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Beyond Green: From Sustainability To Regenerative Housing

Fifty years ago, scientists and forward-thinking designers presented the building community with a concept called sustainability. This concept has had a huge impact on affordable housing as we know it today. Yet, our world still suffers from a global housing crisis, a fragmented and wasteful construction industry, and a skilled labor shortage.

Fortunately, the thought leadership behind sustainability has evolved – some now call it regeneration. We can call it regenerative housing. Makes sense, right? We want to do more than just “sustain” our environment, our markets, and our society – we want to rebuild our environment, grow our markets, and empower society.

For building, and affordable housing specifically, this means we want to build homes that have a net-positive impact on the environment, economy and society. Today’s common practice is to build with a net-zero impact on the environment by minimizing waste and using efficient energy appliances. Likewise, with regard to the economy, the current approach is to minimize costs by offsetting labor inputs. For the overall impact on society, sustainability doesn’t offer much.

On the other hand, regenerative housing uses products that clean the environment, economics that raise the wages of local labor and active social inputs that inform the masses around critical lifestyle upgrades like security, disaster prevention and crisis management.

In this regenerative housing series, you will read about a formula that the affordable housing and greater building community can apply to their daily practice and begin to truly tackle the world’s greatest infrastructure challenges – overpopulated metro areas, sea-level cities, resource-thin communities, climate change, and the skilled labor shortage.

To be clear, regenerative housing is not merely a semantic play on sustainability. We recognize the major gains sustainability has contributed to our built environment over the last five decades.

History of Sustainable Building

That bears repeating. “Green” is 50 years old. A lot of things have changed since the early 1970s: Climatic events are more intense; builders haven’t adopted sustainable practices as quickly as we had hoped; and, now we have ConTech. We’ve got greater challenges, but also have better tools to solve them.

How Did We Get Here?

But before we get to the new tools, let’s take a brief look at where we’ve come from. Sustainability – we are all probably familiar with what this is, but did you know this one word gets more hits on Google than Ghandi, Star Wars or Steve Jobs?

That’s what systems design folk call a “signal.” The signal is that people want more from sustainability, or at the least, want to better understand what it is and how to achieve it.

Many attribute the birth of “green” to a pivotal book, The Limits To Growth, published in 1972. It is regarded as the first major call to action for environmental justice.

For those of us in the building world, we’ve become somewhat desensitized to hearing it over and over as “sustainable building.” To build sustainably is to build something that doesn’t “hurt” the environment by introducing specific approaches, systems or materials on a project. This could include:

- saving energy through a tightly wrapped and well-insulated building envelope,

- using high-efficiency appliances,

- using non-toxic materials like low VOC paint,

- minimizing job waste by pre-cutting materials off site, and

- using systems that consume the planet’s natural resources in a healthy way: rain water catchment or renewable energy sources (solar, wind, geothermal, etc.).

Some Disappointing Numbers

Though these approaches seem straight-forward after 50 years of discussion and efforts, the majority of builders still don’t implement them. According to, less than 25% of single-family home builders build sustainably. One might argue that there are more people tracking stats and certifying projects than people actually building sustainably.

Here’s a 2017 study by CBRE telling us that LEED certifications represent less than 5% of the total number of commercial office buildings across the 30 largest US office markets and a handy GIS map showing us sustainable building adoption rates across the country. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has it’s own concise history on green building.

Similar to the construction industry, which we’ve established in prior articles as a fragmented and decentralized sector, how we manage sustainability in the US and abroad is equally decentralized. This may have contributed to our inability to actually “convert” builders to become practitioners.

Now What?

So where do we go from here? Well, we can only go UP. Fortunately, our lexicon has begun to evolve. Do a Google search on regenerative architecture or regenerative markets. You’ll come up with hits that all echo a similar concept: “It’s the new green.”

So what is regenerative ________? If “sustainability” means low or no negative impact (i.e. net-zero homes, carbon neutral), the idea behind regeneration is that we are “re-building” something. And like the definition of sustainability that goes back to the 1970s, it’s not just the environment we want to rebuild. It’s the environment, society and the economy.

Here are a few more ways to think of the difference between sustainable versus regenerative, respectively:

- Extractive versus regenerative

- Hierarchy versus networks

- Compete in existing markets versus collaborate to create new markets

- Independence versus interdependence

- Design of systems versus design of ecosystems

With regard to housing, we evolve from sustainable building to regenerative housing via four steps that focus on human capital:

Step 1: Employ local labor to assemble homes in local factories – this contributes to regenerating local economies with jobs and up-skilling.

Step 2: Build home services into the product so that new markets are created locally to care for these new homes.

Step 3: Use local products that rebuild the environment with carbon-sequestering materials. Step 4: Engage local communities in the new markets created, so they can either learn to care for their own homes, service homes that belong to others, or contribute to the innovation of the home building processes, materials or tools via open source sharing of housing data and products.

Up Next in This Series

Stay tuned for subsequent articles that will examine the dynamics of regenerative markets, data, construction education and fringe vulnerabilities.

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