There have been many advances in systems thinking, sustainable design and technology over the last two decades, but when one considers the relationship between population growth and diminished carrying capacity of the planet’s life support systems, the most positive observation that can be made at this point is: nice start, but now’s the time to begin the real work!
I am reminded of a conversation I had with Buckminster Fuller in the 1960s. We were talking about change, and Bucky said, “Bob, the only way to make significant change is to make the thing you are trying to change obsolete.” All the impressive work that has been accomplished by the green building movement (USGBC’s LEED rating system, Living Building Challenge, One Planet Communities and more) has not made the dysfunction of existing buildings and communities obsolete. Current examples of designing for obsolescence would include the iPhone and iPad. These technologies make previous forms of interpersonal communication nearly obsolete (letters, faxes, phones) and so transform our physical relationship to the computer that they impacted how offices are designed and how business is conducted.
Bucky also said, “The only way to predict the future is to design it.” He changed my worldview and taught me more than I can share in this paper, but of everything he taught me, more of my time and energy has been consumed by these two ideas than all the rest.
After 15 years of practice I had an epiphany that came in 1981 with the collapse of the skywalks at the Hyatt Regency in Kansas City, Missouri. My first question, as I was joining the rescue team, was did I kill all these people? As that question was answered by failure analysis experts, attorneys, insurance companies and a federal judge, a larger question emerged: What is the real impact of our designs on the people we intend to serve, on the quality and vitality of their neighborhood, city, watershed, airshed, jobshed, region, and do our designs increase or deplete our natural capital and the potential for the next generation? I was reminded that Bucky believed that every design decision either increases the vitality of Spaceship Earth or not; no exceptions. It took this tragedy to remind me of his simple but powerful truth.
I can no longer find the journal I was using at the time, but as I recall, most of the entries were made inconveniently during what should have been periods of sleep, and I’m relatively sure the entries were not stating the question as I am now. But I know that I and my colleagues at BNIM began to shift our focus to creating healthy buildings, environments and developments for healthy people. This was the time when health care professionals, scientists and agencies like the EPA were waking up to the negative impact of common design decisions. We were placing toxic building materials and finishes in hermetically sealed buildings with very unfortunate and sometimes tragic results. The phrase “sick building syndrome” was born, and design professionals, associations and insurance companies were scrambling to identify and solve the problem.
Most of my time in the early eighties was consumed by legal and insurance work resulting from the collapse. Beyond the lawsuits, approximately 15% of my time was available; I felt bad that it was not enough to serve our clients. But in hindsight, it was a gift. It was enough time to begin doing research to seek answers to my new questions about unintended design impacts. I began reading everything I could find on environmental design, and calling thought leaders like Amory Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute, Wes Jackson at the Land Institute and Tom Lovejoy at the Smithsonian. No one answered my questions, but all were very generous; each agreed to help, and each connected me with others in a rapidly growing network, accelerating my search. I discovered the enormous benefit of collaborating with a diverse team of experts, and I rediscovered the value of systems thinking.
It was during this time that I began to meet a number of remarkable people like Leon Shenandoah (Iroquois Chief), Robert Muller (poet and UN Under Secretary-General), Jake Swamp (Chief of the Mohawks) and Virginia Essene (world religions professor, U CA system) that helped shape the personal/spiritual side of this journey. Each of these mentors provided valuable new insights, knowledge, inspiration and support. Leon was the first to share that the “Great Spirit,” the “Creator,” (what I had been experiencing as design intuition) or the “Eternal Truth” is within; it is available to everyone, but we must be “quiet” to benefit from this great wisdom. While their language varied, they all shared the common belief, and that we are One, interconnected and interdependent.
These new friends/collaborators/mentors began to influence my thinking and inform our work at BNIM in the mid eighties as we redefined our design practice. We often found ourselves working with clients to restate the design program and our scope of work. On a corporate headquarters for Mast Advertising, we broke the rules established by our client and the office park in order to position the building to preserve a unique landscape, and designed the building to maximize daylight and strengthen the connection between employees and nature. A master plan for the Kansas City Zoo was organized around immersing the visitors in nature (as pedagogy) while increasing biodiversity and water quality as a result of constructing the zoo.
