Regenerative Architecture Pushes Building Industry To Be More Climate Conscious

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Regenerative architecture is a way of engineering alongside nature that produces a net-positive impact on the environment. It’s part of a new climate push in the building industry — an industry that was responsible for 38% of the world’s energy-related greenhouse gases in 2019 and 39.9% by 2021.

To confront the built environment head-on in light of the climate crisis takes visionary designers. Yet regenerative architecture is facing economic, environmental, and technological challenges across many sectors, specifically in large-scale projects.

“Often in architecture school, you’re trained to just ‘do’ the building, separate from the broader social context,” says Ann Kosmal, a fellow of the American Institute of Architects (FAIA) who works in regenerative design in Washington, DC. “By contrast, regenerative design is a framework for thinking about resilience in a community, and architecture is just a single part of that.”

Regenerative design asks architects to do 3 things:

  • Ensure that each project benefits and transforms the surrounding socioeconomic and ecological systems
  • Align stakeholders to accomplish those transformations
  • Explore how teams can develop value-adding processes that continue to indefinitely serve stakeholders beyond the project building and site

Regenerative Architecture: Innovations that Need Streamlining

Sarah Ichioka and Michael Pawlyn, co-authors of Flourish: Design Paradigms for Our Planetary Emergencyargue that buildings should be designed in a way that mimics nature by restoring its own materials and sources of energy. “More than half of humanity’s total historic greenhouse gas emissions have occurred since the concept of ‘sustainability’ entered the mainstream,” Ichioka and Pawlyn write. “It is now time to embrace a new regenerative approach to design and development.”

Such projects are the exception rather than the norm, but they offer a peek to future possibilities in both rural and urban architecture.

Kate Diamond, FAIA, civic design director at HDR in Los Angeles, hopes that 2022 will be the year that architects “step up to urgently reduce our carbon footprints on every project — recognizing that our buildings and interiors have enormous impacts on global warming and the health of all life as we know it.” Diamond wants to see regenerative design projects move beyond doing less harm to “actually doing good — sequestering carbon, improving air quality, and addressing environmental justice and equity.”

Acknowledging that regenerative design goals require new materials, means, and methods, Diamond says that the industry is being “blown away” by innovations coming out of the US Green Building Council Los Angeles’s Net Zero Accelerator Program. Diamond is, conversely, frustrated by how long it takes to get these innovations to market and to become appropriately scaled. Those shifts will truly impact the built carbon footprint, she says.

Diamond is calling for strategies that:

  • streamline approvals from authorities having jurisdiction
  • convince early adopters and the market to take reasonable chances on breakthrough technologies
  • transform the way built environments are designed, constructed, and operated

AIA Climate Action Plan

AIA supports urgent climate action to exponentially accelerate the decarbonization of buildings, the building industry, and the built environment. It is declaring an urgent climate imperative for carbon reduction alongside the need to transform the day-to-day practice of architects to achieve a zero carbon, equitable, resilient, and healthy built environment. To do so, the support of all potential partners, including peers, clients, policymakers, and the public will be sought.

Stating that the changes needed in the industry are pervasive and must include a holistic approach to create immediate and long-lasting solutions, the AIA has designed a multistep plan to establish actionable steps and provide architects with tools and resources to achieve zero carbon.

  1. Mitigating the sources: Establish the relevance and importance of the building sector and architectural practice in climate mitigation solutions. By actively addressing the building industry’s footprint as a primary contributing source of operational and embodied carbon, architects must play a major role in catalyzing the industry by advancing zero-carbon projects, products, policies, initiatives, research, and education.
  2. Adapting to the impacts: Design buildings and communities to anticipate and adapt to the evolving challenge of climate change. In this way, spaces, buildings, structures, and communities become more functional and high performing. Every project the AIA builds and retrofits is an opportunity to evaluate vulnerabilities, choose resilience, mitigate risk, incorporate equity, improve occupant health, serve clients’ needs, and further the research, evidence, and business case for climate action.
  3. Catalyzing architects to act: Lead meaningful change and contribute to climate solutions in partnership with the global community. The challenges around embodied carbon and existing buildings, new building design, renewable energy, and electrification go hand-in-hand with opportunities. While architects are positioned to lead transformation in the building industry, they cannot do this alone. They must commit, engage, lead by example, and work collaboratively with their extensive partner network to holistically affect the magnitude of change toward which they drive.

Case Studies of Regenerative Architecture

Building and development codes must evolve to speed up regenerative structures and communities. Construction materials and methods must evolve to eliminate excessive extraction, toxins, waste and carbon. Financial mechanisms must reward the regenerative transition, which means providing people with the access to tools and resources needed to unlock their potential and participate in the regenerative transition. And, given the social and built environments exist within the natural, all constituents must learn to achieve these outcomes in a dynamic balance with ecosystem services that can grow over time, such as the examples below.

Playa Viva is a boutique hotel located in the rural coastal area of Juluchuca, Mexico and designed by David Leventhal. Understanding the place was the first and fundamental phase in this regenerative architecture project. From there, the architects were able to recognize the potential social, economic, and ecological intersections in order to create potential leverage points. The buildings are passively cooled and fully built by local materials with the least reliance on electricity possible.

The Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design will join the Chesapeake Bay Brock Environmental Center in Virginia as the only two fully LBC certified buildings in the Southeast. The Kendeda Building was projected to have an energy use intensity (EUI, a standard building performance measurement) of 30 kBTU/SF/year, which is 72% more efficient than an average building of similar characteristics. A solar array on the roof provides shade as well as an innovative rainwater collection system; it has an EUI of 42 kBTU/SF/year. The building will exceed its own energy needs over a 12-month period, ultimately providing energy capacity for others throughout the year.

Geoship, a home building cooperative, uses regenerative building methods for their collection of bioceramic, geodesic domes, creating a fire- and flood-proof, hurricane and earthquake-resistant home dwelling. Generating zero waste, fewer CO2 emissions, and a recyclable structure, Geoship’s domes are comprised of ceramic crystals that are molded into a triangular shape. Then, these modules are pieced together to form the dome’s geodesic shape.

regenerative architecture
Image provided by Geoship

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Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn Fortuna, PhD, is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavey Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla and an owner of a 2022 Tesla Model Y as well as a 2017 Chevy Bolt. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.

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