Regenerative Buildings & Districts

Restoring a healthy relationship between buildings, nature, communities, and the place they are designed into.

The regenerative practitioner designs buildings and infrastructures that are holistically conceived to be deeply rooted in their natural and social context, that protect and regenerate places and communities, and that realign how humans interact with the ecosystems that sustain us. Taking a cue from natural processes, the resources needed to build, operate, and maintain our buildings are dealt with responsibly and efficiently, ensuring closed loops of use, minimal wastage of resources, and net positive results. Building processes mimic nature in that there is no waste output, but “waste” is used as input for a new, regenerative process, or systems that re-enact natural systems through passive house design principles and use of renewable energies.

Urban agriculture and factory conversion in Bangkok, Thailand

Holcim Awards Silver 2011 for Asia Pacific, Urban Farm Urban Barn creatively responds to the detrimental consequences of urbanization. A former textile factory and abandoned farmland in Bangkok, Thailand is at the conjunction of building requalification and ecosystem restoration, through integrating an agricultural platform and the water reservoir and distribution network to support it.

Designing beyond net zero

The International Living Future Institute (ILFI) has established the Living Building Challenge (LBC) 3rd party certification, or the first regeneration advocacy and design tool, advocating for a holistic approach that goes beyond doing less bad to doing good. Its motto speaks for a built environment that is “socially just, culturally rich and ecologically restorative”. The goal is to move beyond net zero and generate net positive benefits.

Giving back to the environment means setting performance goals for buildings that go well beyond green building performance, or energy or water efficiency and balance. It means designing buildings that operate as power plants and water treatment plants, by covering their overall demand as well as generating surplus for the benefit of the overall urban energy and water balance. Tenant, the community at large and ecosystem can all benefit from co-shared results.

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The addition of community gardens and planted terraces and roofs not only make the energy footprint of the building more efficient, in that they counteract urban heat island effect, but make for beautiful buildings. Holcim Awards Gold 2020 winner for North America, House as Garden in Chicago, USA focuses on passive measures including thick, heavily insulated walls, thermal glazing, cross ventilation, and seasonal shading to reduce energy use and costs of operation.

Photovoltaics provide power for the heat pump and appliances, topped up by storage batteries and a new local grid. The building will be net carbon positive, thanks to key systems and materials and its extensive greenery and lush orchard. Rainwater is collected in cisterns. Blackwater is remediated via anaerobic digestion and resulting grey water is recirculated for toilet flushes and watering the garden. Recycling and composting will be easy. Cars and bikes are shared. A focus of community pride and place, it will celebrate the logic and ease of truly sustainable living.

Strategies for creating regenerative buildings

There is a wealth of strategies that practitioners can deploy to achieve regenerative buildings. Capture and storage of rainwater, as well as treatment and recirculation of grey water used in the building, can guarantee less usage of municipal water, economies of scale and improved resilience. The same is valid for energy, that can be generated by the building through different capture technologies and stored. Carbon emissions can be sequestered. The air can be purified by integrating green roofs and skins. Food can be grown for the inhabitants use and for enhancement of urban biodiversity. The hydrology, geomorphology, and in general natural and social pre-existing habitats can be restored, protected, and enhanced by buildings instead of depleted.

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The Atlassian Building, High-Performance Tower in Sydney, Australia is a building that encompasses green building and passive design principles as much a regeneration philosophy and was the Holcim Awards Bronze 2020 winner for Asia Pacific. The innovative building is the world’s tallest hybrid timber tower. It uses an energy-efficient system based on passive house principles for ventilation and lighting and is clad with an innovative glass, energy generating façade. The connection to nature is enhanced in wood interiors that are flooded by light and planted with gardens. Extensive green roofs and walls compensate for the loss of landscape on the existing brownfield lot.

Interdependent design thinking

Urban nature’s ecosystem services are acknowledged as central pillars of sustainable and healthy cities. Biophilic design can help to transform the way we build cities if we critically challenge our design paradigms by learning from nature. Natural systems are characterized by co-dependent parts that dynamically shape each other; they are not a set of static and standardized parts designed independently of specific contexts. Moreover, evolution — nature’s engine of innovation — continuously improves existing solutions and cherishes slow-grown innovations rather than providing dreams of disruptive novelty.

