Aspiration sets the level of sustainability in a building project. Green construction often focuses on reducing environmental harm through energy efficiency, water conservation, better air quality and alternative power. Regenerative design aims even higher. It focuses on reversing, rather than limiting, and making a building part of a larger whole, where ecosystems can regenerate. It’s rather revolutionary and an all-in response to climate change.

Though discussed for more than a decade, this paradigm is taking root in niche consultancies, select projects and design competitions, and within curricula for building design and construction. Regenesis Group Inc., Santa Fe, N.M., is a consultancy that promotes regenerative design in buildings, land use and community planning projects.

In “Regenerative Development and Design: Working with the Whole,” Regenesis’ principal, Bill Reed, AIA, LEED AP, writes: “The land is not simply dirt that we build upon. A living system (place, watershed, or community) is a ‘being’ or ‘organism.’ It is necessary to be in relationship with it. This nature of relationship is the big leap for the design and building industry.”

In a discussion with ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR, Reed said, “Certification programs can target efficiency for less ecological damage, but how long does it take to recover? There is no answer to that. So how do we add value and not just limit the damage? Certainly, anything you can do is good like LEED, but understand, in a regenerative approach, it’s insufficient. You don’t want to slow damage to the environment. You want to turn it around.”

Pamela Meng, Regenesis co-founder, said we are at what she calls a “wait a minute” moment as we grapple with the definition of sustainable.

“In the built environment, the trajectory has gone from environmentalism (recycling, etc.) to green building for a more sustainable footprint, to adaptable and resilient,” Meng said. “Regenerative recognizes co-evolution with the environment; being agents for evolution within the natural world we live in—buildings, habitat and people.”

The Regenesis website states: “Sustainability practitioners must commit themselves to discovering—and telling their 
clients—the hard truth: There is no human resilience without ecological resilience, no sustainability without a living planet, and no planetary change without novel local approaches.”

Regenerative design involves a robust thought process. Because buildings are static, it posits that a green building must operate efficiently with an objective beyond lowering costs. A tough regenerative concept to grasp is the importance of defining “the system” that drives how a building’s design is considered. That system is often a reflection of a community’s core value or needs. How a building fits into that requires questions to be asked, such as how a building supports a watershed, survives extreme weather events and brings economic value.

“We can’t assume things we construct will last forever, but we can think through their adaptions over time,” Meng said.

Rebecca Mirsky, associate professor for the Construction Management program, Boise State University in Idaho, said regenerative design faces a long climb to common practice. Its design principals are now taught in master’s programs. She also sees some local regional governments and school districts investigating this design approach.

“They are looking at a building’s place within a bigger community context, helping define the system,” she said. “It can be at a micro or macro scale.”

Sandpebble, Southampton, N.Y., is a 35-year-old construction project management firm exploring regenerative design.

“The transformation is a mental one,” said Victor Canseco, LEED AP BD + C, company principal. “The end is no longer a building completed as designed. Now we define the system in which it resides. That system may be found in learning how the project fits into the community’s goals. What must the building accomplish to fit those aspirations; how will it function to meet the needs of all the stakeholders, including those that will occupy it?”

Once the system is defined, regenerative objectives can form “boundaries” that help direct building goals for contractors.

“A boundary might be how the building is set to function in a high-performance way,” Mirsky said. “Maybe it’s the building’s health impacts on its inhabitants.”

A contractor’s contribution to a regenerative design reveals itself based on that company’s background and talent.

“Resiliency is the popular new term,” Mirsky said. “Climate change has driven this discussion. If a catastrophic weather event takes down the power, you need backup, alternative means of power. Here is a role the electrical contractor [EC] directly plugs into as communities grapple with credible disaster planning. Maybe you are trained in distributed energy and local power generation. Here you help buildings and their occupants become self-sufficient using backup green power, microgrids or other strategies within a regenerative project.”

