What is Regenerative Design?


What is Regenerative Design? Before we can answer that question, we have to define the concept of true Sustainable Design. 

Most people agree that sustainable design is a good thing but getting everyone to agree on exactly what “sustainable” means can be difficult. At Equiterra, we define true sustainability as having no negative operational impact on the environment. True sustainability can be difficult to achieve, especially if you’re trying to achieve it through component-based thinking.

Typical thinking about sustainability considers matters like energy efficiency, water conservation, and non-toxic environments. These are all critical elements in the equation for a sustainable solution, but the problem with individual component solutions is just that⁠—they are pieces in a greater challenge that requires a big-picture, comprehensive solution. More directly, component-based sustainable design attempts to solve one problem at a time rather than looking holistically at the system’s needs. A potential outcome of solving one problem at a time is the likelihood of missing more critical needs, exacerbating negative impacts or creating new issues that did not exist before, all of which work against the end game of true sustainability. An additional pitfall of component-based thinking is the assumption that effective solutions in one context are applicable in all situations. Many component-based but context-inappropriate solutions are really only able to accomplish “less-bad” goals rather than substantively contributing to a fully effective solution. Component-based sustainability is certainly better than conventional design, but it doesn’t get us to where we need to be. 

Integrated sustainable design brings together all of these components and considers them as a whole system. This design methodology considers the unique nature of a specific project, its location, and the unique challenges and opportunities available in that context. Integrated sustainable design represents an ideal solution where, for example, energy systems are working in consort with water systems and building envelope systems, and we have considered the impact of these systems integrations on indoor air quality, the existing infrastructure, the environment, the user, and the culture and site that the project interfaces with. Comprehensive, integrated design of the built environment is true sustainability that yields buildings that have no negative operational impact.

But here is the rub in today’s day and age:  even if every building were able to achieve true sustainability right this instant, it would not be enough to reverse the cumulative negative impacts the natural world is facing. We must consider both the environmental cost of construction and what steps we need to take to solve our current environmental issues. We need to go beyond true sustainability to attain what we call regenerative design.

So what is regenerative design? In essence, it is integrated sustainable design that goes beyond having no negative impact and actually attains a net-positive impact on the environment. This is accomplished by not only offsetting the environmental cost of construction, but by also offsetting the negative impact of prior development. What does this look like? Consider this possibility: a project that generates more renewable power than it uses, produces waste water that is cleaner than the supply, uses a site that generates habitat for native species and reestablishes lost biodiversity, builds with materials that sequester carbon, and provides employment to locals who choose to value and celebrate their environment rather than extract from it; a project that continues to contribute through its entire existence. This is achievable. Contact us today to learn more.

Lisa Saldivar