What is Regenerative Design?
The goals of Regenerative Design are ambitious and go well beyond typical design briefs: to activate the capacity of complex systems to restore, repair, and sustain life on this planet. It aims to use human intervention to not just stop environmental degradation, but also to restore the relationships between natural, social, and man-made systems, and identify the unique value-adding role that each contributes to the larger whole. To do this, we must expand our skills as Architects, acting not only as project managers, but also as cultural incubators, active observers, and even community visionaries. Regenerative design is based on developing a knowledge of place, activating the healing potential within every project, and expanding our role as designers of a healthy, livable future.
One of the most important tenets of regenerative design is that the project itself is not the goal. A good building with all its merits and sustainable features, is merely a catalyst, a tool within a more complex and larger system. A perfect example is the Billion Oyster Project. The desired outcome is not the installation of a new reef, but the resultant habitat that is created for oysters to eventually clean and restore the Hudson River. To realize this kind of regenerative potential, that goes well beyond designing a building, the project must be deeply grounded in place. To know what a place needs, you must first understand its cultural, historical, and natural role within the greater environment. To gather this knowledge, it may be necessary to engage with a broad range of stakeholders who have intimate knowledge of a place or its features; botanists, indigenous tribes, historians, permaculture experts, local businesses, and nonprofits, to name a few. Working together, as co-designers and co-creators, the aim of this collaboration is to identify a rich sense of the Living Systems in which a project is nested.
These systems are complex, interconnected, non-linear, and kinetic. They may be cultural, such as indigenous history; economic, such as a staple industry; or biological, such as a regional watershed. These systems are an extension of every site, and our actions are constantly influencing them, whether positively or negatively. Take, for example, a small residential remodel project on a quiet suburban street. While one could argue the carbon is spent, the development is complete, and the remodel is of little consequence, this small residence still exists within a complex web of systems that extend far beyond its site boundaries. The Quesada Gardens project in San Francisco’s Hunters Point Neighborhood exemplifies this type of broad systems thinking, where a trash laden median was transformed by two local residents into a community garden. What was once a piece of infrastructure eventually became a productive landscape that not only enhanced the local ecology, but also provided food, education, and joy to local residents. Regenerative thinking asks us as designers to find the ways in which our design interventions can have positive, synergistic and increasingly complex relationships with their larger context.
Stepping back from the project itself and observing these larger relationships that connect to the community or watershed often provide key insights. Everything in nature is based on connections between parts of a system. Regenerative thinking asks us to observe the intersection of webs present on a given site, and choose interventions that reinforce instead of impede those natural confluences. To better observe these relationships, start by asking these questions when in Pre-design (developed by Helen and Newton Harrison and catalyzed by the Regenesis Institute):
How big is “Here?”
▪ Find the scale and boundaries of the place, and its nested watershed, food systems, technological systems, material systems and local cultural systems.
▪ Possible Stakeholder Questions: How far out does the impact of the site extend? How far out do the systems that affect the site extend? What are the main inflows and outflows of resources on the site? Where do they originate, and lead?
How does “Here” work?
▪ Find the patterns and relationships that permeate the place. These may be geographic, ecological, or cultural.
▪ Possible Stakeholder Questions: What is the carrying capacity of the site? Do you drive long distances to arrive onsite? How does the watershed flow and get replenished? Is the site limited in water, energy, or food? What are the key relationships on which the site depends?
What makes “Here” unique?
▪ How do the people who live in a place define it?
▪ Possible Stakeholder Questions: What do you love about this place that makes it special? How will this project enhance or contribute to the existing culture? How will it create collaboration and cooperative relationships so that what is here may stay here in perpetuity?
Through asking questions like these with your project team, you can expand an understanding of regeneration within the project and tap into the potential of a project to usher in positive change.
The Brattleboro Food Co-op has been a beloved grocery store in Brattleboro, VT since 1975. When it became clear they were exceeding the capacity of their existing space, the Co-op desired to build a new LEED certified grocery store that both reflected their values and continued to serve their community. Through a participatory design process with Regenesis Group, they realized this space could serve a fundamental role beyond simply being a green grocery store. The Brattleboro Food Co-op could serve as an anchor for the broader local food economy, supporting farmers, teaching cooking skills and serving as a hub to the downtown Brattleboro neighborhood. Through an analysis of place, the project evolved beyond a traditional grocery to include a commissary kitchen, cooking classrooms, and residential apartments above (that shared energy regeneration with the refrigeration system below). Opportunities were taken to achieve a project with ripple effects well outside the boundaries of the site, including analyzing where the food sold in store was originating. All this tied directly to the needs of the place and systems in which the store operated. Thinking about a project in this larger context allows an assessment of true impact and allows the Regenerative Potential of the project to emerge.
