Regenerative Design for Carbon Neutrality

by Tanya Jagdish

Carbon neutrality is a buzzword today. We hear nations, states, and organizations pledging to become carbon neutral every single day. In higher education, more than six hundred colleges and universities have signed the Climate Commitment by Second Nature. But how much progress have we truly made and is this progress enough to meet the rapid transformation necessary?

Energy and infrastructure accounts for a majority of campus emissions. And in the last three decades, we have relied on sustainable design principles to mitigate these emissions. It has helped us accomplish some great strides including reduction of fossil fuel use, increased energy efficiency, and better health of occupants and the environment – at least compared to buildings fifty years ago. Although these changes have been essential, we need to do more in order to achieve neutrality.

More importantly, we need to ask ourselves, can sustainable buildings truly be sustainable if they aren’t built for dynamic environments?

The pandemic forced campuses to reimagine the use of space. Lecture halls that once housed 150 students were used for 25 students. Many HVAC systems were retrofitted to help mitigate COVID-19 spread. A common response was to increase fresh air intake creating an increase in energy use. Clearly, buildings that were once sustainable no longer meet the same standards. Thus, anything that is less than 100% sustainable is inevitably part of a downward degenerative cycle. 

The regenerative design offers an alternative strategy to build a healthy environment. This is a process-oriented whole system approach that aims at restoring, renewing, and revitalizing the environment. While the aim of sustainability is to have no negative operational impact, the aim of regenerative design is to have a net positive impact. At its core, it is about creating a built environment that leaves the place better than it was before.

Biophilia is a central component of regenerative design. The natural world is constantly adapting, changing, and growing. Similarly, buildings must also be designed for changing needs of occupants, the environment, and climate. The R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College was built with this in mind. Its open span glulam timber framing allows the occupants to restructure and repurpose the space when required. Interior walls can be moved or rearranged without structural intervention and the visible mechanical and electrical systems facilitate easy rewiring and rerouting.

Photo credit: R. W. Kern Center, Hampshire College, Amherst, MA. Photos by Bruner/Cott Architects.  

Regenerative design is also human centric. The principles of equity, accessibility, and wellness are embodied within regenerative design. The Kendeda Building at Georgia Tech exemplifies these characteristics by focusing on creating a space where students and faculty feel like they belong. Fresh and toxin-free air, as well as visual and physical access to nature, improves the health of the building’s occupants. To ensure that the building was truly delivering to the needs of the occupants, Georgia Tech hosted a Biophilia Charrette that took place over two days. As a result, the building has a unique vernacular porch, a rooftop garden with apiaries, and a pollinator garden – all of which embody the unique site, culture, and natural history of Atlanta.  

The Kendeda Building has also helped Georgia Tech move towards its carbon neutrality goals. The canopy of 917 solar panels generates 140% of the building’s power needs and the 500,000 gallon cistern collects and purifies rainwater. The rooftop garden provides food for students and faculty year-round.

Photo credit: Kendeda Building for Innovative Sustainable Design, Georgia Institute of Technology. Photos by Connor Awald licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0.

Most people believe that we must start from scratch to make a system regenerative. Deep energy retrofits and historic preservation don’t typically go hand in hand. The priorities reflected in each are often at odds. But the truth is that regenerative design must incorporate and build upon existing paradigms. The Class of 1966 Environmental Center at Williams College demonstrates how a historic building can be retrofitted to incorporate biophilic designs while preserving its significant historic features and increasing energy efficiency.

The Environmental Center marries a 225-year-old building with a contemporary addition to become Living Building Certified. The building was repurposed from a beloved and historic Kellogg House, once home to the college president. The project is an example of a functional compromise that shows the benefits of upgrading a building to modern standards while increasing the longevity and usefulness of historic existing building stock.

Photo credit: Class of 1966 Environmental Center, Williams College, Williamstown, MA. Photos by Black River Designs. 

Today, there is a clear need for transformative approaches to building practices. Out of the six hundred institutions that took the climate neutrality pledge thirteen years ago, only eleven have reached this goal. The recent IPCC report warns us that we are likely to reach and even exceed the 1.5-degree threshold within the next two decades, well before the 2050 goal set by most institutions. Clearly, neutrality may not be enough at the current pace in which we are pursuing these mitigation measures. Regenerative design practices can not only drive and support campus neutrality goals but also provide inspiration and structure for more ambitious action.

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