The Regenerative Economy: Sustaining Society’s Future by Design
Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the health of Western societies/economies has been measured by their year-over-year growth. Much of that growth has relied on harvesting readily available, cheap materials to produce products for a growing consumer base. Once those products are no longer needed or wanted, consumers simply dispose of them as waste. Not much has changed: This “take-make-use-dispose” behavior defines the essence of today’s global linear economy.[i]
Historically, raw materials have been easy to access with relatively little effort or energy required to extract them. Given that those materials were used to create products for the smaller, affluent societies, the supply was abundant. But in today’s world, with a substantial, globally emerging middle class and its increasing demands for material goods, the supplies of readily available resources have been largely depleted. This demand for product requires manufacturers to spend more effort on acquiring materials, minimizing human labor to minimize expense, and selling more product to maximize profit. In turn, this dynamic means more waste is created.
Challenges of the Linear Economy
The linear economy’s limits are quickly becoming apparent to us today. Materials are harder to come by and cost more to extract. Despite companies chasing the cheapest human labor around the world, the global labor market is becoming more educated and demanding better compensation and safer working conditions, increasing labor costs for manufacturers. Natural systems are distressed as material extraction becomes more effort-intensive, ecosystem services that sustain life are polluted and reduced, and waste flows regularly threaten vulnerable communities.
With the global population expected to exceed 10 billion by 2100, in order to sustain itself, the linear economy will require exhaustion of the planet’s natural capital, not just its annual productivity potential.[ii] We are now consuming the interest and the principal. Add this evolving threat to the adverse impacts of climate change, market volatility and political risks, and it becomes starkly apparent there is an immediate and compelling need to change the way the world at large and each one of us conducts business. Southface believes that transitioning away from a linear economy to a regenerative one can not only sustain modern living, it can heal social, economic and environmental damage while creating new potential.
The Regenerative Alternative
So, you ask, what exactly is a regenerative economy? Great question. We have illustrated the nature and limitations of a linear economy. The current, predominant contrast to a linear economy is a circular one. Within a circular economy, which was initially defined for manufacturing processes, the lack of waste and absence of pollution are primary characteristics. Products and materials are used and re-used as long as possible, and natural systems are regenerated.[iii] Southface envisions a circular-based economy that is inclusive of the natural environment, the built environment and the social environment, which we call the regenerative economy.
This regenerative economy is one which, while circular in nature, creates ever greater capacity for life without diminishing capital. A regenerative economy does not just retain resources that exist, it creates new resources while maintaining a dynamic balance to the sustained benefit of people, planet and profit. It is holistic by nature and enhances the individual and collective characteristics of the natural environment, the built environment and the social environment. Throughout the remainder of this discussion, we will use Georgia Tech’s Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design to illustrate many of the examples of a regenerative economy at work in the Southeastern United States.
The Consumption Volume of the Built Environment
The built environment is the nexus of the natural and social environments. As the planet’s urban centers grow faster than ever before, the pace of construction accelerates with global building stock expected to double by 2060.[iv] If the linear economy is the vehicle for such construction, it is reasonable to expect substantially increased greenhouse gas emissions, greater waste flows into landfills and greater social inequity.
According to the United Nations Environment Program, “the [global] buildings and construction sector accounted for 36% of final energy use and 39% of energy and process-related carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in 2018, 11% of which resulted from manufacturing building materials and products such as steel, cement and glass.”[v] The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that in 2018, 600 million tons of waste were generated by building construction and demolition in the United States, which was more than double the total annual municipal solid waste generated.[vi] U.S. building energy consumption in 2019 was 28% of total consumption.[vii] These statistics demonstrate the incredible adverse impact of the built environment and the potential for regenerative strategies to radically change that impact.