Mast Advertising & Publishing © Kivett
By the late eighties, we had accumulated enough experience to observe the difference in performance between standard practice and the systems/integrated design approach we were beginning to explore. I was excited and approached the AIA board with a request to fund research on these issues. In spite of great access (my partner, Bruce Patty, was national AIA president) and what we thought was a great opportunity for the profession, they turned us down. There was recognition that this was an important issue but that it would require considerable research and expense; they decided it was more an environmental problem than a design problem and recommended that I seek support from environmental organizations. By this time, I was listening to the “inner truth” my mentors had introduced to me, and the following year the AIA chapter in Kansas City rode the train to St. Louis for the ’89 convention, where we introduced the CPR (critical planet rescue) resolution to fund this research. It passed unanimously, and the board later assigned the research to the Committee on Architecture and Energy, added me to the committee and increased their budget by $5,000 to accomplish the work.
I had been calling on environmental organizations for support long before the AIA suggested it, and my rapidly growing network of scientists and friends were generous with introductions. But the first significant financial support was not a direct result of these requests. A local Business Journal published an article on my volunteer project to “change the world by design.” As I understand it, an employee in a regional EPA office passed the article to her boss, who forwarded it to EPA’s Director of Research in Washington, D.C. It arrived on his desk the Monday after the EPA’s new administrator, Bill Riley, had shifted the administration’s focus from serving as the federal eco-cop (busting polluters) to developing ways to prevent pollution before it occurred. He had asked each department to reorganize to accomplish this goal and to identify one new priority initiative to accelerate the shift. Over the following month, after a series of phone calls and meetings in Kansas City and Washington, my project became the priority initiative for EPA Research. They committed $1M to begin the research to understand the relationship between the design of the built environment and environmental performance, especially human health. At the time I thought it was a miracle, and it was my first of many such miracles. Joseph Campbell said, “When you follow your bliss, the invisible helping hands show up just when you need them.” Shenandoah used “Great Spirit” or “Eternal Truth” rather than “bliss,” but whatever you choose to call it, I have come to rely on this truth.
I walked (although I’m not sure my feet were touching the ground) the $1M commitment down the street to AIA, and, subsequently, the Committee on the Environment (COTE) was born a few months later, in 1990. The initial work of the COTE focused on the toxic chemistry that had become an integral part of the building industry. (The EPA’s headquarters was a front page ‘sick building syndrome’ scandal at the time.) The research was a collaborative effort that included the EPA and industry research labs (led by DuPont), the Scientific Consulting Group (SCG), and many others contributed expertise. AIA and McGraw Hill published the results in The Environmental Resource Guide. As industry shifted to healthy products, the focus of our work broadened to include energy efficiency, site development, water and air quality, and life cycle analysis of our design and product decisions. A series of national demonstration projects followed; the Greening of the White House project, in particular, revealed the power of diverse collaborative teams of experts and the educational clout of highly visible national pilots like the White House, the Pentagon, and the Grand Canyon.
One of these projects took me and six other designers to Antarctica in ’92-’93 for the National Science Foundation. Our mission was to create a master plan and design strategies to clean up the pollution being created by our scientists and their support teams stationed there and to improve the environmental performance of the U.S. research facilities on the ice. The scientists stunned me with the science of climate change and their dire forecasts (the first IPCC report was released around this time), and we stunned them by documenting the impact of their facilities, lifestyles and community systems on climate change. Together we discovered that the built environment was the primary contributor to climate change, and that, through design, we could increase the number of scientists and their quality of life while reducing their negative impact by more than 80%. I flew home with more knowledge, a sense of urgency about climate change and a passion for creating new design strategies for our buildings and communities.
