Buildings Alone Will Never Be ‘Regenerative’ 13

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Monday, June 29th, 2015
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Talk of ‘regenerative’ buildings may be reaching too high, but can they at least be ‘net positive’ and ‘restorative’?

At the recent World Resources Forum Conference at UTS, I was a member of a panel discussion of how buildings and products could be ‘regenerative.’ The discussion uncovered a semantic minefield of terminology overlap and misunderstandings of the various terms being used to describe buildings that are attempting to do more than just support the minimisation of their impacts.

I hold the belief that even suggesting green roofs and green walls can be regenerative shows a lack of understanding of the concept.

The term ‘net positive’ is most often and correctly used to describe ‘buildings contributing more than they consume’ with respect to resources such as energy (carbon) or water. When related to energy, ‘net positive buildings’ typically talk about only operational impacts and thus avoid the more difficult embodied impacts.

Some projects such as Lend Lease’s Barangaroo correctly include embodied material greenhouse impacts in their claims to be ‘net carbon positive’ and to achieve this they will, in all likelihood, have to rely on renewable energy inputs from off-site (renewable) energy offsets. Net positive water claims can often be met by on-site water capture and/or cleaning of waste water from off-site such as stormwater or sewer mining.

I have had the pleasure of working and teaching in the Middle East for several years side by side with Bill Reed from Regenesis in the USA, who together with and Pamela Manga extends this definition to include “buildings that ‘add value’ to ecological systems and generate more than they need to fulfil their own needs.” I would contend that once we engage ecological biological systems that have self generation potential, that is where we should start talking about ‘restorative’ actions.

Between 2003 and 2007, I presented a number of conference papers locally about ‘Restorative Sustainability and Low Carb Construction’ wherein I proposed strategies that included among others, The Natural Step’s ‘System Conditions for Sustainability’ be modified to propose the following restorative actions:

  • reducing existing environmental concentrations of substances from within the earth
  • reducing  existing environmental concentrations substances produced by society
  • repairing, restoring and regenerating ecosystems and increasing the diversity of nature (especially within developments)
  • improving global and local social equity and nature connectivity

Hence, green roofs, podiums and walls, especially intensive versions and any other strategy where we create conditions for life that then expands and creates potential over which we have little or no control, are in effect restorative, and there are other actions that we can focus on to take projects beyond ‘net positive’ to ‘restorative.’

However, the term ‘regenerative’ has whole other connotations and should be reserved for initiatives that take restoration to next level by adding meaningful value to existing ecosystems.

Once again, quoting Bill Reed, “adding value to an ecological system means increasing its systemic capability to generate, sustain and evolve increasingly higher orders of vitality and viability for the life of a particular place.”

How can any highly urbanised environment re-create ‘self generating, self evolving ecosystems capable of ‘higher orders of vitality and viability’ when nature elements within are typically enclosed in concrete or plastic containers? It is hubris to think that concrete urban environments can ever be ‘regenerative.’

To be regenerative, we need remnant ecosystem regeneration potential, connectivity and intact natural processes. These can and will be found in many large projects with large enough site areas that large tracts of natural land can be left intact, development limited to small areas within the site and connectivity to other natural sites and intact ecosystems. What is missing from ‘net positive’ and even ‘restorative’ concepts is holistic living systems thinking.

Masanobu Fukuoka the author of The One Straw Revolution, who started the natural farming revolution in Japan, stated it simply when he said “a problem cannot be solved by people who are concerned with only one or another of its parts.”

We need to remember, we cannot create life. At best, we can create or recreate the conditions for life to exist and import appropriate life forms and then, more often than not, the best thing we can do is stand back and leave things alone, monitoring general direction from afar. The most holistic conceptualisation we have developed for regenerative outcomes are some of the landscape wide works undertaken under the auspices of Bill Mollison and David Holmgren’s Permaculture and some of the amazing projects undertaken by Regenesis, but that is possibly the subject for a future article.

I find it difficult, if not impossible to see how regenerative development viewed in this light could be created in the ever increasing densities of today’s urban canyon cities except by use of ‘biodiversity offsets’ where true regeneration is engaged off-site. There is no doubt that cities can be ‘more sustainable’ and even eventually ‘net positive’ and ‘restorative,’ but I do not think they can ever be ‘regenerative.”

To think that any individual project or product can be regenerative is impossible given that by systems thinking definition, they can at best only ever be a single element in a complex web that is needed for true regeneration.

