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Regenerative Design Principles in Action

regen-cycle2So we have talked about regenerative design in previous posts, trying to be as general as possible (looking at the big picture).  In this post, I will try to refine these concepts into some more specific design principles and show some examples of these in practice.  We’ll also have a look at performance goals, which the design principles are intended to help us achieve.

This list of 10 regenerative design principles is my own take on similar list published by others (see references at the end of this article).

Principle #1 – Let Nature Do the Work – Utilize ‘Free’ Energy

Valletta Springs Arcology by Paolo Soleri - apse shape shades itself in summer, traps heat in winter.  water filters down through the llandscape while air is drawn upward through the habitat.
Valletta Springs Arcology by Paolo Soleri – apse shape shades itself in summer, traps heat in winter. water filters down through the landscape while air is drawn upward through the habitat.

Despite warnings of an energy shortage, there is energy flowing all around us in the form of sunlight, wind, water and chemical processes within the biosphere.  We perceive a shortage only because for the most part we have chosen to limit ourselves to harnessing only the most concentrated and storable energy sources: petroleum products mostly, plus nuclear and also large scale industrial versions of wind and solar power.   Part of the issue here is that energy is seen as a commodity, something to be bought and sold.  Energy providers often choose to exploit only the most profitable sources of energy, not necessarily the most abundant or ‘best’ forms (what is considered ‘best’ is often defined by profit in these circles).  In fact our buildings are typically designed to deflect the ambient energy flow (heat, sunlight, wind, etc.) rather than harness them.

Certain forms of ‘free’ energy are beginning to catch on, like solar panels to harvest sunlight.  Others are starting to catch on again (they were the norm at one time but didn’t fit the post WWII image of better living through technology), like passive solar heating and daylighting.  The design challenge here is refine our techniques & technologies for harnessing available energy, storing it, distributing it and using it effectively.  The application of these methods has to be balanced against the standards for environmental controls (ASHRAE 55).

There are many industrial processes that could also benefit from biomimicry.  Much energy is currently expended dealing with wastewater, toxic substances and air pollutants.  Properly designed, lower energy natural processes can be used to help process materials and impurities.  In addition to saving energy, these biological processes produce other benefits for both humans and other species in the ecosystem.  Using plants and animals to treat sewage is one common example (see also the Waste = Food Principle below). Harnessing nature in this way does, however, require that we reintegrate nature with our built environment.  This approach is most cost effective when such integration occurs from the beginning rather than as an add-on later in the development process.

Soleri was a master of integration but the scale and ambition of his projects were often overwhelming.  Projects like Renzo Piano’s Tjibaou Cultural Center in New Caledonia, Norman Foster’s City Hall for London, and other modern works demonstrate that the ideas are sound, however.

Principle #2 – Find Common Solutions to Disparate Problems

Multifaceted design by Carpitecture - click on image to visit their blog.
Multifaceted design by Carpitecture – click on image to visit their blog.

This is the design equivalent of ‘killing two (ore five) birds with one stone’, albeit a less colorful and violent expression of the principle.  A simple example of this is to employ shading louvers with built in solar panels – one solution addresses three problems: electrical demand, overheating and glare.  Likewise, a vegetated facade could be designed to provide shade in the summer, admit solar heat in the winter, purify and humidify incoming air, filter greywater and provide food or other valuable plants (flowers, etc.) for the human occupants.  The possible synergies are often unique to a given site and program, and are limited only be the innovation and imagination of the designers.

The multi-functionality of a given design element may, in fact, help justify the additional costs of adding it to the project.


Principle #3 – Employ Multiple Paths  

UMD's WaterShed house in the 2011 Solar Decathlon used multiple systems and energy sources to enhance resilience and system efficiency.
UMD’s WaterShed house in the 2011 Solar Decathlon used multiple systems and energy sources to enhance resilience and system efficiency.

This is essentially the converse of Principle #2, but these principles are meant to be complementary, not contradictory.  There are generally multiple processes or components that can provide for any given need, such as heat, light, food, etc..  By combining multiple paths to each end, we can increase the resilience of the system to disruptions in each individual path; if we lose electricity, having a ‘clean’ wood-burning fireplace can be a big plus, for instance.  In the WaterShed project, the liquid desiccant system and hot-water loop (using solar hot water) can help the mini-split systems (using power from the photovoltaic panels)  in cooling and heating the house, respectively.

Ideally, we would combine Principles #2 and #3 to create a matrix of multiple components working together to provide multiple functions, enhancing resilience without adding a large number of components overall.  This leads us to the next principle…

Principle #4- Optimize the SYSTEM rather than the individual components

Smart Car?  Smart systems should be BALANCED.
Smart Car? Smart systems should be BALANCED.

