The Regenerative Economy: Sustaining Society’s Future by Design
By Shane Totten, AIA, BIT Pro
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. (1)
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.(2) 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.(3) 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. (4) 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.” (5) 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. (6) U.S. building energy consumption in 2019 was 28% of total consumption.(7) 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,” 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.(9)
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. (10)
But it was the introduction of the Living Building Challenge (LBC) that introduced and quantified requirements for a building to be considered essentially regenerative. (11) 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. (12) 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.” (13)
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.
To read the full version of this white paper and learn more about The Kendeda Building, click here.