The Potential for Regenerative Design
The design community, specifically architecture, has already embraced the concept of regenerative design representing a portion of the regenerative economy’s potential. Inspired by landscape architecture efforts to create communities in which “daily activities were based on the value of living within the limits of available renewable resources without environmental degradation,”[viii] designers have studied various natural ecosystems to identify the ecological principles that could be applied to the built environment in a way that would produce buildings and communities that allow for evolving adaptability through feedback, emergence and dynamic balance.[ix]
Given that the built environment represents the nexus of the natural and social environments, these buildings and communities need to support a co-evolutionary partnership between people and place–what’s good for buildings should also be good for people and nature. To date, many buildings have manifested the principles of creating their own energy and water, and some have even managed to treat their own waste, such as the A.J. Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin College.[x]
But it was the introduction of the Living Building Challenge (LBC) that introduced and quantified requirements for a building to be considered essentially regenerative.[xi] The novel building certification program features aggressive building performance requirements, such as generating excess energy capacity and on-site water and waste treatment, but it also introduced requirements for wellness, equity and beauty that began to holistically address three environments: built, natural, social.
The Inspiration of The Kendeda Building
The Kendeda Fund, based in Atlanta, has long been committed to sustainability. Heeding the call to demonstrate that society requires a dramatic shift in thinking about the built environment, it funded the design and construction of the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design. The Kendeda Building, as it’s commonly known, not only serves the students of Georgia Tech, it demonstrates to people “who own, design and construct buildings” that the regenerative principles used in the building can be used in their buildings to create greater sustainability in their communities.[xii] Dena Kimball, Executive Director at the Kendeda Fund, commented, “When we started this journey with Georgia Tech, we had two primary goals in mind: First, to design and construct a fully certified Living Building in Atlanta that addresses the energy, water and other challenges faced every day here in Georgia. And second, to use this project as a means to inspire the design and construction community about what’s possible—and necessary—as this warming planet changes under our feet.”[xiii]
Completed in 2019, The Kendeda Building serves as a compelling example of the potential of the regenerative economy. To better appreciate what this new building paradigm can teach us, we’re going to examine the building project from each of the three environments: built, natural and social.
The Power of Climate-Specific Design
The project was conceived as one that could lead the transition of the building arts in the Southeast toward truly sustainable practices. Using the LBC (also supported by the Kendeda Fund, as is Southface) to drive the design and future performance of the building, the design team of Lord Aeck Sargent and the Miller Hull Partnership undertook the task of designing a net-positive (energy, water and waste) building for the Southeast, a challenging environment where the climate is hot and humid. Atlanta, specifically, practically splits its year between heating and cooling. Achieving a modern, regenerative building is a daunting task.
What resulted is a 37,000 square foot building with an additional 10,000 square feet (sf) of outdoor space. The building’s energy use intensity (EUI, a way to make comparing all buildings’ energy performance “apples to apples”) was projected to be between 30 and 35kBTU/SF/year, which is 72% more efficient than the average building of similar characteristics. But the LBC requires buildings to be net-positive or generate more energy than they consume.
“As a part of a holistic approach to creating a building that uses fewer resources than it consumes, The Kendeda Building at GT is designed to significantly lower the amount of energy it uses so that at least 105% of its energy use can be generated with PV panels on the project site (net positive energy),” noted Joshua Gassman, the Sustainable Design Director at Lord Aeck Sargent. “Our team was able to exceed this performance goal through an understanding of the site and climate coupled with thorough analysis and management of the energy budget. We used a combination of passive strategies such as overhangs, daylight harvesting and a robust building envelope, coupled with low-energy systems such as radiant heating and cooling, to meet these goals.”[xiv]
The building includes a photovoltaic solar array that has an EUI of 42/kBTU/SF/year. The additional capacity can handle increased usage, which otherwise is sent into the campus electricity grid where it is used by other buildings. The building renewably sustains itself and creates capacity for others!
Achieving Net-Positive Water
Another way the building sustains itself while increasing capacity is to generate more water than it consumes and processing its own waste. The building’s water strategy begins with a 50,000-gallon cistern that will collect up to 74,550 gallons per year from the building’s solar array and roof. The building uses that for the primary water supply. It also has a condensate harvesting system that supports site irrigation.
