Making a positive impact through regenerative design

3 Jul 23

No one intends to cause errors, yet errors occur, said Oliver Broadbent in his presentation on regenerative design at the final Getting the Design Right webinar. There’s a difference between intentions and outcomes, he added. No one intends to cause a negative impact, yet the overall outcome of the construction industry is negative – and this is where the concept of regenerative design comes in.

“For the last 25 years, sustainability has laid the groundwork for our industry thinking more widely about how we balance social, environmental and economic prosperity and the broader impact of our work,” he said. “It has successfully brought environmental issues into the mainstream consciousness, but there is a problem with sustainability.”

That problem lies in the definition of sustainable design: meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. “If that is our aim, then the best we can do is cause no harm. If we recognise that no project achieves 100% sustainability, that means every project in some way is still causing harm.

“It comes back to intent vs outcomes. We don’t want it to be the case, but the overall net impact of our work and the industry is to cause harm, and that is reflected in the climate emergency declarations many firms have signed up to. It is reflected in global emissions, and the biodiversity crisis. The construction industry accounts for around 40% of carbon emissions, and we don’t even know the full impact we are having on the living world.”

Regenerative design is about achieving more than simply doing no harm; it is about making a positive impact, said Oliver. “Imagine if every time we built something, it didn’t just make that place better, it made all the places impacted by the supply chain better as well. What would that look like?”

Oliver’s regenerative design lab is attempting to answer this question. “We have a definition: the aim of regenerative design is for human and living systems to survive, thrive and co-evolve. This is easy to say, but embedded in it is a fundamental shift in how we build, from leaving parts of the world depleted to making everything we touch better.”

He argued that focusing solely on carbon ignores the other impacts of construction – on communities in the supply chain, on water, soil health, and biodiversity. “Are we leaving water more polluted as a result of our project? Are we thinking about soil health? We are seeing a net decrease in soil health and insect numbers in the UK, and that’s scary.”

Oliver discussed the concept of ‘the second site’, based on the toaster project by artist Thomas Thwaites, who decided to build a toaster from first principles and travelled around the world for a year to source all the materials he required.

“In a sense, the rest of the world was his construction site, even though he assembled the toaster on his workbench. You might have a diagram of your site with a red line around it that represents the boundary, but what is the other construction site you rely on but don’t know about? What is the true impact of your project when you consider all the places your materials come from?”

He acknowledged that identifying the ‘second site’ for a building, an estate, a city, is more complex than for a toaster, but said we must start thinking about it if our intent is to achieve a positive impact.

“Where does the gypsum come from that goes into the cement, that goes into the concrete, that goes into the foundations? If we chase these things back, we can start to ask what the impact is on the places they are coming from. We need to consider the rate of renewal of these resources and look for untapped, local resources. Because it’s not just the sites we are affecting, but the whole logistics chain, and it doesn’t stop at construction and opening up. What happens downstream matters too. What are the unintended consequences, and what are the opportunities?”

One opportunity, said Oliver, is in supplier relationships. “If you find out where materials are coming from, you might find out whether there is an alternative or a better way of sourcing it. Your suppliers are thinking about these questions, too. They are also looking at how to reduce their impact, and they want to talk to you about it. Have a conversation and see what opportunities you can unlock.”

Find out how to join the Regenerative Design Lab.

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