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13
  1. Bill Reed

    David,
    Thanks for this and a couple of thoughts:
    Buildings are not regenerative because they cannot evolve. Yet the people in them can and must. One of the core aspects of regeneration is bringing people and "nature" back into a unified and co-evolutionary relationship. While concrete cannot procreate: cities – with their human, social, ecological, infrastructure and economic systems – are organisms that evolve as a whole living system. Regeneration applies to any living system that can add value to the larger system they are nested within. Neighborhoods can regenerate their social quality of life as well as the larger ecological systems that support this quality. Jane Jacobs addressed this dimension of regeneration in "Death and Life of Great American Cities.
    One of the more ingrained attitudes in our current culture is that nature is outside of us. The 'environment', by its definition, is that which surrounds us. We are actually integral to the whole ecological system. Regeneration uses the act of building to address how humans can be in healthy and integral relationship to the larger living system that buildings and cities are nested within. Hope this is useful.
    My best,
    BR

  2. Bill Reed

    David,
    Thanks for this and a couple of thoughts:
    Buildings are not regenerative because they cannot evolve. Yet the people in them can and must. One of the core aspects of regeneration is bringing people and "nature" back into a unified and co-evolutionary relationship. While concrete cannot procreate: cities – with their human, social, ecological, infrastructure and economic systems – are organisms that evolve as a whole living system. Regeneration applies to any living system that can add value to the larger system they are nested within. Neighborhoods can regenerate their social quality of life as well as the larger ecological systems that support this quality. Jane Jacobs addressed this dimension of regeneration in "Death and Life of Great American Cities.
    One of the more ingrained attitudes in our current culture is that nature is outside of us. The 'environment', by its definition, is that which surrounds us. We are actually integral to the whole ecological system. Regeneration uses the act of building to address how humans can be in healthy and integral relationship to the larger living system that buildings and cities are nested within. Hope this is useful.
    My best, BR

  3. Christina Renger

    Thank you for continuing the discussion, David, and for your comment, Bill. The concepts of regenerative and net positive design have been discussed within the international research community increasingly over the last decade and have recently gained recognition in practice. As you point out, the current focus is mostly on energy at the building scale. In this context, a clear definition of terminology, associated system boundaries, baseline conditions and timelines is critical to avoid misinterpretation. In relation to energy/carbon alone, a dozen of different terms is in use without a definition that is internationally agreed upon, e.g. 'carbon positive' can be misleading because we need a reduction in the atmosphere.
    If not seen in isolation, these powerful frameworks have the potential to redefine the meaning of sustainability. When we evolve as part of a whole living system to regenerate and 'design for as well as with nature', as Janis Birkeland suggests, will we find entirely new ways of how cities are designed? Cities have long been envisioned as sustainable ecosystems, yet we are far from this. Cities are a hub for innovation where the greatest challenges but also the…

  4. Christina Renger

    … greatest opportunities exist. We cannot be creative in concrete and plastic boxes, therefore offsetting impacts from cities that are only 'less bad' than the norm elsewhere and in isolation from the people living in them seems contradictory, let alone we are already exceeding the Earth's carrying capacity. Leading industry experts are now looking at models how a factory can run like a forest, many advanced projects are in Singapore where limited space is available, Vancouver is another example (where the first eco-positive conference stream was created at SB13) and case studies such as Curitiba, Brazil show that we can move closer towards viable sustainability networks in a dense urban context. How we achieve transformational change, where and when largely depends on identifying opportunities and defining value, on communication, collaboration and leadership excellence of designers in all disciplines. With optimism, CR

  5. Daniel Lowenthal

    I can only comment on this topic in terms of energy as this is within my field (Commercial PV Solar). As part of the apllications engineering, I am continuously having to overcome the hurdle of limiting a PV solar system to zero export due to regulations set out by the electricity distributor. I have several sites that are being limited up to 75% of their potential energy generation at times. This is essential lost green energy that could be used by neighbouring businesses. Sometimes it is not "what can we achieve" but "are we allowed to do it".