My colleagues at BNIM continued to integrate this new knowledge into our design projects including the Deramus Educational Pavilion for the KC Zoo and the CK Choi Institute at UBC in Vancouver, both of which won early AIA COTE Top 10 Green Design awards. We received a grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to design the EPICenter research laboratory in Bozeman, MT. Their goal was to create a building that was more energy efficient than any building of its type, but I approached them about enlarging the scope and funding to explore human health and productivity, biodiversity of the site and to consider economic impact. NIST approved the scope increase and doubled the grant, which allowed us to enlarge the team of consultants to include an ecologist, biologist, physicist, sociologist, artist, a solar consultant, the Harvard School of Public Health and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. This grant was concurrent with early conversations about creating USGBC and its LEED system, and the project and USGBC became very synergistic. New concepts for material management became part of the EPICenter and LEED V1, and our client and members of the team became founders (1), board members (numerous), chairs (3) and the CEO of USGBC.
The EPICenter project spurred an exciting and productive time for the green building movement, and the breadth of the project inspired me to borrow the Latin phrase Plus Ultra (more beyond) to describe the team, process and project. Inspired by the data and ideas born out of the Plus Ultra process, and influenced by the “laws of nature” professed by Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry and resident of nearby Bitterroot, MT, my colleague, Jason McLennan, and I began to think and write about moving beyond LEED Platinum (doing less damage) to Living Buildings (contributing something to the environment or at a minimum doing no damage).
Deramus Education Pavilion, Kansas City Zoo © Mike Sinclair
CK Choi Center for Asian Studies University of British Columbia © Sherman
BNIM continued to expand our capacity for delivering LEED Platinum designs on a variety of projects through the late nineties and into the new millennium: a headquarters building for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources was delivered on a standard state office building budget that was two years out of date when design work began; and our recommendation that the David and Lucile Packard Foundation consider setting their goal above LEED Platinum triggered funding for us and a team of experts to do a comprehensive study making the business case for high performance design in 2001.The Packard Foundation CFO’s response was that a Living Building was the only responsible thing they could build.
The report was peer reviewed by a diverse team of national experts and provided important evidence for early adopters and decision makers. As Jason McLennan became the executive director of the Cascadia Chapter of USGBC, he and the chapter accepted responsibility to continue the research and development of the Living Building concept. In 2006, Jason and I introduced the Living Building Challenge at Greenbuild in Chicago, and the USGBC followed with a national design competition. BNIM won the competition with a design for the Omega Institute, which in 2011 became the first building in the world to be certified both LEED Platinum and Living Building.
Omega Center for Sustainable Living © Assassi
Benchmarking Sustainability Timeline © BNIM
A critical common thread throughout this work has been the creation of collaborative teams of client, designers, expert consultants, and stakeholders coupled with ambitious visions and goals. This has been especially valuable in our community planning work - developing master plans for cities and working with communities like New Orleans, Greensburg KS, Nashville, Tuscaloosa and Springfield MA to rebuild after natural disasters.
Our work in disaster response has evolved in many ways since we began, following the Great Mississippi Flood in 1993. Of course, the tools and technology have improved over nearly two decades, but the most important advances are in the community process. We began with educating communities about climate change and the health and cost benefits of energy efficiency; through each subsequent recovery project, we have evolved that approach to become one that we think of as a “collaborative dialogue of discovery,” which is created though facilitated community conversations (face to face and through social networking). This transformative work has shown us that when the all the residents, stakeholders and consultants come together as a collaborative community, a creative force is generated that can and does produce miracles.
An example would be Greensburg, KS, a town that lost 95% of its buildings to an EF5 tornado in 2007. After a collaborative dialogue of discovery, the citizens of Greensburg made a unified commitment that would lead them to become the first city in America to adopt LEED Platinum as their standard, double their energy efficiency, build a municipal wind farm which generates four times the energy they consume, and build a K-12 school that received a 2011 AIA Top Ten Green Award. They have been credited by FEMA, the NY Times and two presidents (Bush and Obama) as the best example of rebuilding to create new vitality. The tangible example for these catalytic projects has enabled the mindset shift that first brought people together to endure after the disaster is over.
