Much deeper than the mechanics of the design and construction of buildings, regenerative work is about how we exist in right relationship with the natural living world.

Architecture creates conditions conducive to life.

 

The term regenerative design is becoming more commonly used among architects and others in the building professions.  Overuse – or misuse – risks losing the transformative power of the concept.  As with terms like green building and sustainability, when language becomes popular the original meaning often dulls or shifts. But regenerative isn’t just the new buzzword for the same approach.  Much deeper than the mechanics of the design and construction of buildings, regenerative work is about how we exist in right relationship with the natural living world.

Regenerative design, or designing for a regenerative state of being, requires more than simply improving upon the status quo. While we grapple with understanding all the ways we have degraded our planet and harmed our communities, we need to simultaneously consider a new way for the future.  Reforming all human behaviors, including how we go about shaping the built environment, in harmony with natural systems is the order of change necessary to achieve truly sustainable human habitation. Such a change would mean a whole new understanding of buildings and a new relationship with our environment, which can and should inspire a complete transformation of the practice of architecture.

But we need to start with one simple premise: design for life.

Janine Benyus of Biomimicry 3.8 says, “Life creates conditions conducive to life.”  This reflects a fundamental truth she has found in her work in the natural sciences.  She has suggested replacing the first “life” in this statement with the word for whatever activity we’re undertaking as a way to think about our work and set intention for it.  Architecture creates conditions conducive to life. To be regenerative in our building practices means that the things we make live in co-evolving relationship with the living ecosystem and contribute to its thriving.

The Regenesis Institute and others speak of regenerative development, rather than design.  While “design” might imply something complete and static, the term “development” speaks to the continuous work of building capacity in a system to be regenerative. To achieve this regenerative state in the built environment requires reshaping the entire process of making a building.  Land use policy, codes and standards, products and materials all influence design decisions, and long, slow progress toward less harmful impact in each of these areas continues.  But the real opportunity to make change at scale and with speed exists in the design process itself.

Decades of progress in building science and technology have brought us to a place where we are well capable of achieving a sustainable built environment, but the real impediment is in the old paradigms that drive decision-making processes about how or whether to employ these technologies.

In regenerative practice we are using the design process as the forum to do the human-to-human work that will change mindsets about what a building is or could be.  This is where we will imagine how the human-made environment becomes an expression of the natural environment and a means through which humans connect with each other and all other lifeforms.

We are cultivating important skills that will ultimately exceed our expertise in building science and technology; we are facilitating conversations and collective work in project planning and design that will redirect that expertise toward better outcomes.  Technical knowledge of buildings is critically important, but so are the experiences of the people living within them, and their connection to the world beyond.  Architects must serve as more than form-makers or spatial puzzle-solvers or process managers.  A more complete understanding of people and place should be the core of our work (placework is a verb!) and the starting point of every project.

Taking on the work of collectively rethinking the relationship of humans to the rest of the living planet is the next frontier in the architecture profession.  But designing the world we live in is not the province of architects alone.  It is up to all of us to participate in redefining ourselves and our buildings as part of living ecosystems.

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