Regenerative Design

Why Regenerative Sustainability?

Contemporary environmentalism has demonstrated to be ill-equipped to address the immense global sustainability challenges that we face. We can no longer afford the current practices of pursuing goals that simply reduce environmental impacts, nor can we continue to simply avoid reaching the theoretical limits of ecosystems’ carrying capacity. This practice is insufficient as a driving force for the required changes. This approach of reduction and curtailment has proven ineffectual as it is not motivational and does not, in principle, extend beyond the logical end-point of net zero impact. We need to inspire people to work to restore and regenerate the biosphere, sequester billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year and seek out significantly more efficient uses of resources, especially non-renewables.

To address this crisis we need to think of every aspect of modern economic activity, including the acts of building and developing land, as acts of restoration and regeneration. This shift in perspective has the potential to motivate us to move beyond a practice of trying to create buildings and urban settings that are simply “less bad”, into a new paradigm that strives to achieve the creation of “good” development. It helps us shift our mindset from measuring impacts into providing benefits; from sacrifice to contribution and finally, from net zero to net positive. This is the foundation of regenerative sustainability.

But how do we apply, in a practical sense, these regenerative sustainability principles to the urban context (buildings, communities, cities, etc.)? UBC built CIRS to try to better understand this challenge. CIRS was the first project at the University to adhere to and operationalize the two dimensions of regenerative sustainability as outlined by Dr. John Robinson: the active restoration and regeneration of the environment; and the active pursuit of improvements in the well-being of the community. Researchers at CIRS are studying and trying to determine if:

  • it is technically, economically and institutionally feasible to construct buildings and even full neighborhoods able to capture and exchange more energy than that obtained from utility distribution networks (i.e. electricity, natural gas, etc.);
  • it is possible for buildings and neighborhoods (in areas with appropriate amounts of rainfall) to become self-sufficient in their water use by harvesting rainwater, treating and recycling all their wastewater, and by recharging groundwater reservoirs with storm-water runoff that cannot be used as a source of drinking water;
  • it is possible for buildings and neighborhoods to capture and store more carbon dioxide (CO2) in their materials and structural components than the amount emitted during their construction; and
  • it is possible to improve the conditions that impact the health, happiness and productivity of the “inhabitants” of all types of buildings (note that in North America people spend approximately 90% of their time indoors). CIRS researchers are studying if this can be achieved through a high quality indoor environment, characterized by access to natural light and natural ventilation, and through the active participation of the building inhabitants in the operational decisions that impact both their comfort and well-being, to in effect create a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship between people and buildings.


Enablers in Sustainable Design

At CIRS the implementation of regenerative sustainability principles in the design and performance of the building is underpinned by five enablers, four environmental and one related to human well-being:

  1. Systems thinking and integration to avoid sub-optimizing at the component level and instead optimize whole systems. This changes the scope and outlook of the design effort and motivates the planning and design team to look for opportunities beyond the building boundaries that can benefit the building and conversely, identify opportunities for the building to contribute net benefits that spillover into its encompassing community.
  2. Adoption of industrial ecology principles into the planning and design of sustainable buildings, through the basic notion that the by-products of some processes can become feedstock for other processes. This expands the pool of potential resources for the building and can be used to improve the performance of other buildings and neighbourhood systems such as district energy and urban water reclamation projects.
  3. Converting buildings and communities into engines of carbon sequestration. The carbon stored in wooden structures (including wood-steel and wood-concrete hybrids) and wood-based building materials creates a cache of stored carbon that will last as long as the building, and in many cases, as long as the main components of the building when they get repurposed after the building is deconstructed. If the amount of carbon stored in a building with wooden structures and other plant-based construction materials is higher than the amount of carbon emitted during construction (including extraction, manufacturing, transportation and installation activities), then buildings can become net carbon sequestration endeavors.
  4. Use natural resources (especially non-renewables) rationally, by trying to match the need for resources with an appropriate grade and quality of these resources. Using moderate temperature media for heating and cooling, for example, or having graduated standards of water purification for different types of uses, such as reclaimed water for toilet flushing and landscape irrigation while reserving potable water for drinking and food preparation. This approach reduces the amount of resources used by facilitating resource reuse and reducing the amount of energy and infrastructure needed to clean/heat/cool etc., the resources.
  5. Empower building occupants to become building inhabitants. Building occupants are generally passive recipients of an environment created by the design process and are detached from the operations and optimization of building systems. In contrast, inhabitants are considered part of the building ecosystem and have control and influence over their environment, and are encouraged to get involved in operations and optimization efforts. Without active inhabitant engagement and participation sustainable buildings cannot meet their performance targets.


What’s next?

Buildings like CIRS – that adhere to and operationalize the principles of regenerative sustainability in the built environment, and that seek to achieve net positive performance by benefitting their communities – are deeply transformative and have a catalytic effect toward the establishment of higher sustainability targets. In the case of UBC this is illustrated by the concept of the sustainability gradient, inspired by CIRS, which institutionalized the notion that every new project on campus should strive to achieve more aggressive sustainability goals than its predecessor and become a learning platform for continual improvement over time.