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Sustainability is dead: Regenerative architecture is the new green

Is sustainability a model that our culture should adopt and promote knowing that the bucket will one day be empty?

May 16, 2018 |
HMC Architects Blog

While it had good intentions, sustainability was a concept that failed on launch and simply should have never been. Its original premise was to meet the needs of the present without compromising future generations’ ability to meet their needs—all within available resources. But, does that make sense? Imagine a bucket brimming with any finite resource. Over the years, that resource is diminished as a function of development, industrialization, manufacturing, and population growth. After a century of environmental thievery, the bucket is half-full and sustainability—with all of its good intentions—calls on us to use only what is needed so that we don’t compromise the needs of future generations.

Thus, the current population adjusts its needs to provide the next generation access to a bucket of equal quantities of resources. The problem is, world population is growing at breakneck speed. In 1900, we had 1.6 billion living on the planet. In 2050, we’re expected to reach 9 billion. Let that sink in.

Conservation has its limits. Regardless of the conservation strategy the population needs a bare minimum to survive. As the population grows, our bucket’s resources will start a deficit trend. Generation after generation will pass that bucket to drive the deficit so deep that resource extinction is eminent. The question becomes: Is sustainability a model that our culture should adopt and promote knowing that the bucket will one day be empty?


A better solution

Imagine innovation focused on filling the bucket and striving to achieve what sustainability has done for the world in the last two decades. What achievements could we have accomplished by now had we propositioned a different hypothesis? What if we didn’t focus on conservation, but instead invested intellectual, human, and financial capital in restoring and replenishing resources within a regenerative context?

At HMC Architects, we are inspired by John Lyle’s systems ecology approach to architecture, and we propose that a regenerative approach restores whereas a sustainable approach quite simply, maintains.

For HMC, this begins by empowering our people to start dialogues about regenerative design, to go beyond green building certifications and to question the methods our industry has been using. We are motivating our work culture to explore net positive strategies so that our buildings can renew nature and give back to our communities.

Our first initiative is investing in a distributed leadership model that offers opportunities for regenerative leaders to emerge in each of our offices. These leaders are responsible for the regenerative culture within their studio, from organizing learning opportunities about the latest in green building techniques and technologies to sourcing fair-trade coffee for their workplace. Through our regenerative leaders, we’re fostering a culture that thinks deeply about the future, and that mindset carries over to our projects and communities.

We want to see elementary schools that not only have incredible learning environments for its students, but also produce excess energy to power the surrounding neighborhood. We’re imagining hospitals with a storm water management system to provide non-potable irrigation water back to its community. We’re dreaming up eco-cities with an entirely edible landscape that feeds its residents. To visualize this regenerative future, we’re celebrating our sustainable project successes and learning from them as we move toward regenerative design.


Understanding is key to everything

As environmental stewards, we must help our clients though budget concerns by giving them the hard facts. We need to help them understand what they are paying for while simultaneously explaining that regenerative measures don’t always equate to higher costs. Developing life cycle cost assessments unravels the true cost of implementing regenerative design principles. This can be done for energy, water and waste.

At HMC, we are designing levels of zero energy, zero waste, and zero water use so that we can empower project teams and clients to make a choice. Our goal is that EVERY project will accomplish one of the following:

–Zero Net Energy
–Net positive

–Have on-site water capture and reuse

–Have a zero-waste construction process


Beyond status quo

If you’re looking to simply check the LEED box, we encourage you to think bigger. California is already ahead of the national curve, and we need to ask ourselves if we are okay with the status quo? Or should we be thinking beyond? ZNE is an undeniable future, and that’s a good thing.

We understand that clients can be apprehensive when of things with which they are unfamiliar. So, it’s our job to demystify these concepts for them so that they become reality. This is achieved through training and education.

— At the beginning of any project, we encourage having an eco-charrette. These are key to the design process and teach the client (and us) how regenerative principles and strategies work and can be put into action.

— Plan for training sessions so that users know how to operate their new building when it’s occupied.

— Plan for a post-occupancy evaluation to learn how the design team did, and how users are doing in their new building.

Sustainability has given us a foundation and perhaps it’s got more people thinking about the impact humans have on the environment. But, to truly enrich our communities through architecture, we must change our mindset and bring a focused awareness to everyone with whom we come in contact. By encouraging dialogues about the next step for our industry, we can make regenerative architecture the new standard.

HMC Architects Blog | HMC Architects
HMC Architects

We’re problem solvers at heart. HMC Architects is a healthcare, education, and civic architecture firm with a sustainable approach to design. Our passionate and empowered teams truly love their work, and it shows. Learn about our partnerships with healthcare, education, and civic clients and see how we’ve worked together to solve their toughest design problems. Check out our new COVID research papers here:

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