Can We Go Beyond Sustainability?

“So deep is the environmental crisis; so urgent is the demand for change, that architecture must become not only a profession … but a form of public service.”

First Lady Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, addressing the 1968 AIA convention.

The words above still ring true and speak to the impact our design decisions have on larger world systems (commonly termed “sustainable” design).  Sustainable design projects allow local communities and ecosystems to be maintained at their current state.  But what if those systems and their needs change over time?  Can we go beyond sustainability?

RESILIENCE: As temperatures change, major weather events occur, and large populations continue to move to our region:  the need for adaptable (or “resilient”) designs has become increasingly important.  What often comes to mind is over-engineered heating and cooling systems – but this does not change the approaches which created the conditions we are mitigating in the first place.  Instead, passive lighting and mechanical strategies, as well as shading devices and intentional landscape solutions can make a project more heat/drought-resistant and less dependent on the grid in the event of a natural disaster or temperature surge.  According to the American Institute of Architects (AIA), “Resilient design is no longer optional.”

RESTORATIVE DESIGN: Sustainable and resilient designs take us in the right direction.  But can we go one step further and create projects that give back?  A “restorative” design approach attempts to reverse the built environment’s impact by transitioning from a linear use of resources to a circular approach.  Most often, our resources follow a linear path from resource extraction to waste disposal.  A circular economy seeks to bypass the waste stream through reuse.  Holistic coordination across disciplines is required, and strategies cover everything from intercepting gray water and reusing or infiltrating on site, to net positive energy, and material waste elimination.  Planning for adapted reuse or disassembly of the structures for reuse is also inherent in the circular economy model.

REGENERATIVE DESIGN: How about one step even further?  Can we not just “put back,” but make things better than they were to begin with?  Regenerative projects do not pick-and-choose favored strategies:  they comprehensively encourage “net positive” improvements across all facets of the site and building.  And while the term “regenerative” design primarily (and correctly) focuses on net-positive improvement to ecosystems:  consider features that also thoughtfully promote community improvement.

Diagram: Bill Reed, Regenesis Group

Resilient, restorative, and regenerative approaches all rely on a comprehensive team and systems approach to creating better built environments – but we have the necessary tools to get there.  Embracing, improving, and integrating into the fabric of our ecosystems and local communities helps to ensure the success of a project (and its’ need to exist) for years to come.

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