The design professions (and indeed all professional disciplines) have become more specialized and our processes more compartmentalized.  This makes them more manageable (and that make managers happy) but tends to lead to solutions where each component in the project is designed to perform at peak effectiveness… just not together.  An orchestra made up of the finest soloists will not often perform well playing together.

Combining the concepts of Principles #2 and #3 above, we must design our projects to optimize the function of the system.  Ideally, of course that would mean that each component would also be optimized, but that is rarely the case.  Systems tend to operate over a range of conditions in time.  Selecting the appropriate components and combining them in the best way for overall performance requires a much more nuanced approach and finer set of tools.  It requires an integrated design process involving all pertinent disciplines from the beginning.  Generally, this multidisciplinary team must work iteratively, circulating the design over and over until it ‘converges’ on an optimal solution (optimal for multiple criteria, not just one).  Building Information Modeling (BIM) tools and there effective use are important to the success of this process.

Principle #5 – Create Closed Cycles – Waste = Food

Carbon Dioxide is often considered a waste product from combustion, but here it is used as food for algae, which harvests the sunlight and shaded the building.
Carbon Dioxide is often considered a waste product from combustion, but here it is used as food for algae, which harvests the sunlight and shaded the building.

Waste = Food is a concept made popular by William McDonnell and Michael Braungart in their book Cradle to Cradle.   They extended the premise from the biological world, using it as an inspiration for proposing closed cycles of industrial ‘nutrients’ as well.  They noted that in reality, very few man-made materials are truly recyclable, but are ‘downcycled’ – in each successive iteration, the materials lose quality and are progressively less able to be reused.  Ideally, materials should be capable of being reused indefinitely, recycled into products of equal or better quality.  This concept was further discussed in their follow on work, entitled The Upcycle.  McDonough and Braungart further suggested that biologic and industrial cycles be kept separate to avoid either one from polluting the other.

The redefinition of ‘waste’ as being valuable nutrients has profound implications not only for materials like plastic and metal.  When we start thinking of ‘waste’ as a resource and not as a problem to be gotten rid of, our entire paradigm for how we build and operate our environment.  It impacts the organization of buildings and communities alike.  It can change the regional distribution of manufacturing and infrastructure.

Although creating a closed loop society may favor decentralization of infrastructure and local markets, this is not the only possibility.  Many different patterns of development have been suggested by other authors and time will tell which will be the most effective for any given community.

Principle #6 – Use Information to Replace Power

Archimedes said 'give me a lever long enough and I will move the world', but this got cut from the budget.
Archimedes said ‘give me a lever long enough and I will move the world’, but this got cut from the budget.

Although the phrase “work smarter, not harder” may fail to inspire workers in the way corporate America would like, this idea can be a valuable design concept for high performance buildings.  The most obvious incarnation of this principle is building automation, giving the building a brain and nervous system (handy components for any living organism).  This system can control anything from thermostats to light levels to exterior shading devices.  More advanced systems can use up-to-date weather predictions, real-time simulations and occupant data to optimize comfort while conserving energy (as well as water, air flow, and other flows).

This principle can also relate to the design process itself.  When we design a building or community or product based on a deep understanding of physics and site conditions, we can better optimize that design to serve the human occupants and the ecosystem they live in.  The same is true when it comes to operation; the more informed residents and maintenance staff are, the more efficient and effective the built environment can be.

So this principle suggests that we must first understand the project goals, the site and the occupant’s behaviors and needs.  This information must be be part of an integrated multidisciplinary process  to produce an optimized design.  Those who will construct, inhabit, use and maintain the project must also be made stewards of the knowledge needed to optimize its performance.

Principle #7 – Manage Storage (of Energy, Water, Waste, Nutrients, etc.)

Water Cistern as architectural element.
Water Cistern as architectural element.

In order to be more sustainable and resilient, our projects must be designed to store resources safely and use them effectively.  Resources may include electromagnetic energy, heat, clean water, wastewater, biologic and industrial nutrients (recyclables).  These resources tend to come to the site naturally (in the form of sunlight and rainfall for example) but generally at rates and intervals that match the demand placed on the project.  In the age of large scale power networks driven by fossil fuels, the supply was designed to ramp up or down as needed based on demand.  In an age of decentralized renewable energy sources (sun and wind in particular), we need to design ‘the grid’ to be more flexible, dynamic and intelligent, with built in storage capacity (to make sure we make it through those dark and windless nights).  Similarly, as more pronounced periods of drought and flood (including those influenced by climate change – it’s happening!  get used to it)  make water supply less predictable, we will need to reinforce and distribute our network of water storage.

Part of developing a more informed populace (see Principle #5 above) means making the processes and available resources visible.  Some of the storage capacity will naturally be hidden inside mechanical rooms and in underground tanks, but we have the opportunity to make many elements are part of our new resilient design aesthetic.  It will require the work of talented architects and landscape designers as well as engineers.

