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Regenerative design: In 2019, Earth’s Overshoot Day for humanity’s environmental budget was all spent up by July 29th!

The harsh reality is that there remains a high degree of delusion at play when modern-day developments are boldly branded as ‘sustainable’.

4 June 2020

Jamie Siggers is a partner at CampbellReith. Chairman of the Constructing Excellence Bristol Club, he has organised several Continuing Professional Development-focused, best practice events on sustainability, green design and “The Circular Economy in Construction”.

CONSTRUCTORS and architects may have become adept at marketing their green credentials, but the harsh reality is that there remains a high degree of delusion at play when modern-day developments are boldly branded as ‘sustainable’.

That is not to denigrate the significant shift in industry and government thinking that has taken place since the concept of sustainability began seeping into the mainstream in the wake of the Brundtland Report of 1987.

This building bible, published by the United Nations and named in recognition of former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland’s role as Chair of the World Commission on Environment and Development, has undoubtedly delivered tangible changes in practice during the intervening 33 years.

However, to suggest that aspects of its legacy – tools such as Building Research Establishment Environmental Assessment Method (BREEAM) and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) – remain a satisfactory solution to a very real problem is a head-in-the-sand approach to addressing the global climate crisis.

We should certainly not kid ourselves into thinking that the new, “environmentally-friendly” buildings in our towns and cities are making a big difference to the big picture. Why? Because the regulatory bar for sustainability was set too low and too long ago.

To adhere and be guided by the Brundtland Report is to pay little more than lip service to sustainability. More than half of humanity’s total fossil fuel emissions have occurred since its publication and the current rate of the population’s consumption and growth is untenable without causing irreparable damage to ecological, economic and social systems.

Earth Overshoot Day – the date humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what the planet can regenerate in that year – provides damning data as to the scale of the issue. In 2019, humanity was all spent up by July 29th.

With 1987’s premise of sustainability as “the ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” in ruins, design and construction is in desperate need of a Blue Planet moment.

Footage of rubbish-choked oceans shown as part of the Sir Richard Attenborough-narrated documentary served as an alarm call to millions as to the impact of plastics on marine life and a similar shock is required if urban design, planning and masterplanning is to be successfully set on a different course.

For all the heartbreak and disruption it has caused, the coronavirus crisis has at least provided a hint as to potential directions of travel. The lockdown of major cities led to fewer cars on roads and planes in the sky and allowed Mother Nature to draw breath. In the US, deer grazed in Washington gardens close to the White House, wild boar grew bolder in Barcelona and, closer to home, goats and peacocks paraded through the towns of Wales.

Society should not, however, pat itself on the back too soon in response to media images of clear waters in Venice’s canals and blue skies over China where the air is usually choked by smog. Emissions may have dropped courtesy of the dramatic reduction in traffic but climate change is a multifaceted problem and demands radical changes to the infrastructure of society.

Regenerative design must be part of that evolution. It is no longer enough for buildings to be energy-efficient and strive to be carbon zero – the blueprint of tomorrow must be net positive, restorative and focused on rebalancing the excesses of the past and present to provide a framework that re-establishes ecology and chimes with indigenous eco-systems.

COVID-19 provides a number of lessons for decision-makers to consider in this quest. Have large swathes of the population working from home demonstrated that reducing daily travel is feasible? Will the greater reliance on home-grown and locally-sourced produce lead to a longer-term reduction in imports? And will the internet shopping boom transform the retail sector and lead to a repurposing of traditional high streets?

With three quarters of the world’s population expected to be urban dwellers by 2050, such questions should prompt dialogue today about opportunities to redevelop city centres and begin undoing the mistakes of past town planning.

The advancement of technology will see us living and working in intelligent buildings and we need to be forward-thinking and future-proofing urban areas through smart planning while ensuring there is sufficient outdoor space – be it balconies, vegetable plots and communal gardens – to accommodate nature.

At CampbellReith such steps are already underway. We have been busy exploring how urban drainage solutions can deliver a net biodiversity gain and are working with partners on the development of master plans that are alert to the principles of regenerative design. We will also be liaising with clients to review aspects of “Big Data” and how information sets can be used to monitor and develop regeneration at a micro level, particularly around water and transport.

Encouragingly, the regenerative design revolution is gaining traction in policy circles, as evidenced by the Government-backed Building Better, Building Beautiful report. The findings of the enquiry led by the late Roger Scruton highlighted that the current approach to planning is at odds with sustainability.

Why, for example, does the current VAT system class new builds as zero-rated while the repair and restoration of existing buildings attracts a 20 percent rating? As things stand, the financial incentives favour creating carbon footprints rather than conserving historic ones despite – as the report states – “constructing a new-build, two-bedroom house uses up the equivalent of 80 tonnes of CO2. Refurbishment uses eight tonnes”.

If I have a criticism of Building Better, Building Beautiful, it is with its focus on championing a change in perception of traditional buildings and rural settings for beauty’s sake. Regeneration has to be about far more than aesthetics and must prioritise the cost to the planet over the generation of fantastic-looking features worthy of long-term investment.

It is also the responsibility of everyone. From policy makers and planners to architects and building contractors, it should now be considered bad practice to work on projects that do not address environmental issues head on.

Material use should be dictated by sustainability properties. Timber, for example, takes carbon out of the atmosphere while cement is carbon intensive, and reuse is an obvious way of minimising consumption.

Some elements are, of course, beyond an individual party’s control but – rather than concede to old means and methods – we should look to assemble collaborative teams with a diverse and deep understanding of regenerative design.

Radical change requires radical action, decisive leadership and the enduring commitment of individuals within the industry. CampbellReith has been behind a number of initiatives over the years and the courage to challenge convention is embedded in our leadership team.

We recently signed two declarations – Structural Engineers Declare Climate and Biodiversity Emergency and Civil Engineers Declare Climate & Biodiversity Emergency – which commit us to raise awareness of the climate emergency and adopt regenerative design principles alongside other ecologically-positive approaches to engineering. In addition to these pledges, we are putting in place an internal climate emergency focus team across all disciplines, which will be led by Jamie Siggers as a management board and LLP partner.

Three decades ago sustainability was little more than an industry buzzword but today there is nowhere to hide and by drilling down into the choices we make as an industry about the impact we have on a landscape, an environment and the consumption of resources, we can change the world for the better and make good of past failures