What is Regenerative Architecture? Limits of Sustainable Design, System Thinking Approach and the Future
A heavily cited fact within the architecture industry is that the built environment accounts for 40% of global carbon emissions. The concerning statistic puts immense responsibility on construction professionals. The idea of sustainability in architecture urgently emerged as a way of bandaging environmental damage. A wide range of sustainability practices aims no higher than making buildings “less bad”, serving as inadequate measures for current and future architecture. The problem with sustainable architecture is that it stops with ‘sustaining’.
In order to maintain the current state of the environment, the architecture community has been working towards greener means of production. Conventionally, a green building employs active or passive features as a tool for reduction and conservation. Most sustainable designs view buildings as a vessel of their own rather than integrated parts of their ecosystem. With the planet’s current needs, this approach is not enough. It is not enough to sustain the natural environment, but also restore its processes.
What is Regenerative Architecture?
In biology, regeneration refers to the ability to renew, restore or grow tissues in organisms and ecosystems in accordance with natural fluctuations. When applied to building design, this can look like structures that mimic restorative aspects found in nature. Regenerative architecture is the practice of engaging the natural world as the medium for and generator of architecture. Living systems on the site become the building blocks of the structure built in harmony with the overall ecosystem.
Regenerative architecture demands a forward-thinking approach. In contrast to sustainably designed buildings, regenerative buildings are designed and operated to reverse ecological damage and have a net-positive impact on the natural environment. Shifting from a sustainability lens to a regenerative one means that architects should question how we can design structures that not only use limited resources but also restore them. Regeneration also seeks to facilitate a more resilient environment that can resist natural challenges.
Regenerative vs. Sustainable Design
Sustainable and regenerative design may seem like different approaches – sustainability limits resource use, while regeneration replenishes them. Sustainability, however, is a subset of a larger regenerative model. Both methods overlap and incorporate similar practices, each emphasizing different green goals. Just as ‘reduce’, ‘reuse’ and ‘recycle’ can’t operate in isolation, sustainability practices lend a hand towards regenerative goals by forming the first step towards replenishing resources – limiting their consumption.
One way both practices differ is in their scale of interventions. Regenerative design demands architecture be seen as an extension of the place, the site, the flora and fauna, and the ecosystem. Buildings are treated as part of a larger system, helping to produce and share resources like clean water, energy, and food. For example, Splitterwerk and ARUP’s SolarLeaf bio-reactive façade generates renewable energy from algal biomass and solar heat. The energy generated can be used by the building, stored for future use, or provided to the utility grid.
Systems Thinking in Architecture
When designing a regenerative environment, it is important to adopt a systems approach to thinking. All relevant and contributing entities must be considered, measuring their networks of impact on the overall ecosystem. The design must account for how a building relates to the microclimate, or how the soil can support local flora. The designed system must allow for mutually supportive relationships between entities, making sure that there is equal give and take. Each relationship builds on the other to create a strong, thriving human-nature ecosystem.
“Sustainability is all about systems and making sure we’re thinking about the entire picture so we can address a problem from all angles”, writes Nabil Nasr, the Director of the Golisano Institute for Sustainability. Rather than employing sustainable design elements as a method of greenwashing, architects must develop a deeper understanding of eco-architecture through a systems approach. Architects must move away from being mere object creators and be involved in the design of broader systems for our future. Systems thinking allows architects to recognize how the built world exists within social, environmental, and business networks, which are changing at a rate that traditional architecture must rush to support.
The Need for Regenerative Design
The regenerative design process is fundamentally rooted in a system thinking approach. Interventions may include biomimicry to imitate nature, air-cleansing building skins, water-purifying structures, or carbon-capturing architecture. Shifting thoughts from sustainable to regenerative architecture will account for a better strategy to tackle the climate and biodiversity emergency that plagues society today. The regenerative architecture will allow the construction industry to “do good” rather than merely “less bad”.
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