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.