Greensburg Community Meeting © BNIM
Following my experience with climate scientists in Antarctica, I have delivered the message of restorative design with a sense of urgency. Even though all the pessimistic forecasts I heard in Antarctica have been exceeded by reality, we have discovered that positive information always trumps negative as a motivator.
Our focus today is:
1. Facilitating a strong sense of community (residents, stakeholders and consultants)
2. Creating a vision and goals for the community through a collaborative dialogue of discovery
3. Informing the discovery process with the best thinking, most inspiring strategies and designs we can provide
Whether we are working on a high-performance building design, campus plan, disaster recovery community, a new One Planet Community in Montreal, or a master plan for the Oglala Lakota at Pine Ridge, these three steps are central to our process. At this moment we believe that the third step is limiting the work, and that we need access to better, more inspiring information and thinking. An open-source global network to locate the best thinking and most inspiring community strategies and to engage in a global dialogue of discovery would bring significant benefits.
To facilitate the practice of what we now call “regenerative design and development,” the USGBC and a core team lead by BNIM envisioned a forum, a repository for place-based and systems-based information and a framework capable of stimulating dialog among diverse practitioners and decision makers. While some might wonder if this is the next step in going beyond LEED Platinum, REGEN – as this tool has come to be known - is intentionally neither a rating system, nor a universal definition of regenerative design to be applied to all places. It is instead a “place” intelligence bank that arranges open-source information into a web of interconnection and supports a more robust dialog among those seeking patterns of wholeness.
As more and more people struggle with the oppressive process of measuring or mitigating the incremental destruction of life that is typical in sustainable design practice, regenerative design turns this perspective on its ear and focuses instead on measuring the vitality and quality of life that is emerging in a place as it evolves to support life. Regenerative design allows people to see their role in creating or maintaining the conditions that are conducive to life.
The REGEN tool concept, a work in progress, will support practitioners and decision makers engaged in regenerative design and development processes, particularly in the early planning and design stages. This systems-based model of making connections at and between systemic levels, issue level and strategic level, will allow the discovery of synergies, and encourage a dialog about place and quality of life for all life. The tool itself will evolve as more place-based content is linked, and it will identify gaps in information to direct research efforts.
The promise of REGEN is in its power to enlighten any process of regenerative design and development. It will help practitioners to shift world view in a constructive way when it brings together new types of place-based information, examples of process and a perspective that is systems-based and oriented on positive outcomes. The power of REGEN is not as a tool with recommendations or a checklist of best practices, but as a framework of information and a forum for the story of place.
We have discovered that a regenerative design and development approach can work in any situation if an environment is created in which a collaborative dialogue of discovery can be established and maintained. MindDrive, a not for profit in Kansas City MO, was established to motivate very difficult, at-risk high school students and teach them the power and joy of creativity. In this program, a class of seven students with seven volunteer mentors (welder, electrician, architect, photographer, etc.) designed and built a beautiful electric car that has shattered all records for efficiency. Following test runs at the Bridgestone test tract, recording the equivalent of 444 mpg, this remarkable car and the students have been to Indianapolis for the 100th anniversary of the Indy 500, and to Pixar for the release of Cars Two. More important, they are creating new futures for themselves (some have received scholarships to college and others are still in school or have good jobs). I am optimistic that the current class and car will improve last year’s performance by 30%, and with some luck in fundraising, they will drive it coast to coast, motivating other young people and their communities.
De Le Salle School Electric Car, Google
I have often heard the phrase, “Bob, I’ll believe it when I see it.” But my experience over the last 30 years suggests that our client in Pine Ridge has it right; the Lakota belief is that, “You will see it when you believe it.” I agree with them, and I am optimistic! If these students can create these results, surely we can design buildings, landscapes and communities that are compelling enough to make our current ideas of community obsolete! I can imagine these designs will improve the health and quality of life for all life, while increasing the vitality of our environment and creating the first post-carbon economy.