependent.
  5. Multiple pathways - Like ecosystems, we need to redesign our systems to have multiple means to the same goal. This makes our system resilient. Going by the efficiency theory, only one method should be the best, but viewing from the lenses of effectiveness, it creates a dynamic web of flexible, mutually supporting relationships. Using the same example of bees and flowers. Although flowers depends on bees to pollinate, alternative pathways exist like the hummingbird, which also fulfill the same function.
  6. Within renewal capacity - Any system, when overloaded, will degrade over time. Hence, regenerative systems must work within the carrying capacity. Hence, the role of the designer is to decide what is appropriate development and how much is optimal development.

Strategies for Regenerative Design

John Tillman Lyle proposes the following strategies for regenerative design in his book "Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development"

  1. Let nature do the work
  2. Consider nature as both model and context
  3. Aggregate, not isolate
  4. Seeking optimum levels for multiple functions
  5. Matching technology to need
  6. Using information to replace power
  7. Providing multiple pathways
  8. Seeking common solutions to disparate problems
  9. Managing storage
  10. Shaping form to guide flow
  11. Shaping form the manifest process
  12. Prioritize for sustainability

These design strategies encompasses the 6 key principles discussed above and any designer would do well to implement the strategies into their designs.

To understand regenerative design


Case study: Center for Environmental Studies, Oberlin College, Ohio (2000)

Features: Campus, Higher Education, Library, Auditorium
Architect: William McDonough
Built up Area: 1206 sqm, 2 Storey
Occupancy: 80
Annual energy purchased: -4.23 kBtu/sqft

This is an energy POSITIVE building which is powered by sunlight, producing more energy than it consumes. (Matching technology to need)

A Living Machine, a series of tanks with plants and aquatic wildlife, treats wastewater for irrigation. This closes the hydrological cycle and returns water to the local environment at the outdoor pond. The pond becomes a natural habitat for wildlife and becomes a living classroom. (Let nature do the work, managing storage)

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The local ecosystem is also being restored and biodiversity is preserved. The apple trees and vegetable gardens produce food. (Seeking common solutions to disparate problems)

In addition, there is a monitoring network for all the critical parameters to provide information feedback so as to have appropriate and optimized management. (Using information to replace power)

The community is also involved as the architecture becomes a living classroom. The whole design disinvents the concept of waste while building prosperity within ecological limits. (Shaping form to manifest process)

Building features

Building features

View of pond and living machine

View of pond and living machine

Ecosystem restoration Source:

Ecosystem restoration Source:


Architects North Wales on February 17, 2011:

A very good read, packed with quality content.

Sustainability is becoming a major factor in all new builds in this day and agew for the reasons you highlighted. Our previous government labour issued they wanted all new housing to reach a code 4 level of sustainability by 2013 and Code 5 level by 2016. I don't know if these targets will still be reached with the conservative cuts however the fact that it's on the governments radar is enough to show that sustainable housing is going to start been a mainstream fixture throughout the construction industry.

Thank you for reading

greenginga on July 07, 2010:

Good stuff,

My sustainability research of the last 8 years, directed me towards regenerative technologies, systems and designs as the place we should be aiming, beyond sustainability, it is really good to see it's public perception expanding...

Keep up the good work.

Thank you for your time

The Rope from SE US on November 17, 2009:

WOW! A lot of info - it's technical but bet it will do well in Google. I am going to have to revisit this hub and spend some time really working through it - I think it could really expand my knowledge! THANKS!

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