Is regeneration the next evolution of sustainable development?
Flash flooding, extreme heat, smoke-clouded skies — it is no secret that the impacts of human activity on the environment and the climate have become increasingly dire. Across industries, people are coming to terms with the fact that they must take action to mitigate these changes. In a February Globe op-ed, commercial real estate leaders voiced their support for carbon neutrality by 2050, touting the fact that the industry has been at the forefront when it comes to energy efficiency and sustainability.
Now, however, some organizations say sustainable development is not enough.
“There’s a phrase, ‘Sustainability is a slower way to die,’’’ said Bill Reed, a principal of New Mexico and Boston-based Regenesis Group Inc., and cofounder of the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system. “We can have a building with 30 percent energy savings, but we’re still pumping carbon in the atmosphere, right? So it’s just slowing it down.’’
Enter regenerative development. It’s a new way of thinking about development — not just looking at creating individual “green’’ buildings, but recreating systems and regions to support themselves, said Michael Fiorillo, the director of sustainable design at Boston Architectural College.
“When we talk about regenerative design, we’re always thinking in terms of multi-scalar approaches,’’ Fiorillo said. “A super sustainable building that sits in an unsustainable site or setting is not particularly helpful to the larger effort.’’
Reed offered an example of a world with 100,000 Walmarts all with LEED Platinum status, the highest rating a building can achieve, based on environmental impact.
“Even if we have thousands of these types of buildings, they would still be destroying the land and destroying the very fabric of life that we’re trying to sustain,’’ Reed said. “It’s the microbes in the soil, and trees and critters. If we ignore the environment around us, it doesn’t matter how many LEED Platinum buildings we have, we still don’t have a sustainable plan.’’
The architectural practices tend to look similar, Fiorillo said, though in some cases regenerative tactics extend further.
“Most tactics really fall into both categories,’’ Fiorillo said, including phytoremediation (planting pollution-purging plants), regenerative land use, or choosing wood over other less environmentally friendly building materials.
“It’s hard to really delineate between [them]. It’s more of a change in attitudes, he said. “They’re both trying to minimize or eliminate the negative impact that we’re having on the natural system, but regenerative takes that extra step of saying, ‘How can we repair the system?’ ’’
One example Fiorillo offered was water systems in buildings.
“A sustainable strategy might be to design the building to use no water or to use a minimal amount of water,’’ he said, “but a regenerative strategy might want to use no water, but also want to make sure that the water that falls on the site is put back into the hydrological system.’’
In recent years, regenerative movements like the Living Building Challenge and low-energy passive houses have become more common, but exponential growth has been stymied because of the amount of planning and rigorous standards buildings are required to meet, a turnoff for developers looking to build and sell or rent quickly.
Getting developers on board is one of the challenges the movement has faced, said Daniel Christian Wahl, an author and international consultant in the field of regenerative development.
“For a conventional real estate developer, it sounds hard to grasp, but it’s much more aligned with what life already does, completely changing and evolving and responding particularly now with climate change,’’ Wahl said.
Proponents of regenerative development may have their work cut out for them when it comes to garnering support from big developers, said Jason Twill, director of Urban Apostles, an Australian consulting firm that specializes in sustainable urban development strategy.
“We’re still governed through these outdated economic models that don’t correctly value natural capital or the environment or social capital,’’ Twill said. “We’re missing this other value side of the spectrum. We’re very much focused on economic value, and until we look at the emergence of what we would call a regenerative economy, it’s really hard to move the industry beyond its limits.’’
In Boston, regenerative practices are gaining a foothold, although they are typically still filed under the sustainability label and are less comprehensive than the “multi-scalar’’ projects Fiorillo defined.
In September 2011, the city launched the E+ Green Building Program, calling on local developers to propose plans for regenerative developments in the city.
“Our theory that we went out to prove was, can we build buildings that were not just zero energy? You know, why stop at zero?’’ said John Dalzell, senior architect for sustainable development at the Boston Planning & Development Agency. “Why not set your vision for buildings that could be restorative or regenerative and establish performance metrics towards those ends?’’
The program started with requests for proposals for three sites that the city had previously attempted to develop without much luck, Dalzell said. When requests for proposals for these sites were put out before, only one or two developers expressed interest. For the E+ program, the BPDA received more than 30.
Today, four E+ buildings have been built and are occupied, Dalzell said: 36-38 Colonial Ave. in Dorchester, 64 Catherine St. in Jamaica Plain, 152-58 Highland St. in Roxbury, and 226-232 Highland St. in Roxbury. In total, the buildings comprise 14 units, three of which are designated as affordable, Dalzell said. The buildings were modeled to produce more energy than they use, but tracking has not been continued. For the first few years, the 226-232 Highland St. building was tracked, Dalzell said, and was on average generating 25 percent more energy than it used.
Dalzell did not have updated data immediately available. “What we’ve seen is, most of the units are energy positive,’’ he said. “In aggregate, they are all energy positive, but I can say for sure, the specific units that are not energy positive, they are zero or super low energy.’’
Though Boston may have yet to reach true regenerative development, sustainability and sustainable development can function as building blocks toward regeneration.
“I personally refer to sustainability as a bridge that we haven’t crossed yet, but we still are hoping to get there. In order to get to regeneration, we need to cross the bridge of sustainability,’’ Wahl said, “but we will never truly become sustainable if we don’t set our goal much higher than that.’’
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