  6. David S

    great posting here and for the role of Government once again the establishment always wins, meaning entrenched corporations who champion the cause of redundancy and sackings if these eveil renewable energy providers have their freedom

    In the end, all commerce should be about competition and the market sorts out the mess

  7. Kevin Ferrell

    I suppose I agree with the statement "Buildings alone will never be regenerative", but only because buildings exist within a network of energy and resource distribution, and within a set of rules that currently inhibits buildings from reaching their full potential in terms of all resources. But I don't think that we should limit our thinking by that situation. A ship can be a building, conceptually, and they operate off the grid. Many carry fuel, but many do not, and derive all of their energy requirements from multiple environmental sources – wind, sunlight, seawater, and human work. Spacecraft are ships with even more limitations, but they are making huge strides in self-sustainability – particularly in the preparations for human habitation of Mars. That technology is flowing-on and will be available for terrestrial use. I think that we are just scratching the surface of the capacity of buildings to generate energy, and to use available natural sources more innovatively and efficiently. The same goes for other input resources: water, air, paper, equipment, transport, handling…

  8. Kevin Ferrell

    I agree with Daniel and David that a prime limiting factor presently is a protectionist regime in favour of the status quo. There can be no motivation to invest in energy sources with high initial costs if the payoff is disallowed by commercial rules. The same applies to restorative systems for water, air and other resources.
    We all know that this can change. A change of leadership is inevitable, and so we can expect (probably later rather than sooner) that the rules will change in favour of sanity and sustainability.
    I think that we should not limit our imaginations and our developmental work to match the current leadership's paradigms and corrupt motivations. I think we should press-on and ready ourselves for when the game changes – because the change may well be quite sudden. At some point in time there will be no alternative but to favour renewable energy and resource efficiency with everything that we can throw at it.

  9. Kevin Ferrell

    Technologically, a game-changer is coming with storage systems. Tesla's new energy wall, for example, may allow buildings to capitalise on the 25% of lost energy that Daniel reports.
    To the other parts of the original question:
    Net-positive – absolutely! I see no reason why we couldn't make it mandatory for new buildings by, say, 2040 (pick a point in time).
    Restorative – this has been achieved many times, and is more a factor of the location and the use, isn't it? Examples would include those toxic sites that have been rehabilitated, put back into human use, and even made habitable by elements of nature. That said, we can do better in this domain too – potentially with everything we build.

  10. Kevin Ferrell

    I'm optimistically realistic. I think we are in a lull right now because the brakes are on, but now's the time to prepare for when the heavy foot shifts to the accelerator pedal. There are projects on the table with sufficiently long lead-times that it must be worth running the numbers on the potential for a game change, at the very least we can aim for inbuilt retrofit capabilities.
    It's not a perfect world, but it's the only one we have

    • David S

      Well said Kevin and fully agree there are so many aspects need consideration.

      In fact the technology as we now develop as a universal construct [meaning accross borders] has greatly more energy and environment contribution than it absorbs but to explain such a concept is difficult.

      Accordingly for balance 2015 and into 2016 propose only to focus in its delivery and allow the results to speak for themselves

  11. Toby

    Whilst I fully support, and participate in the efforts of lessening the environmental impacts of buildings that we design and build, and I think we need to press on and keep improving, but when terms such as "regenerative', or "net carbon positive" are used to describe a new building, it gives me an uncomfortable twitch… The only thing that I am aware of that is truly net carbon positive is a tree or a plant. Until we work out a way for concrete, steel, and glass to photosynthesize, calling a building "net carbon positive" is really just creative marketing. Even "net carbon neutral" might be stretching it a bit in a lot of cases – except maybe for a thatched timber hut with no electricity or running water, built by hand from locally felled plantation trees. Now I'm not saying we should go back to living in huts, I just think it is important to be honest about these things and to not intentionally or unintentionally deceive the general public by calling it something that it is not, as I don't think using these terms truly helps to further the understanding of the general public or further the cause of solving our greater environmental problems.

  12. Christina Renger

    Toby, that is a question which interests us as well and we have proven quantitatively in a full life cycle approach that a building with substantial integrated vegetation and 30 per cent surplus from renewable energy systems could potentially amortize its embodied carbon impacts after 13 years. It was a theoretical case study but with a real site context in Brisbane. In Australia net positive energy is not yet economically viable but aiming at zero for now and working towards decentralized utility infrastructures is a start. For further information refer to Building Research & Information (BRI), Special Issue 43:1 'Net-zero and net-positive design'. The guest editor Ray Cole points out that it is a question of value and 'the difference between the net-zero and net-positive approaches clearly emerges when the papers are viewed collectively'. Please share far and wide.