Regenerative design seeks fundamentally to tap into every project’s potential to allow living systems to co-evolve towards ever higher orders of diversity, complexity, creativity, and prosperity. This regenerative capability is the foundation upon which we build the project’s unique value-adding role, or the purpose it serves with a community. This is very different from a building’s function, which can evolve and change over time. The research gathered on the history and ecology of a place is pivotal to defining this role for a project. Furthermore, this role should focus on the image of the future the project wants to create, the end-state that will benefit the systems in which it is nested long after the punch list is complete. For projects that require it, community engagement early and often in the design process can be instrumental in defining this role. Using the How Big is “Here” framework can help identify the parameters and living systems in your project, while simultaneously identifying the needed repairs to these systems.
A project currently in Schematic Design here at Siegel & Strain Architects was given the task of transforming an existing Coast Guard Housing development into a Zero-Net Energy affordable housing project. Through a participatory design process with project stakeholders and community groups, information was gathered on what residents in the nearby town valued about their community, what they felt was lacking, and what they hoped to see through the proposed project. A multi-lingual, multi-disciplinary outreach effort sought input through drawing, mapping, listening sessions, and knowledge sharing. As a result, it was determined that in addition to farmworker housing to serve the local agriculture economy, an Education Center would be created to provide ancillary support to the local community. This space would offer after school programs, a native teaching garden, edible landscapes, a maker space, and a lending library. In addition to housing, which is its function, the project would also act as a resilience hub, and provide emergency off-the-grid power, EV charging, cooling, dry goods storage, and other benefits in the face of a changing climate. While providing much needed housing, the project also responds to other local needs and realizes its potential to serve a broader purpose. In addition, the residents who live in this development will gain formative life skills that will impact the community at large, thus tapping into multiple economic, cultural, and biological systems within the site.
Expanding the role of the Architect
An understanding of place and a realization of its unique potential necessitates a more nuanced approach to site analysis. As the design team begins its Pre-Design assessment, a regenerative approach will demand additional research on not just the prevailing winds and sun, but also the history, culture, economy, hydrology, and biology of the site and its context. We must also pay attention not only to the systems that flow in and out of a site, but also to the people who inhabit it. This type of listening requires that we see every place in all its complexity. Our tendency as architects is to want to simplify. But that reductionist approach to the world is exactly what has caused the cascading degradation we see around us. The community development practitioner and regenerative specialist Beatrice Benne advocates for the opposite. To respond to the challenges of our time, she argues, we need to increase the capacity of the systems we create to deal with complexity. Our work exists within complex systems, and to reverse the damage we see to our environment, we must start every project by understanding those systems. This does not necessarily mean increasing the complexity of our projects, but instead looking for and making the key interventions to allow for complex systems to develop and flourish on their own.
Our role as the designer is to facilitate dialogue between stakeholders and draw them into the project as co-creators and collaborators. Working with an expanded stakeholder group during the pre-design process helps define the project’s value adding role. The most sustainable building, designed for net zero with rainwater catchment, carbon sequestering structural systems, and drought tolerant landscaping, may still increase traffic, displace residents, or be out of scale with its neighbors. Our role should be to understand from stakeholders what these issues are and address them in our designs. We must become active observers, listening to and understanding the local solutions each place inspires and requires.
More thoroughly defining the project may take more time early in the design process but prevent redesign and extensive changes later in the process. The greater the up-front investment amongst key stakeholders, the greater the chance of success when the project meets the realities of schedules, budgets, and regulations in later phases of design and construction. Set a goal of improving the local economy, a local ecosystem, or enriching a specific community. Plan a project schedule with a 5-, 10-, or 20-year target through which some positive change can be measured. In the most successful regenerative projects, the design and building process acts as a catalyst for a further regeneration, allowing communities to thrive and contribute to their ecological and cultural niche. This means that we as the Architect must create the framework that allows cultural and natural regeneration to occur and develop new life far after the project is complete.
At its core, Regenerative Design is about designing not just sustainably, but also responsibly, and in harmony with nature. The philosopher Alan Watts said, “It is absolutely absurd to say that we came into this world. We didn’t. We came out of it”. We must see ourselves as part of nature if we are to design a healthy, livable future with it. Through regenerative thinking, early in the design process, the goal is to understand how the individual parts interact with the greater whole, and to put in place, through our understanding and action, the conditions needed for life to heal itself.
Things You Can Do Right Now to Use Regenerative Design in Architectural Practice
Seth Dunn, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, LFA is a Bay Area based Architect and Regenerative Practitioner. Seth leads teams of Landscape Designers, Permaculturists, Civil, Structural and MEP engineers from Schematic Design through construction on sustainable projects that support the greater community.
Chris Fano, AIA, LEED GA, has brought ecological systems thinking into each of his projects over his 15 year career. He has worked on modular eco-homes, straw bale and rammed earth residences, passive remodels, and net zero affordable housing projects, and is currently pursuing both LFA and Passive House Certification.
Seth Dunn & Chris Fano are project architects and regenerative practitioners at Siegel & Strain Architects