Anthony Thistleton: Sustainable Design Is Over. It's Time for Regenerative Design

CC BY 2.0. Anthony Thistleton in Quebec/ Lloyd Alter

It's not enough to not make things worse. Our buildings and our actions have to make things better.

Waugh Thistleton has been a staple on TreeHugger ever since their Murray Grove tower was announced in 2007. It was the first tall building made of Cross-Laminated Timber (CLT) but you wouldn't know it to look at it, inside or out.

the first timber tower

Waugh Thistleton's first timber tower/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

It was not a high-end building. It was not in a classy part of town (back then in 2008), and the developer was only interested in CLT because it was faster and cheaper; he certainly didn't want his tenants to know they were in a wood tower, so it is covered up inside and out.

view of installation

© Forbes Massie

Things certainly have changed in a decade. Now everyone wants to look at wood. It has become a high-end product, and Waugh Thistleton are still advancing the art. Anthony Thistleton was recently in Quebec City for the Woodrise conference, discussing the firm's latest thinking. We have shown most of their work on TreeHugger (including the MultiPly project), but there are two points that he made that were really interesting.

1) The promise of prefabrication

©. Waugh Thistleton Architects

© Waugh Thistleton Architects

This TreeHugger actually got into writing while trying to promote prefabricated housing 15 years ago before there were even blogs. I could never understand why architects did everything from scratch, why every building had to be different.

Thistleton described how the firm has moved on from doing just 2D Flatpack CLT building to doing modular 3D blocks fitted out completely in the factory. The benefit with repetition is that it gets refined and improved with every iteration and every generation, just as the iPhone gets more sophisticated with every new phone.

He also noted that every building doesn't have to be different. You can go from Edinburgh to London and see that the most valuable and popular buildings are Victorian and Edwardian terraces; they all look alike, but they are all really flexible and adaptable and still work really well. We shouldn't be afraid of repetition; Thistleton pointed out that, in the end, it all converges around the best design, which is why every company's phone now looks like an iPhone.

Anthony Thistleton with iPhones

Anthony Thistleton with iPhones/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

One could argue the points. I don't think Apple has made a better designed phone since the 4S, and convergence often ends up in a silly place, like all the digital cameras now looking like 35mm film cameras, ergonomic monsters replicating a 70 year old design that made sense for film. But at least everyone agrees on how a phone or a camera should work and the learning curves are shorter.

2) Forget Sustainable Design. It is time for Regenerative Design.

Waugh Thistleton interior

© Waugh Thistleton Architects

I have taught Sustainable Design at Ryerson University School of Interior Design for a decade, and every year an exam question for my students is "What is sustainable design?" I keep hoping that one of them will come up with an answer that captures both the heart and mind, rather than the classic Brundtland "meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." As Anthony Thistleton notes, it is too late for that; we have to make things better for future generations. We have to fix things; we have to regenerate rather than just sustain.

He is not the first to use this term; Professor John Robinson of CIRC at the University of British Columbia said this years ago:

We can no longer afford the current practices of pursuing goals that simply reduce environmental impacts, nor can we continue to simply avoid reaching the theoretical limits of ecosystems’ carrying capacity. This practice is insufficient as a driving force for the required changes. This approach of reduction and curtailment has proven ineffectual as it is not motivational and does not, in principle, extend beyond the logical end-point of net zero impact. We need to inspire people to work to restore and regenerate the biosphere, sequester billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere every year and seek out significantly more efficient uses of resources, especially non-renewables.

Jason McLennan has also been discussing this and has even founded a school of regenerative design, where he says, “In everyday terms, regenerative design is about moving away from just doing ‘less bad’ and instead using design to help heal and restore the environment.”

Regenerative design is really hard, especially at any kind of scale. You have to build with renewable materials that are carefully harvested and replanted (which is why we love wood). We have to stop using fossil fuels to heat and cool and get to them, we have to stop wasting water, and we have to plant like mad to make more wood and suck up more CO2.

view of commuinty

© Waugh Thistleton Architects

I am not sure that Waugh Thistleton is there yet (though they are getting awfully close with their One Planet Living project). I am not sure anyone is. But Anthony Thistleton is certainly right that this should be everyone's ambition; it is, in fact, our only option. He deserves so much credit for raising the issue and striving for it.