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What’s The Difference Between Sustainable Design and Regenerative Design?

Since the dawn of the sustainable design movement, the design profession has developed an ever-sophisticated understanding of the kinds of impacts the built environment has on natural systems. Quantitative data now exists that correlates the adverse effects of climate change with emissions associated with the built environment. Indeed, since sustainable third party rating systems were first established, our industry has devoted the better part of the last three decades focusing on increasingly complex and interconnected sustainable design strategies for reducing the energy use and carbon emissions of buildings. However, the compounded effects of continued anthropogenic climate change have highlighted the fact that our grace period is over and simply reducing energy use is no longer enough. 

We can no longer focus on simply containing the harm our buildings commit to natural systems. An about-face is needed to reverse the harm done, so that our industry at large begins to design with more than energy on the brain, but with a deep and learned understanding of the social, economic, and natural ecologies that are directly affected by the building and construction industry.

In this context, when examining the origins of both sustainable design and regenerative design, let us think of them as two sides of the same coin. Only one, however, has the ability to reverse the harm done.

Defining Sustainable Design and Regenerative Design

Sustainable design employs products and methods that seek to minimize or neutralize the impacts of buildings on the natural environment which in turn creates a state of homeostasis that will not negatively impact future generations. When properly implemented, sustainable building practices can define clear paths towards optimal building performance, carbon reduction, and user wellness. LEED, the most prevalent sustainable design rating system in the U.S., has carried a lot of that weight, effectively transforming the country’s design, construction, operations, and maintenance industry for the better. Many billions of square feet of construction space are now LEED-certified and the people living and working in those buildings are healthier for it. And yet, sustainable design as a construct is built around the idea of maintaining a state of equilibrium.

The concept of regenerative design saw its early beginnings in the 1990s. Initially, a set of ideas that integrated elements of economic sustainability, ecological design, and broader social systems thinking, the core notion of regeneration as a design concept would grow over time into a holistic design ideology. This evolved approach sought to achieve net-positive results for our built environment to alleviate and even reverse the harm that has been done. Today, regenerative design is broadly defined as design that reconnects humans and nature through continuous renewal of evolving socio-ecological systems. It moves beyond maintaining homeostasis of the current state while measuring impacts on future generations, quite frankly because the current state is maladapted and detrimental to life. 

Differences Between Sustainable Design and Regenerative Design

Getting beyond equilibrium and the “sustainable status quo” does require a more holistic approach. We must move beyond simply minimizing the harm done to nature and start to consider design as a practice modeled on nature and natural system performance before human development. This imperative is what sets apart sustainable design from regenerative design. While sustainable design practices have enabled the architecture industry to work towards achieving net-zero carbon, water, and waste in many facets of the built environment, regenerative design aspires to realize net positive benefits in these areas and move towards long-term circularity. Regenerative design moves beyond basic high-performance design towards renewal-focused impacts and metric-driven targets for carbon, water, nutrients, air, biodiversity, social and health categories.

How Sustainable Design and Regenerative Design Are Compatible

Of course, we shouldn’t consider these practices in silos. It is not a matter of sustainable design being reactive and regenerative design being proactive. On the contrary, if the goal of regenerative design is to achieve a mutual symbiosis of human and natural systems through continual cycles of greening, sustaining, and restoring, then make no mistake — sustainable building practices are a vital cog in that wheel. 

This need for a deeper knowledge is what drove our colleagues to develop the Regenerative Design Framework, a tool designed to visualize, track, and shape a more holistic view of building metrics, while also considering each project in its broader context. 

The time for solving problems in silos is over. If we widen our lens and consider not just the challenges that face us but also our mandate as designers of the built environment, then at long last we see the big picture. We develop a clearer understanding of what it means to repair and restore. We then see regenerative design as a series of opportunities for buildings to provide demonstrable positive benefits to local economies, communities, and natural environments.