Potable water, or water used for drinking or human contact uses, is harvested on-site rather than relying on the municipal water supply system, which reduces the overall energy and water used to create a municipal supply. The process for treating water includes a filtration system and ultraviolet light disinfection chamber. Greywater collected from shower and sink drains and water fountains is treated by constructed wetlands and then control-released through subsurface infiltration to recharge the adjacent natural water table.
Rather than relying on the municipal wastewater treatment system, plumbing waste from toilets and urinals is processed through a composting toilet system. Periodically collected, the solids and leachate are transmitted to a composting facility where they are processed into fertilizing soil amendments used in ornamental landscapes (not food producing landscapes).[xv]
Buildings with regenerative water strategies prove to be a crucial solution to counter the South’s increasingly long drought periods. Atlanta, specifically, has insufficient groundwater to support its current, much less its anticipated population, which forces the use of rivers and reservoirs as primary municipal sources. In fact, recent legal battles between states over water rights demonstrates the urgency and importance of regenerative water solutions like those demonstrated in The Kendeda Building.
Stressors on the Natural Environment
The natural environment, the biosphere of our planet, is the context for all life on Earth. For eons, the planet’s systems have existed in a dynamic balance that created ever-greater capacity for supporting more life. Human population historically increased at less than one percent per year, but with the industrial revolution, lifespans increased and child mortality decreased.[xvi] These changes set the stage for the population to surge into the billions, and with it the adverse impacts of a linear economy, pushing the natural environment out of balance and threatening its ability to support life. Evolving to a regenerative economy can restore the conditions for balance within the natural environment.
The Kendeda Building’s performance illustrates several potentially regenerative impacts that buildings and the built environment can have on the natural environment. It uses substantially less electricity than a similar building, and the power it does use is generated through renewable strategies. In Georgia Power’s northern service area, which includes Atlanta, electricity is generated primarily using coal and natural gas, both of which are fossil fuels.[xvii] The more buildings generating renewable energy, the quicker we can wean society off fossil fuels, eliminating the damage they cause through their extraction, processing, transportation and burning. Cessation of fossil fuel use does not regenerate natural environments or the atmosphere, but it is an incredibly important step in the direction toward regeneration. The next step can be regenerating the atmosphere, extraction locations and generation sites by following examples such as The Kendeda Building.
Restoring Nature’s Regenerative Conditions
The LBC requires building projects to avoid green fields (undeveloped land) and use only grey or brown fields (developed lands that need some level of cleaning/restoration) for development, as well as repairing damage already done. The Kendeda Building’s site was formerly used as a parking lot and had been modified with fill dirt and debris over the years. The building project removed the asphalt, restored soils to healthy states and reversed some of the site modifications that now allow better and more natural drainage of water. Plants native to the region were selected for the landscaping of the building surroundings and adjacent green space.[xviii] Collectively these conditions help restore the regenerative conditions of nature.
As The Kendeda Building collects water for use, it is also directing water toward capacity building and use by others and natural systems. The water processes of the building directly regenerate groundwater tables that have been diminished through decades of hardscaping across the metropolitan Atlanta region and increased extraction. Imagine the water stability we could enjoy if building codes required development projects to use groundwater-recharging tactics to manage stormwater. This would also significantly reduce the public and private expenses of flooding, stormwater management and sewage spills from combined stormwater and sewage systems. As of 2018, Atlanta’s Department of Watershed Management reduced annual stormwater by more than one billion gallons through the use of green infrastructure with plans for further reductions.[xix] Imagine if we implemented such strategies globally!
Using Regenerative Building Materials
The materials used for The Kendeda Building have also had positive impacts for the natural environment. The primary construction material is mass timber (see Southface’s recent article on mass timber). This renewable, naturally sourced material reduces the total use of materials, including those which have much larger carbon contributions, such as steel and concrete. Wood sequesters carbon during its growth, and it remains sequestered in the manufactured building material. Kendeda has also demonstrated the viability of re-using lumber rendering even greater carbon savings for the project.