Principle #8 – Create Health and Beauty… Everywhere

wastewater_collageOK, so this sounds like a no-brainer.  Nobody goes into a project or a profession with the intention of creating things that are ugly and fetid.  And yet… it happens, especially when factors like sustainability and cost are introduced (the ‘it has a solar array on the roof – what do you WANT from us anyway’ effect).  It is an article of faith, but one confirmed by countless projects throughout the world and throughout history, that we CAN make things that are functional, affordable and beautiful.  It does require that beauty – opportunities for delight, inspiration and reflection – be made a priority from the beginning of the design process.  True beauty is not something tacked on; it lives in the bones of the building and heart of the community.

‘Creating health’ may take a bit more explanation.  Everyone thinks first of human health (which IS essential).  We must design buildings and products that don’t offgas harmful substances into the air we breath. We need to design energy efficient building envelopes that don’t promote mold.  We need to get the smokers to light up away from the doors and windows (or better yet, quit smoking altogether).  We must also recognize that beauty is essential to our health.  We need access to sunlight and nature to be healthy and happy (the mind and body are linked and we are born with an affinity for nature).

But health must also consider the condition of the ecosystem beyond human considerations.  We have to safeguard the health of non-human species and the processes that sustain them as well.  This requires special consideration, because let’s face it, our track record of casual stewardship has not yielded very much success.  This means making sure that our activities do not cripple the soil’s nutrient balance, the viability of the hydrologic cycles, the diversity of species needed to create a healthy ecosystem, etc.

Finally, a word about the ‘…Everywhere’ caveat above.  In creating beauty within our project site, we must not create ugliness elsewhere.  If the process of obtaining that stone facade we love means destroying habitat for species at the quarry, we need to reconsider using the material at all.  Ideally, we would locate a source that employs methods that safeguard the environment at the point of extraction.

Principle #9 – Employ Appropriate Technologies and Scales

Rube Goldberg's legacy is alive and well in some of our hi-tech green gadgets.
Rube Goldberg’s legacy is alive and well in some of our hi-tech green gadgets.

Sustainability doesn’t always require a hi-tech solution any more than it calls for a return to an agrarian economy.  Hi-tech solutions are cool, though, and it means that somebody is getting paid to develop it, market it, package it, ship it, install it, repair it, upgrade it, and so on.  It fits our current economic model for success.  I am not against hi-tech green solutions when the added layer of complexity or performance is warranted, but I am also not a fan of ‘green gadgetry’, as some call it.  Each project has to determine what is needed based on the client, the users, the market, regulations and so on.  I may not have much luck building my own composting toilet, one that my wife won’t insist that I put as far away from the house as possible and which only I will end up using.  On the other hand, she might be perfectly content to have a sleek, stylish, hermetically sealed  commercial composting toilet installed in the house.  If the higher tech approach helps a more regenerative lifestyle win acceptance, then that may be price of admission, so to speak.  As I say, it depends.

Not every regenerative design solution makes sense at all scales, either.  It may not make sense, for example, to install a Living Machine blackwater treatment system on an individual house, though it certainly is possible. The cost and maintenance issues associated with some functions suggest a larger scale, like a neighborhood scale Living Machine.  The Living Building Challenge addresses this consideration explicitly through the Scale Jumping option on Imperatives.

Principle #10 – Attitudinal Shifts

Whenever I present regenerative ideas to others, I often get two types of response:

  1. Good LUCK with that!  That will never survive the whiff test (sometimes literally) … OR
  2. Oh, sure, that is just LEED Prerequisite SS1 (or whatever).

I maintain that these responses tend to miss the point that I am trying to get across.  One is that we have to start changing our way of thinking if we are going to create a truly sustainable society (you have to decide for yourself if that matters – read my other blogs if you want more on my perspective there).  We are going to have to think outside the box, and what we find there may seem unpalatable or taboo at times.  I believe, however, that there is an innovative designer out there that can turn even the weirdest idea into something beautiful, elegant and fantastic.  We need to get these ideas out in the sunlight so that can GET the reactions noted above and start working on solutions.  We have to be willing to try something different.

As for the second response, it is often true that regenerative design ideas look similar to more conventional solutions.  That’s good, in a way, because it shows that regenerative methods are not completely alien to our current framework.  The difference is often in the aspirational flavor.  Rating systems like LEED are a great start toward a regenerative destination, but they are often TOO specific and definite.  They are often taken AS the destination, not the first step down the path.  I believe that we have to have a clear picture of where we ultimately want to go, to keep pushing for that and not settle for something that kind of seems like it.  While we must always be thinking about a better solution, I agree that we need to define concrete steps along the way, and LEED (and other systems) help us take that step.