Barn raising: the integrative process

Regenerative design leaves no stone unturned. Mirsky described it as a barn raising, where the town comes together because they have a stake in it. 

“The integrative approach brings everyone into the building process as it affects them and their community,” she said.

Regenesis recognizes business author Carol Sandford’s five necessary stakeholders.

“Keeping in mind that the Earth always wins, Earth systems are the first stakeholder,” Canseco said. “You must consider how your project will support them. Other stakeholders include the users [patrons of the building]; the staff; the community; and the investors [taxpayers, boards/volunteers, stockholders].”

Canseco takes Regenesis regenerative design training classes.

“It’s all about the exchange between the five,” he said. “To achieve a regenerative design, the construction team needs to understand how each impacts the other. Adding in community engagement applies ‘upstream’ thinking, and it will be different based on each community. Everyone has an opinion, and it all counts. That’s a shift. I’m educated as a mechanical engineer. I was never taught that my discipline is really interconnected with so many others.”

Reed helped found the Integrative Design Collaborative, a consortium of coaches/program managers helping project teams achieve higher levels of environmentally responsible design.

“We have a long way to go as integrative design is still largely lip service,” Reed said. “Statistically, its true practice in the construction community is around 2–3 percent. The percentage of high-performance buildings is even less. We’ve learned project teams think they are engaging in integrative design because they talk, meet and analyze a project. It has to be deeper than that.”

In working through the integrative process, naysayers become supporters, Reed found. Typically, projects also broaden, resulting in multiple benefits.

“After some initial resistance, architects and contractors let go of that traditional design-team hierarchy,” Reed said. “They really listen to each other, sometimes inspiring the other. When community members are brought in, they may, in fact, be against the project. They could kill it. You win them over because everyone listens, provides information and solutions to concerns, often creating a better project that is aligned to everyone’s needs.”

As an example, Reed cited Regenesis’ wastewater treatment project in Vancouver, British Columbia. The Lions Gate Secondary Wastewater Treatment Plant project aspires to be demonstrably sustainable. It initially faced 24 skeptical communities that the plant would affect. Regenesis applied its integrative roadmap containing an initial research phase that investigated many elements including energy loads, water loads and other community issues. These were addressed through several day-long meetings among different stakeholders.

“We took the time to listen to everyone’s concerns who would be impacted by the project,” Reed said. “Discovering and discussing core values of the community, the beliefs and philosophies of the 100-plus design team, were all taken into account. People then got really excited. The design team’s thinking got more creative and keener.”

As a result, the project earned a faster 18-month permit approval with only 2 percent changeovers. Construction and commissioning are expected between 2017 and 2020. The plant is now viewed as a “transformational” community asset with constituents willing to pay higher rates for it. Its scope of sustainability expanded as well to include secondary treatment, community development and resource recovery.

“People get excited when they co-create,” Reed said. “We are social animals. Project team members discover what each other really does and can bring to the project. Through these early meetings, contractors typically discover they can more accurately price.”

“When you get people connected to delivering something, which has shared significance, everybody has a sense of contribution and a willingness to work through tough decisions,” Meng said. “It bumps things up to the next level through interventions that improve the overall system and can lead to regenerative thinking.”

Though Reed sees today’s certification programs, such as LEED v4 and the Living Building Challenge, as ways into a discussion of what’s next, he feels their point-based approach still misses the mark. Mirsky sees such programs as drivers to that next step. She cited the ENVISION program, which embraces and rates sustainable infrastructure at different achievement levels. Though it stops shy of regenerative, the restoration of natural and social systems is rated highest in level of achievement.

“Green building drove sustainability momentum,” Mirsky said. “Though it will take time, I think regenerative design will grow as that next iteration. A younger, mission-oriented work force open to new thinking, the future, and being better stewards of the environment might drive regenerative design in the building trades. But it will have to be embraced by the owners. They call the shots. For contractors, it will require longer term thinking. It won’t be for everyone, but I think it’s a practice that will be needed.”