Much of the current green movement – from automobiles to food to buildings – has focused on lessening impacts, rather than creating a net positive environmental benefit. How many times, for example, have you heard individuals or companies brag they are reducing their carbon dioxide emissions, lowering water use, etc?
Causing less harm is a start, but it isn’t enough for a truly sustainable future.
The problem is that it’s too easy to be self-congratulatory when reducing impacts just a little bit. Companies tell us we’re “saving the planet” by taking minor actions, such as bringing a reusable mug to the coffee shop – even if we drove there in an SUV that gets 10 miles to the gallon. Sure, using a personal cup might have less impact than a disposable paper or plastic cup, but telling people that it’s “green” gives a false sense of accomplishment. Too often, we’re told to feel good for taking minor actions rather than being challenged to make substantial and more far-reaching behavior changes.
Think of the medical field, where a guiding principle is “first, do no harm.” We all expect our doctors not to harm us, but if that’s all they did, we’d rightly be disgusted. Coming out of a clinic or hospital, we all want to be better off than when we went in; we demand a cure for our disease, to feel better, or to have a longer life – not simply to come away undamaged.
The green movement, and the building industry, in particular, has the opportunity to aspire to a higher goal than simply causing less harm. As architect William McDonough says, “being less bad is not being good.”
To put this in hot terms for this month, consider March Madness. To have a chance at winning, basketball teams must have fewer turnovers, fouls and other negatives, but simply being less bad doesn’t secure a championship. Taking difficult action to improve does.
What would this look like in building design and construction? The terms “living,” “regenerative/restorative,” and “adaptive” have begun to emerge as descriptors for environmentally, socially and economically sustainable buildings. The National Institute of Building Sciences defines these as:
- “A Living Building is integrated with and mimics natural processes, and obtains all necessary resources for operation from the natural environment (rainwater, wind, sunlight), which achieves a net-zero impact on the environment.” Essentially, such buildings aim to reduce their harm to nothing.
- “Regenerative and restorative buildings go beyond living building levels by also improving the surrounding environment such as restoring a site's natural hydrology or providing for lost wildlife and plant habitat. These buildings are integrated into the natural environment and designed to improve damaged surrounding environments.” At this level, buildings begin to have a net positive environmental impact. They don’t just reduce harm, but actually make ecosystems better.
- “Adaptive buildings are designed to adapt to changing needs and conditions, including environmental conditions such as climate change. Adaptive strategies make renovation or repurposing of space easier, less expensive, and less burdensome on the environment.” The design and construction of such buildings takes a long-term view, seeking to keep the building relevant and beneficial for many years even as situations change.
In many ways, green building to date has focused on easier actions, since stopping doing something is usually more straightforward than radically rethinking one’s overall approach.
There is no simple solution to moving beyond doing less harm, but the first step is to recognize that a higher goal is possible, and to start working toward it. Check out these resources for information and inspiration:
- ·International Living Future Institute
- ·Design Future Council / Design Intelligence
- ·Adaptive Building Initiative
What experiences have you had with living, regenerative and adaptive buildings? – the challenges, successes, and lessons learned?