Nature’s designs are also characterized by a high multifunctionality of imperfect solutions, which are the result of bricolage rather than the work of specialists that focus on controllability and optimized monofunctionally. Finally, urban citizens must relearn the eco-competence of living among other species with respect to the laws of ecology. This requires craftsmanship, tolerance, patience, responsibility, and humility – explains Christoph Küffer in “Cities as ecosystems and buildings as living organisms” in The Materials Book, a publication inspired by the Holcim Forum 2019.

Biophilic design and biomimicry

Biophilic design strategies can significantly enhance the quality of our buildings, our health, and the preservation of our ecosystems. Biophilic design is a design practice that aims at repairing human disconnect from nature, and an essential design pathway towards regeneration.

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Biophilic design is the deliberate attempt to translate an understanding of the inherent human affinity to affiliate with natural systems and processes—known as biophilia—into the design of the built environment. Stephen Kellert

Medical studies prove that a life far removed from nature can cause psychological as well as physical and cognitive issues. One of the earliest and most known studies on health-related outcomes of biophilic design have been published by Professor Roger Ulrich. The study shows how sensory exposure to nature elements reduces stress, improves cognitive and behavioral performance, mental engagement, and creativity. Harnessing these benefits into our built environment becomes then a desirable design strategy.

Biophilic designed buildings incorporate environmental features, shapes, and processes, enhance our relationship with natural light and ventilation, integrate plants, connect with the ecology, geography and history of places and ultimately use design techniques to promote buildings that emulate visual and non-visual, experiential relationship with nature. Synergistic design solutions can be triggered, such as reducing urban heat island, or reducing building heating and cooling loads by gardens in urban spaces and building roofs.

Regenerative districts

Re-greening our environments comes with the responsibility of re-thinking the way we experience urban space. Our current urban design paradigm revolves around vehicular mobility, particularly single occupancy vehicles. City developments are still strictly dictated by street widths necessary to accommodate traffic volume, parking spaces, buffer zones from sidewalks and roads.

The 15-minute city is a new urban planning and design paradigm that brings back human-centric design to our cities, by decentralizing urban services and goods and keeping them equitably accessible, within a walking or cycling distance of 15 minutes. The concept has been developed by the Professor Carlos Moreno, who is now Special Envoy for Smart Cities at the Paris City Council. Carlos Moreno has been awarded the Obel Award 2021 for the solution, which now sees cities around the world experimenting with the concept. Paris, Seoul, Bogotá, Detroit, London, Melbourne, Milan, and Portland are amongst the cities that are introducing the idea, to increase the quality of life of their residents, boost communal and green spaces, reduce vehicular transit, and therefore improve air quality.

An important shift towards projects that “do good”

We are seeing projects that aspire to be net positive. It is no longer enough to do less harm; these projects seek to do good by repairing and regenerating the neighborhood. Actual change will come from this widening of priorities and actions, of seeing beyond short-term cost and profit. For this to happen more widely, however, governments must step in. They must align development of the built environment with explicit long-term goals that includes the well-being of their people in the widest sense. This includes natural and community networks that people rely on. “In practice this means that the design of a building starts with an understanding of networks,” explains Professor Nirmal Kishnani, National University of Singapore.

Global finalist entry 2018 – Grassroots Microgrid

Grassroots Microgrid in Detroit, USA is a community-driven neighborhood planning project and recipient of the Holcim Awards Gold 2017 for North America. The project effectively showcases how environmental regeneration goes hand in hand with building stronger, more engaged and more resilient communities that are both nurtured and nurture their corner of the city. The design framework addresses infrastructure (energy, water, food, water, and mobility) and renewable systems (workforce development, empowerment, education, culture, and economic development). The components of the project include solar power generation, rainwater collection and urban farming – which all make the neighborhood more attractive for renters and potential home-owners, building momentum for urban recovery.

Greening districts, reimaging urban corridors as green vitality corridors, re-using industrial areas for urban agriculture, and restoring urban water courses to leisure areas are all magnificent examples of how to merge the disconnect between humans and nature, and create districts that are livable, promote clean air and provide habitat for plants and animal species.

Further reading on regenerative buildings and districts