You would have heard the term ‘net-positive’ design and development by now - or soon will.
Many avantgarde architects are adding it to their design objectives or building descriptions. It makes things sound not only better than sustainable, but somehow extra profitable. However, just as the term ‘sustainable’ gradually came to mean only ‘best practice’, the meaning of net-positive is becoming an oxymoron.
Literally, ‘net’ refers to whole-system outcomes or benefits, but many people use it to mean simply green. In fact, some people defined net-positive biodiversity as ‘more biodiversity than required by law’. This means it could be achieved merely by lowering regulatory standards. Moreover, a project claiming to have net-positive biodiversity only landscaped the remaining site area and roof with native bush. This used to be called ‘greening’.
Others have called projects net-positive energy when they produce and export more energy than they use. This defies the laws of physics (energy cannot be created) and assumes energy respects property lines. Further, a development could achieve this by selling energy that is then used somewhere else to produce highly polluting luxury goods using child labour.
Still others use the term net-positive waste to mean that everything along the supply chain is recycled. While it is essential to design-out waste and close resource loops, irreversible environmental waste still occurs. The remote, disparate, and cumulative impacts of resource extraction, manufacturing and construction are seldom accounted for or compensated.
But isn’t a term like ‘net positive’ simply whatever one wants it to mean? No. In reality, it is a proper noun with specific academic origins. The theory that buildings could ‘give back more than they take’ – ecologically socially and economically – appeared by 2002. However, there were no tools for assessing this until now, so one can claim that any net-positive buildings exist.
There is now a digital tool that measures net-positive design, or the sum of cumulative negative, regenerative, and net-positive impacts. It measures the distance to sustainability, not merely improvements over unsustainable buildings. What does that mean? Well may you ask, since the world has lost 50% of its biodiversity in 50 years while the population has doubled. Not only are things far less sustainable, one cannot resurrect extinct species and ecosystems. Furthermore, most development removes land and resources from other functions, making past damage virtually impossible to correct, even if future generations are far wiser.
Consequently, development cannot be sustainable if it contributes to closing off positive futures: it must go beyond zero. Positive development (planning) and net-positive design (architecture) are premised on the idea that, to be truly sustainable, development must increase future positive opportunities. It must increase overall public benefits and ecological space and over-compensate for any negative ecological impacts that are unavoidable by good design. In the real-world context of global injustices and environmental devastation, this means net-positive development must compensate for more than its share of ALL development impacts.
To be ecologically net positive, then, nature’s ‘positive ecological footprint’ must exceed humanity’s negative ecological footprint – relative to pre-industrial conditions. For example, it would increase ecological carrying capacity and biodiversity beyond that of pre-urban times.
Similarly, to be socially net positive, the wider community or region must be better off as a result of the development. That means, for instance, that projects would increase local security in anticipation of environmental, social or health crises. In particular, everyone should have direct access to the means of survival and wellbeing. No one should have to rely on erratic politics or markets, especially when disparities of wealth are skyrocketing.
Is that possible? Yes. Through multifunctional and adaptable design based on net-positive principles, cumulative outcomes can increase the ‘public estate’, such as human wellbeing, and the ‘ecological base’, such as nature. For example, it has been shown scientifically that green buildings could sequester more than their full lifecycle carbon emissions through permanent, building-integrated vegetation.[i]
Some negative impacts will nonetheless be unavoidable, even with brilliant design. Nonetheless, eco-positive gains are still technically feasible through ‘net-positive offsetting’.[ii] This is quite different from conventional offsetting, which is essentially paying for pollution (like buying indulgences). In some cases, industries have earned credits for simply not doing more harm (like buying protection). This raises the question: how are the net impacts assessed and offset?
Positive Development theory uses criteria and benchmarks that are based on fixed, objective biophysical conditions – not typical buildings or practices. For example, instead of just producing more outputs per unit of input (efficiency) or diverting more waste into resource loops (recycling), the tool determines if a development provides more ecological space than existed before there was any human settlement. The concepts and methods of net-positive design and positive development are explained in a couple of books.
Positive Development (2008)[iii] focused on macro-level reforms in governance, planning and decision making. It proposed new standards and a community-based planning method. Net Positive Design (2020)[iv] presents micro-level reforms in design, assessment, and tools. It provides new analyses, a collaborative design process, and the STARfish computer app – which is free. It corrects the numerous conceptual problems of green building rating tools.
The books also advocate a fundamental paradigm shift in sustainable planning and design. The sustainability movement has historically been divided between soft and hard systems approaches, or technocratic and eco-centric paradigms. Those that subscribe to one side barely speak to the other – which impedes genuine progress. The STARfish synthesises the linear, reductionist techniques with lateral, synergistic design thinking.
[i] Renger, C., Birkeland, J. and Midmore, D.J. (2015) Net-Positive Building Carbon Sequestration, in Building Research & Information 43(1), pp. 11-24.
[ii] Birkeland, J. and Knight-Lenihan, S. (2016) Biodiversity Offsetting and Net Positive Design, in Journal of Urban Design 21(1), pp. 50-66.
[iii] Birkeland, J. (2008) Positive Development: From Vicious Circles to Virtuous Cycles through Built Environment Design, London, Earthscan (now Routledge).
[iv] Birkeland, J. (2020) Net-Positive Design and Sustainable Urban Development, London, Routledge.