Regenerative Design: Moving Beyond Net Zero Buildings

Submitted By: Ghina Annan

The present era is marked by extensive scarcity of resources, loss of biodiversity, and rising global temperatures. Failure to act on climate change could result in the displacement of millions of people by 2050. Our current social and economic systems are inadequate for the challenges we face, and humanity must quickly undertake the task of redesigning these systems to benefit future generations.

The current state of the world’s fight against climate change is at a critical point, and the built environment must play a significant role in combatting this global issue. Achieving net-zero energy consumption in buildings is imperative to meet global and regional climate targets. However, aiming solely for net-zero may not suffice, and it is necessary to shift towards a net positive regenerative design approach to create buildings that actively contribute to a better world. The key to realizing net positive regenerative design is a holistic approach that integrates the building with its natural surroundings and utilizes regenerative design principles to create a symbiotic relationship between the building and the environment. It is essential to note that the design of the building is not static, and the building and natural systems evolve together.

Regenerative buildings are designed to promote healthy indoor air quality, conserve water, and utilize renewable energy sources while restoring natural systems and promoting ecological health. By incorporating natural systems, regenerative buildings establish a symbiotic relationship between the building and its surroundings, actively contributing to a better world. Despite the significant benefits of regenerative design, transitioning towards this approach poses several challenges.

The building and construction industry is a significant contributor to carbon emissions, with a notable portion stemming from the embodied carbon of building materials. To address carbon emissions and limit the impact of climate change, it is crucial to focus on reducing embodied carbon. While concrete is a widely utilized building material with a considerable embodied carbon footprint, alternative sustainable materials such as mass timber, bamboo, and rammed earth can reduce embodied carbon. Despite their unique challenges and limitations, exploring and implementing these materials is essential to mitigate the impact of the construction industry on the environment. Therefore, the industry must prioritize the transition towards sustainable materials and take concrete actions to address embodied carbon.

Achieving sustainability goals requires a paradigm shift from compliance-focused approaches to performance-focused approaches. Compliance-focused approaches aim to meet minimum standards or requirements set by regulations, whereas performance-focused approaches seek to achieve higher levels of performance and outcomes. Although compliance-focused approaches are necessary to establish baseline requirements and ensure that buildings and systems meet certain standards, they do not necessarily drive innovation and improvement. In contrast, performance-focused approaches incentivize continuous improvement and innovation by encouraging organizations to strive for higher levels of performance and outcomes. However, this shift has not happened widely due to various reasons.

A lack of knowledge and understanding of performance-focused approaches among stakeholders, such as building owners, designers, and policymakers, poses a significant barrier to their adoption. Additionally, concerns regarding increased costs and the potential risks associated with implementing new and innovative approaches can impede progress. Another challenge is the need for better metrics and standards for measuring performance. Metrics and standards should be more outcome-based, taking into account various factors, such as energy efficiency, water conservation, waste reduction, indoor environmental quality, economic impacts, social benefits, strategic benefits, and risks. By adopting performance-focused approaches and developing comprehensive metrics and standards, organizations can enhance their sustainability efforts and contribute to a more sustainable built environment.

In the realm of sustainable development, analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), and data have emerged as potential tools to support the creation of more environmentally conscious developments. Through the optimization of building design and infrastructure systems, these technologies have the potential to reduce energy consumption, water usage, waste generation, and carbon emissions. AI, in particular, can analyze large datasets on a building’s performance to identify inefficiencies and recommend improvements, ultimately leading to cost savings and enhanced sustainability. Additionally, data analytics can inform decision-making throughout the design and construction process, providing designers and engineers with information on the environmental impact of building materials, thereby facilitating more sustainable choices. Over time, the continuous monitoring and tracking of building or development performance via data analytics can also enable further optimization and improvement towards sustainable development.

Regenerative leaders should prioritize simplicity in their messaging, emphasizing the importance of giving back and prioritizing purpose and impact alongside profit. They should also encourage a culture of innovation, experimentation, and adaptation. Regenerative innovation is not limited to research and development teams focused on updating products and services; it encompasses a range of practices and approaches that allow projects to create regenerative impact. This includes redefining purpose, creating socially and environmentally responsible products and technologies, designing fresh governance and leadership systems, involving a broad range of stakeholders and value networks, and setting up future-oriented investment systems. Transitioning towards a future centered on regeneration is paramount for human and organizational systems. By prioritizing regenerative practices and accelerating natural regeneration, we can sequester more than 100 percent of current human emissions of CO2, leading to a healthier planet. This enables the establishment of a regenerative relationship between humans and the ecosystems they depend on. To design regeneratively, we can draw inspiration from nature and consider the ecosystem services our environment provides, such as cleaner air or water. Furthermore, we can evaluate how to give back to the environment. In this design approach, building materials serve as nutrients that contribute to the building’s ecosystem and our well-being, rather than just serving as components to construct a structure. The ability to respond and implement regenerative design practices in one’s personal and professional life can have a significant positive impact on the planet and its ecosystems.

Ghina Annan is an expert in the field of sustainability currently serving as the Sustainability Discipline Team Lead for Stantec in Ottawa, Ghina brings with her 12 years of experience in the development of high-performance building design, with a strong focus on achieving carbon-neutral and resilient goals.

With her deep knowledge of building science and design solutions, Ghina plays a pivotal role in advancing sustainable practices and excels at identifying and capturing opportunities that lead to social, environmental, and economic improvements.

As the ASHRAE committee chair for the Building Decarbonization Whole Life Design Guide, she actively contributes to the development of guidelines focused on whole life carbon considerations for building systems. Ghina has also made significant contributions to the ASHRAE Fundamentals Handbook, particularly in the first chapter on global climate change, published in 2021.

In recognition of her outstanding achievements, Ghina was honored with the International Young Energy Professional of the Year Award in 2022. This accolade is a testament to her dedication and impact within the energy industry.

Ghina’s expertise spans across various domains, including sustainable design and certifications, health and wellbeing consulting, strategy formulation, market assessments, and long-term planning. She brings a holistic approach to her work, managing carbon accountability and reporting.

As a leader, Ghina possesses exceptional communication skills, ensuring effective collaboration and providing timely responses to her team members’ issues, concerns, and needs. She is skilled at coordinating with project and client managers to meet deliverables, and she takes pride in identifying training opportunities and mentoring her team members to foster their professional growth.

Ghina consistently demonstrates strong leadership, motivating her staff to perform at a high level and fostering a culture of excellence. She holds credentials such as ASHRAE distinguished lecturer, LEED AP, LFA, WELL AP, EcoDistricts AP, CEM, EDGE, GSAS, PQP, ENV SP, Fitwel, TRUE, HPI, and ActiveScore AP, highlighting her comprehensive knowledge and versatility in sustainability practices.

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