Recall our earlier note about construction and demolition (C&D) waste at 600 million tons, which is double the amount of household-generated municipal solid waste (MSW). Almost 70% of C&D waste is concrete, followed by asphalt concrete (nearly 18%).[xx] That’s almost 512,000,000 TONS of concrete and asphalt waste in one year! Both materials are incredibly high emitters of carbon during their curing processes, meaning there should be mainstream ways to salvage those materials and re-introduce them into circular nutrient flows. Such waste diversion practices will reduce their embodied carbon liabilities and minimize waste flows into landfills.
The Living Building Challenge (LBC) requires building projects to achieve net-positive waste flows. Projects must essentially direct all waste toward nutrient flows as well as use similarly diverted materials to achieve a net-positive waste flow. In other words, the building must not create waste and use other projects’ waste as material sources! The former asphalt parking lot on The Kendeda Building’s site, 443 tons worth, was recycled into other uses. Wood was salvaged from other locations to help create mass timber elements and other structural elements such as the building’s grand staircase. Slate salvaged from campus roofs was repurposed as finish materials. This resourceful, regenerative approach is possible today on any project. It’s time for architects, builders and owners to shift their thinking and practices to eliminate the concept of waste and locally source some of their building materials from pioneering organizations like the Lifecycle Building Center.
While the markets’ leading-edge adopters are encouraging these practices and demonstrating their potential, government action to incentivize and/or codify these practices could transform the predominantly linear nature of the construction industry into a circular one in a relatively short time. Such regenerative practices reduce extraction and manufacturing demands for virgin materials, redirect waste into extended-use material sourcing, reduce distress on ecosystem services and reduce carbon emissions.
Buildings and their materials also have a profound impact on the conditions for indoor occupant health and well-being. The quality of lighting, the ventilation and filtration of air, the gases emitted by building materials and the connections to nature all work in concert to create indoor environments where Americans spend 90% of their lives.[xxi] The impact on physical and mental health is substantial and demonstrates the integral and intimate relationship between the built environment and the social environment.[xxii]
The Importance of the Social Environment
Human endeavor is manifested in this social environment. The act of one or the act of millions takes place in societies derived by shared experience and purpose. Our education, our work and our beliefs create the common ethics in which we can realize potential or be limited by constraints. Our linear economy has created conditions of inequity and hazard for many who lack the resources to otherwise eliminate such adversity.
People living in poor and minority areas are often exposed to far greater levels of industrial pollution than those who do not, and residents of such areas lack the political power to remediate damage and prevent future exposure.[xxiii] Low-income families are often forced to live in housing that is unhealthy for them and severely constrains their financial resources due to much higher-than-average utility burdens. One study noted the average household earning less than 80% of an area median income (AMI) has a utility burden twice the average for all households.[xxiv] Often that means households make choices between using their utilities/paying the bills and buying food, medicine or transportation to get to school or work. These households are rarely able to establish long-term stability or create capacity for themselves.
As the population continues to grow and locate primarily in urban areas, there is great potential for linear economy-driven social liabilities: increased health risks and healthcare costs, food insecurity, increased utility burdens, and even climate change-induced migration by those living in environmentally fragile areas. The regenerative economy recognizes the long-term well-being of humanity should be the driver for every decision made. Holistic, regenerative changes made across education and jobs training, housing, healthcare and justice systems could help eliminate the inequities of the past and today while setting the context for everyone in society to have the potential to thrive. These are changes that can be made at the personal level as well as all the way to the federal government level.
Improving the Health and Ambience of the Indoor Environment
As The Kendeda Building implemented responsive tactics to the LBC’s health and equity requirements, the regenerative aspects of the building’s influence on the social environment are compelling. The building’s design includes access to daylight and fresh air for all occupants. Equally important, materials were chosen to avoid those that are most detrimental to human and ecosystem health. Given there are over 700 known harmful materials or chemicals commonly used in construction, a great deal of effort went into identifying the composition of every product introduced into the project as well as verifying specifications compliance when those products arrived on site.[xxv] That effort educated the designers, builders and operators who are then able to carry that new knowledge forward into future projects. That knowledge should also be used to work with governments to improve building codes and incentivize and/or require the use of materials that advance health and well-being. It should catalyze public and private organizations to improve procurement practices to prohibit materials that are unsafe.
