Regenerative Design: how do you design in times of uncertainty?

Regenerative design represents a proactive approach to reversing climate change. It’s about protecting biodiversity, innovating with nature and empowering communities to act and, in turn, make a real difference. It’s also a shift away from seeing sustainability as ‘less harm’ and focussing on actively attempting to repair our planet so that future generations can not only survive, but thrive in years to come.  

As part of our programme of events at this year’s Clerkenwell Design Week, Interface’s Head of Sustainability EAAA, Jon Khoo, was joined by renowned architect and co-initiator of Architects Declare, Michael Pawlyn to discuss regenerative design and Michael’s latest book, FLOURISH: Design Paradigms for our Planetary Emergency.  

Here, Jon and Michael explain why the built environment community must begin to implement regenerative design principles and take positive steps towards sustainability. 

Reframing the narrative  

The biggest issue with conventional sustainable design is that, quite simply, it doesn’t go far enough. Though well-meaning, the framing of sustainability implies that the best we can do is to mitigate the extent to which we have a negative impact (albeit a mitigated one) on greenhouse gas emissions and global temperature levels.  

With this in mind, it’s key for architects and designers to question and reconsider the way they think about sustainable design, and implement regenerative principles that will help to protect our environment for years to come. 

Sustainable vs. regenerative  

During the discussion, three key differences between sustainable and regenerative design were explored.  

The first comes with holding design to a higher standard – striving to have a net positive impact. For example, rather than opting for brand new, low-carbon materials or solutions, architects and designers should begin to implement circular design principles, reusing existing products and using materials that take carbon out of the atmosphere. Ultimately, this will have a more positive impact over the longer term. 

The second difference is that regenerative design should move away from having the future of human life be a sole focus and, instead, to see humans as embedded within a web of natural systems on which we depend for food, oxygen, clean water and much more besides . It’s also important to understand that nature works on a vastly different timescale to humans. For example, Aspen trees are over 80,000 years old and, in comparison, we are a very young species. So, we must implement urgent, long-term plans that will positively impact humans and nature for centuries to come, not just the next decade.  

The final key difference is a shift away from a mechanistic way of thinking, towards a more ‘systemic’ way of thinking, which considers how we can work with nature to create and future-proof buildings and designs. 

Regenerative design in action     

Although it requires a new perspective, the best regenerative design examples are often the simplest. For example, using fibreoptic tubes is a great way carry natural light into a building. As well as introducing light and brightness into the space, this design saves energy and supports wellbeing through biophilic design. Another simple yet innovative example is Exploration’s proposal for a fully moonlit theatre (based on an idea by opera director Humbert Camerloo), where actors on stage are lit solely through moonlight and clever design.  

In addition to using natural light, architects and designers need to have a strong understanding of the earth’s self-regulating system and how it works. Increasingly we should be looking at materials that can help us to take carbon out of the atmosphere, such as calcifying bacteria, which requires no heat or cement, or biomaterials like plant fibre and mycelium, which are just as strong as traditional building materials like bricks and stone that contain more embodied carbon. 

At Interface, regenerative design is demonstrated through the release of our carbon negative products that harness recycled and bio-based materials to create a product that turns off the tap to fossil fuels, and raises the bar on what is possible cradle to gate.  

Q&A with Michael Pawlyn 

 Q) Are you feeling optimistic or doomed?

I’ve always been a possibilist and I don’t believe that climate ‘doomism’ is doing any good in encouraging people to take action.   

I do agree that there has been very little change in the last 30 years since sustainability started being taken seriously in the mainstream. However, businesses have a huge opportunity to lead the change. Interface, for example, has demonstrated amazing leadership in this area, with an advanced and progressive stance on industrial ecology and sustainability that was introduced by its founder, Ray Anderson, in the mid-90s.  

Q) There are biobased materials and products that utilise sequestered carbon and are naturally available in the UK, so what is the barrier to these products and designs scaling? 

 The built environment has become very risk-averse, and the market has been wary of new materials rather than embracing them but I think we’re going to see accelerating rates of change here as more businesses become committed to regenerative approaches. 

 Q) If you could implement one piece of legislation to encourage an attitude change from profit over purpose, what would it be? 

People often want simple solutions but it’s not that easy. We need transformative solutions such as the 15-minute city, which is being implemented in Paris by Anne Hidalgo. The idea is that you can retrofit cities so that everyone has easy access to the amenities they need within a 15 minute walk or cycle. The result is a far better quality of life at lower overall cost and with a radically reduced ecological footprint. 

To find out more about Michael’s book, FLOURISH: Design Paradigms for our Planetary Emergency, click here:  

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