July 30, 2009

Why buildings can never be regenerative

  • We need to think of buildings as part of the environment they occupy, not just a bunch of pieces to be put together.
    The Living Project


    Why are we still thinking of buildings and their “parts” as isolated from the environment that they are a part of? And why are we still using the same building process and attempting to get different, if transformative results? Einstein once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

    I believe it is time to make a mental shift using a new mind-set.

    A collection of parts?

    Quantum physics has done an excellent job explaining how everything in our world is made up of energy. Everything exists in an infinite field of wave possibilities. Everything is connected and every particle contains a whole.

    For some reason, our mind-set in the building industry forgets this — it’s just not in the DNA of our current development model. It leads us to believe that our built environment is made up of many parts, the way a building is made up of the envelope, the ventilation system, the photovoltaic cells, the waste water treatment system.

    Photo by Marni Jade Evans
    Regenerative design is about an experiential transformation of people and place, with an underlying caring and connectedness to the whole. In Phinney Ridge, neighbors created several seating areas and installed art as part of a 2004 City Repair Project workshop.

    In this way of thinking, the whole is assembled from the parts and depends upon them to work effectively. If a part or system is broken or “costs too much,” it must be repaired or replaced with something of lesser initial cost. This is a very logical way of thinking about buildings.

    But whole systems are different.

    Unlike buildings and their interdependent parts, whole or living systems such as your body or a tree create themselves. They generate. They are not mere assemblages of their parts but are continually growing and changing along with their elements. The generative field of a living system extends into the environment and connects the two, for what is needed for the health of the entire system.

    My favorite analogy is this. You can think of it like an individual cube of ice in a glass of water. The ice may appear separate from the water, but it’s really one because it’s made with the same stuff it floats in and will ultimately merge with the whole when it melts.

    So, like an ice cube is the same as the water it floats in, so is the building the same as the environment it sits in. Therefore, we need a shift in our mind-set about how we think about buildings as just a part in a system. They ARE the system, and the system IS them.

    Our buildings cannot stand alone, as a separate part of which they are isolated. Our buildings are created from the same “stuff” of the universe. And the process by which we create buildings, over the last 100 years, has become siloed and disconnected from place. It has become isolated.

    For example, over and over we see the same hospital — replicated in Las Vegas, in Lethbridge and in Lynnwood — with slight adjustments in heating and cooling equipment, and exterior color palette. The buildings, plopped down without consciousness, provide zero reflection of a sense of place, of history, or of meaning and purpose. If you are like me, you have been haunted by enough hospitals for one lifetime. These are not places of the soul.

    Regeneration is about soul. It is about the connected fabric of constantly evolving relationships between all living things. Regeneration creates an essence that supports and nourishes life.

    What is your vision?

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    Following on the idea of a hospital, what would a regenerative hospital look like? Close your eyes and visualize for a moment. Would it start and stop at the site boundary? Would it account for the life force that went into creating every material and the life force that would live on beyond our time? Would it be a place of life? Or of death? Could it still be a LEED building? Meet the 2030 Challenge?

    What if a hospital were truly a place of healing? What would it look like? Smell like? Feel like?

    What if we designed and built places that lifted our spirits and inspired us to be healthy, feel loved and deepen our resolve to make the most of our time on Earth? What if every participant in the hospital cared enough to heal one another, including the patients?

    Shifting our mind-set to think outside of what we know a hospital to be would lead us to a very different result. In my mind’s eye, a regenerative hospital would look more like an environmental learning center, or a place of worship, or a thriving urban farm. Its structure and buildings systems would support life. It would be a gathering place for healing, nutrition, vitality and abundance. It would be a community venue to support life and health, thus reducing the need to treat the sick and the dying.

    This type of design would flip the entire concept of a hospital on its head. We’d even have to give it a new name.

    Regeneration defined

    As defined by Integrative Design Collaborative’s Bill Reed — one of the few in the world practicing and defining regenerative design — regeneration is local in practice, and addresses how we partner and thrive in relationship with the unique social and ecological systems specific to a particular place. It also addresses how these relationships evolve, change and transform over time.

    According to Reed:

    “Regeneration is a process of engagement with the purpose of healing living systems (humans and ‘nature’) and birthing a new spirit to consciously participate in expanding the healing process. It does this in a way that enriches the possibilities for greater diversity living relationships.

    “If a deeper potential for living relationships is not part of the story then it isn’t regeneration … there needs to be a process that helps participants experience the whole system they are part of.

    “It isn’t sustainable unless the participants in a place, building, etc. are engaged in evolving (self organizing around) the process of a healthy, evolutionary trajectory of life.”

    The power of placemaking

    Placemaking is a multi-layered process within which citizens foster active, engaged relationships to the spaces which they inhabit, the landscapes of their lives, and shape those spaces in a way which creates a sense of communal stewardship and lived connection.

    As the process of developing a community place proceeds, people develop deeper relationships and more energy to create together because they care. Creating a common ground that transcends the differences among people powerfully addresses this isolation and creates an environment where people feel like they can do anything they set their collective minds to, because they are all working towards the good of the whole.

    Learning through experience

    Placemaking cannot be taught. It needs to be experienced, and one local organization, Portland’s City Repair Project, is the closest I’ve experienced to this. The City Repair Project is group of citizen activists creating public gathering places and helping others to creatively transform the places where they live, with the idea that localization — of culture, of economy, of decision-making — is a necessary foundation of sustainability.

    For example, projects which take the form of benches on street corners where neighbors can sit, rest and talk with each other, kiosks on sidewalks where neighbors can post information about local events, or lend books and street paintings in the public right of way that demonstrate to all who pass through that this is a place that is inhabited, known and loved by its residents — with a story to tell.

    So how do we advance this kind of thinking? How do we demand this type of experience on every design and construction project? What does this mean for the design profession, our industry and our region to marry buildings that are living systems to the people and the place in ways that create the whole?

    Marni Jade Evans is the founder and principal of The Living Project conscious design consulting. Trained as an architect-turned-green building consultant, her nearly 10 years of passion for transforming the built environment includes early involvement with innovators in the adoption of LEED, the Living Building Challenge and now the Regenerative Design movement.

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