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What is regenerative architecture?

Michael Pawlyn

Signing up to Architects Declare signed you up to this ­– but what is it and how do you achieve it?

Bosco Verticale by Stefano Boeri, which takes some lessons from nature.
Bosco Verticale by Stefano Boeri, which takes some lessons from nature. Credit: Michael Pawlyn

Sustainability hasn’t made enough headway to ensure our society persists beyond the middle of the century. We need to start doing more. We need to design regeneratively. More than half of humanity’s total historical fossil fuel emissions (since records began in 1751) have occurred since 1987 – the year when the idea of sustainability was launched into the mainstream with the UN report ‘Our common future’. In the last 50 years we have lost more than half the world’s wildlife and an even higher percentage of insects (many of which are crucial to how ecosystems function and our food is produced). For those of us who have been involved in sustainable design for 30 years or more, it is painful to accept how badly sustainability has failed to prevent the multiple environmental crises from worsening. The implication, and all too often the reality, has been that fully sustainable simply meant ‘100% less bad’ as Bill McDonough, architect and cradle-to-cradle thinker, characterised it. We urgently need to shift to optimise positives and repair the damage done to our life support systems.

Architect Bill Reed, from Regenesis Group, captures the shortcomings of the old paradigm and the potential of the new mindset in a diagram which will surely become as ubiquitous as the ‘three overlapping circles’ diagram was in the early days of sustainability. It is clear from his analysis that anything less than 100% sustainable – which means the vast majority of buildings that are completed – is inevitably part of a downward, degenerative cycle. We need to set our sights much higher and find ways to design the built environment to deliver an upward, regenerative cycle.

So, what are the implications of this new paradigm? How does an architect design regeneratively? How is this change going to come about? Many of the same questions were asked about sustainable design 30 years ago and in the scope of this article it will only be possible to give some general pointers.

First, there is a philosophical dimension: We need to change how we see humans in the world. In his brilliant book The Patterning Instinct, Jeremy Lent uses the discipline of cognitive neuroscience to argue that the paths civilisations take are driven substantially by the metaphors they hold, particularly regarding our relationship with the living world. Francis Bacon’s view of ‘nature as a machine’ and subsequently Rene Descartes’ philosophy that promoted a ‘conquest of nature’ metaphor have come to dominate the global economy. Lent argues persuasively that, if humanity is to have anything other than a dystopian future, we will need to cultivate a metaphor of humans as embedded within a web of systems.

Biomimicry can lead to some beautiful structures that work with their ecosystem.
Biomimicry can lead to some beautiful structures that work with their ecosystem. Credit: Kelly Hill photography

Secondly, biologically inspired design approaches such as biomimicry – currently regarded as peripheral – need to be urgently integrated into mainstream thinking. Bio­logy has evolved solutions to many challenges that are directly equivalent to those faced by architects. The closest thing to concrete in biology is arguably coral – a large scale mineral structure. The contrast between the two is profound: concrete production releases carbon dioxide whereas coral grows by taking carbon out of its environment. Glass manufacturing demonstrates what Biomimicry Institute co-founder Janine Benyus refers to as a ‘heat, beat and treat’ mentality: materials are energy intensively excavated, processed and formed. In biology, organisms such as glass sponges show the possibility of making glass with higher optical quality using many orders of magnitude less energy.

While some of the adaptations in biology are beyond our current capabilities, there are straightforward approaches that can implemented immediately, such as building with materials made from atmospheric carbon (wood is the obvious example but others are coming to the market, for instance BioMason bricks). There are countless adaptations in biology that can inspire us (with existing technology) to design structures that use a fraction of the material of conventional approaches, to develop more efficient processes for heating, cooling, lighting and many other aspects of the built environment. Similarly, many of the solutions we need to make the circular economy a reality can be found by studying the characteristics of ecosystems. We already have the solutions we need to design out 99% of the waste that we produce.

