Architects Declare Issues Handbook for Regenerative Design

It explains how architects should run their practices and build their buildings.

Cover of practice guide

Architects Declare

Architects Declare is a global movement that got its start in the United Kingdom. When it started in 2019, it included among the stated goals that it would "adopt more regenerative design principles in our studios, with the aim of designing architecture and urbanism that goes beyond the standard of net zero carbon in use."

In time for the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26)—taking place now in Glasgow, Scotland—the organization has released a remarkable practice guide with two main parts: part 1, a guide on how to run an architectural practice, and of more general interest; part 2, a project design guide. But before that, it starts with a bang outlining the significance of the industry and its carbon footprint.

"As the earth’s life support systems come under increasing threat, we also know that construction is responsible for over 40% of global CO2 emissions, (see Fig. 1) yet the scale and intensity of urban development, infrastructure and building construction globally continues to expand, resulting in greater greenhouse gas generation and loss of habitat each year. Current ways of regulating building performance and construction have not achieved significant reductions in carbon emissions from buildings. "
CO2 emissions by sector
Figure 1: CO2 emissions by sector.

Global Alliance for Buildings and Construction

"For everyone working in construction and the built environment sector, meeting the needs of our societies within the earth’s ecological boundaries will demand a paradigm shift in practice. If we are to reduce and eventually reverse the environmental damage we are causing, we will need to re-imagine our buildings, cities and infrastructures as indivisible components of a larger, constantly regenerating, and self-sustaining system."

The first comment I would make is it is understating the impact of the "built environment sector" by saying it is only 40%. The vast majority of transport is a direct result of choices made about the built environment, with emissions coming from cars moving between buildings. A not small proportion of industry emissions are from making the cars and the materials that go into them and into transportation infrastructure. The true footprint of the "built environment sector" is probably closer to 75% of emissions, and we shouldn't let the planners and the engineers off easy here. They also list some "killer facts" and don't mention steel, which has as big an impact as concrete.

Killer Facts

Architects Declare

The Architects Declare (AD) Steering Group notes the profession isn't doing enough.

"30 years of conventional design accompanied by limited levels of ‘sustainable’ design have not got us even remotely near where we need to be. Indeed, the very term ‘sustainable’ has been hijacked and overused resulting in the continuation of business as usual...Current goals/economics are based on infinite growth, linear resource use, and a view of nature as something to be plundered, it is this kind of thinking that has led to the emergency we find ourselves in. We need to move on from the current paradigm of merely targeting Sustainable design, which often simply mitigates negatives, into the realm of Regenerative design which strives for a net positive impact of our projects."

This is such an important point, and it is not new. Professor John Robinson of University of British Columbia's Centre for Interactive Research on Sustainability (CIRS) said it years ago and is worth repeating:

"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."
Regenerative Design
Regenerative Design.

Bill Reed

As we have noted previously, regenerative design is hard. I wrote in a 2019 post: "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."

That is why part 2 of the document is so important. It starts with more explanation of regenerative design. Architect and co-author of Cradle to Cradle once described sustainable design as "100% less bad." He also joked years ago about how boring and meaningless the word sustainable is, saying, “Who would want simply a ‘sustainable’ marriage? Humans can certainly aspire to more than that.” This is certainly what Architects Declare is aspiring to:

"We urgently need to move to a new paradigm and, just as many of us debated what is the ultimate aim of sustainability, it is now time to ask ourselves how to excel in regenerative design. It is important to realise that this new paradigm involves much more than ‘sustainability with all the bolts tightened up’—it requires some fundamentally different starting points."

The document then gets into detail about:

  • Energy, whole live carbon, and circularity
  • Embodied carbon
  • Circularity and waste
  • Retrofit
  • Materials
  • Operational energy and carbon
  • Low energy services and renewables

Then there are sections on ecology, biodiversity, water, climate justice, community, health, resilience. It covers everything—I might well use it as my textbook for my lectures in sustainable design after I get the university to change the course title to regenerative design. It's a remarkable document that concludes with an appendix, pages long, with valuable links and terrific resources that I will be referring to often. And inspiring words from the conclusion:

"The next decade will be critical for safeguarding life on our planet and establishing resilient communities where humanity can thrive. As architects, we can be at the forefront of that work, as we shape people’s lives through the places they live, work and play."

The problem with architecture is that it takes so long; when this year's Stirling Prize winner was criticized for not being particularly sustainable, the response was "hey, we started this in 2013." That's why architects, planners, engineers, and regulators have to stop talking about the next decade and start dealing with the issues right now. And Architects Declare has just delivered the program.

Download the Practice Guide here.