Another substantial regenerative quality to The Kendeda Building is its incorporation of biophilic theory design principles to enhance human health and well-being. In short, biophilia is “the inherent human inclination to affiliate with natural systems and processes, especially life and life-like features of the nonhuman environment.”[xxvi] In other words, humans are genetically hard-wired to seek connections with the natural environment. The building manifests connection opportunities through its generous use of exposed wood, scaled spaces to make people feel protected while still having views to the outside, visual connections to the campus grounds, rooftop garden with apiaries and pollinator plants and operable windows. These design tactics help occupants feel safe, lower their distress and promote a feeling of connectedness. Imagine if every building provided these benefits as a matter of course.
Including Equity in Our Buildings
Equity in the built environment can be a difficult state to achieve. Buildings are most often designed and built for specific clients with specific agendas and will inevitably leave some occupants feeling unwelcome or unable to fully utilize the built environment. The Americans with Disabilities Act requires a level of accessibility be provided in commercial and public buildings for those with qualifying conditions, but those are often add-ons to the primary design. The Kendeda Building fully incorporated universal access as a guiding principle in its design. This approach integrates the full opportunity to use and experience the building for a wide range of mobility and sensory conditions, making them accessible to everyone.
Local Workforce Inclusion
The Kendeda Building’s general contractor, Skanska, partnered with Georgia Works, a local nonprofit helping end homelessness, to create an on-the-job training opportunity for six local men chronically at risk of homelessness. Jimmy Mitchell, Project Manager at Skanska noted, “We felt like this was an opportunity to have a positive impact.”[xxvii] The participants were paid above-market wages to construct the nail laminated timber (NLT) panels use floor and roof structural members. While one building’s community-based workforce development program does not amend decades of social and economic disenfranchisement of historically marginalized groups, it does demonstrate the regenerative potential for integrating equity-driving opportunities that could be implemented at scale across all economic sectors.
We have presented the potential for the regenerative economy using The Kendeda Building as an example of the possibilities. In its creation, the opportunity for a new built environment was approached holistically, and each decision was measured for its optimal and positive impact on the built environment, the natural environment and the social environment–three distinct but mutually interdependent environments in which human endeavor exists. If we can thoughtfully and holistically pursue these dynamics across each environment for all endeavors, we can eliminate the adversities of the linear economy and move forward into the future knowing we are creating potential, not diminishing it.
Southface Institute’s programs today are demonstrating the value of regenerative-focused efforts. The grant program GoodUse reduces energy and water consumption, thereby saving nonprofits money they can re-invest in their own community-focused programs. Our certification programs demonstrate to design teams and builders that high-performing buildings are possible in market-driven conditions. Health and Efficiency for Residential Environments’ (HERE) whole-home focus improves residential energy and water efficiency, reduces resident energy burden and lowers greenhouse gas emissions while creating conditions for better indoor health. Policy consulting helps local and state governments push their legislative and regulatory efforts toward using regenerative catalysts like green building codes, resiliency planning and clean energy goals. While these Southface programs are making measurable, positive impacts, they have yet to achieve truly regenerative results because we still exist within the current linear economy–an economy we’re working hard to transform.
Southface sees the evidence that the linear economy cannot sustain society under the growing pressures of climate change, resource depletion, rapid urbanization, growing population and systemic disenfranchisement, nor can it generate solutions to eliminate those pressures. We must transition to behaviors that eliminate adverse societal pressures, increase the planet’s capital and allow us to thrive on the interest. A regenerative economy is not a cure-all, but it is a holistic strategy that will raise the floor for everyone and do so in a way that allows future generations to thrive.
[xiv] Author interview with Joshua Gassman, 09 December 2020