Thirdly, we will need to design with a broader and deeper idea of place that embraces not just cultural dimensions but a full range of ecological, climatic, geological and hydrological issues. Design rating systems such as LEED and BREEAM are woefully inadequate in this respect – generally requiring only a cursory understanding of the site’s ecology and a modest degree of improvement against that baseline. US-based consultancy Biomimicry 3.8 argues that when designing a new piece of city we should start by analysing how a pristine ecosystem in that part of the world functions (or would have): how much carbon does it sequester, how much wildlife does it accommodate, how much oxygen does it produce, how much water does it store, filter or evaporate? These ‘ecological performance criteria’ then set the standards for what is to be built so that the city can also be a stable entity within a larger system. A full realisation of this approach has yet to be built but there are many examples like Stefano Boeri’s Torre Del Bosco in Milan and Cheonggyecheon River Restoration Project that show the feasibility of key elements.

Trajectory of environmentally responsible design, by Bill Reed.
Trajectory of environmentally responsible design, by Bill Reed. Credit: Bill Reed, Regenesis Group, for permission to use email

Some may argue that architects simply need to implement sustainable design more comprehensively. But the degree of change required to meet CO2 reduction targets set by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will never be achieved by just tightening up the knobs on the current way we work. To borrow a phrase from the social activist Naomi Klein, ‘this changes everything’ – from the way we teach architecture, to the way it is covered in the media and the way it is practised, regulated and celebrated. We urgently need a broader conception of economics that is aligned with planetary limits. It will also change the values that we live by. With the increasingly real possibility of societal collapse, would any parent do a short-term cost benefit analysis on whether it’s worth maintaining their children’s respect?

That is where we now find ourselves. There will be no innocent bystanders in the decades ahead – we all need to get involved in tackling a planetary emergency. We have all the solutions we need to make rapid progress on the major challenges we face but it will not be achieved without radical system change. Donella Meadows – one of the greatest systems thinkers of all time – commented on the way to change paradigms as follows:

You keep pointing at the anomalies and failures in the old paradigm.
You keep speaking and acting, loudly and with assurance, from the new one.
You insert people with the new paradigm in places of public visibility and power.
You don’t waste time with reactionaries; rather you work with active change agents and with the vast middle ground of people who are open-minded.

Michael Pawlyn is a director of Exploration Architecture, speaker and author of ‘Biomimicry in Architecture’. He is part of the steering group for Architects Declare and is writing a book with Sarah Ichioka about the need for paradigm shifts in the design of the built environment


•    Seek project opportunities in which there is likely to be client commitment to regenerative principles so that you can transition your portfolio. Don’t take on unpromising projects simply to grow your practice.

•    Develop skills in making a persuasive case for regenerative design. Push for adopting standards that go well beyond LEED and BREEAM, such as The Living Building Challenge

•    Assemble teams that are diverse, polymathic and knowledgeable about regenerative design.

•    Consider involving an ecologist or biologist to help develop a broader and deeper understanding of place. Aim to restore as much of the ecosystem that would have existed on the site.

•    Strive to be ‘carbon positive’ – using materials that take carbon out of the atmosphere and aiming for a building that generates more energy than it consumes

•    Strive to be ‘water positive’ – understand how water moves through the site and how you can use water to maximise benefits to living systems

•    Use biomimicry to achieve radical increases in resource efficiency and apply ecosystem principles to integrate the building’s nutrient flows into its context (all building materials should be considered as nutrients).

•    Use biophilia to provide regenerative benefits to building users in terms of enhanced wellbeing.

•    Design out all toxins and ‘monstrous hybrids’ (see McDonough and Braungart’s Cradle to Cradle) that will frustrate end of use recycling. All materials need an information strategy.

•    Use whole-system-thinking to create integrated ideal solutions. Compromise as little as necessary.

•    If the ideal solution is prevented by the brief then apply a lever higher up in the chain of influence (see Donella Meadows’ essay Leverage Points).



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