In talking with A/E/C leaders, we have discovered that as an industry, we have not yet achieved a common vocabulary of terms and ideas around regenerative design. In order for regenerative design to come to scale and become the new standard of design that everyone follows—in the way sustainability has scaled to a point through LEED—the industry needs to center around a clear picture, at least on a conceptual level, of communication defining regenerative design.

DesignIntelligence talked with Jason F. McLennan about building a common vocabulary of ideas and terms, the philosophy of regenerative design, how it works for people in the market, how to get the word out and more.

DesignIntelligence (DI): How do you feel the idea of regenerative design has evolved since the beginning of your career?

Jason McLennan (JM): Regenerative design was not really a topic at all at the beginning of my career. It was not something that was discussed. Even the notion of green architecture, or sustainable design, was in its infancy. The idea of regenerative design, regenerative building, was not on the radar. That’s one of the main reasons why I created the Living Building Challenge.

Today, that has changed. The first phase was making sure that there was a general common understanding of the language around sustainability and green building. Obviously, LEED and the US Green Building Council were at the heart of that work during the late 1990s and early 2000s. It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that discussions started more broadly about going beyond and being regenerative, even though several of us were talking about the same sort of concepts but using different language for many years earlier.

Until recently regenerative design was more of a fringe topic, and it is just now becoming a more mainstream topic, in part because of the Living Building Challenge and the good work by people like Bill Reed who have been teaching about these ideas for a while. But it’s still a misunderstood niche with many barriers—pragmatic barriers as well as mental barriers— that are in the way of getting there.

In one sense, it has taken a while to get to this point. But on the other hand, in the span of time relative to architecture, it has been a fairly quick evolution. We’ve gone from no awareness and a non-topic to beginning to, as an industry, put our arms around what it means, and defining the philosophy and the criteria. But we’re still in that next step of pushing out awareness and understanding, which will take more time.


DI: How has the language evolved around regenerative design in this time period?

JM: There’s the beginning of a common language, and what is often typical with any sort of idea or meme is the eventual convergence and agreement around its meaning. There can be splintering, but there can also be convergence where there may be different schools of thought that use slightly different words or metaphors or tools to potentially get at the same thing. A good example is different schools of martial arts that teach a similar philosophy through different techniques.

So, we either continue to diverge or we continue to converge, and at this time I think we’re trying to converge around, again, the common language and common understanding of regenerative design. We need to have somewhat of a consensus around what it means, and then there may still be divergence around some of the methodology that’s used to be successful, but it’s helpful to have a common language and a common framing. That’s what I try to do with Living Building Challenge—to create clarity around a model and a way of thinking and then push awareness.

DI: Do you feel that the A/E/C industry is headed in the right direction regarding regenerative design?

JM: Yes, if slowly. The problem is the magnitude of the issues that we’re facing. Think of it this way: If we draw a graph about the negative global impacts we’re facing due to population, climate change and more, the graph would be exponential.

And yet, we have linear progress relative to the design industry and construction industry’s response to the problem. We’re making progress. The graph is going in the right direction. The unfortunate thing is the issues that we’re trying to address are growing exponentially, not linearly. That’s the problem. If we had started this movement in earnest back in 1950, it’s possible we could have been ahead of these issues, but we’re not and we’re not going to be. And so, therein lies the challenge.

The good news, in one sense, is that we are building the models. We are building living buildings. We are working to create tools and the standards, frameworks and the literal examples that in theory, would make a dramatic shift possible. But there will have to be a crisis or an outside change, like radically new codes for example, for a mandatory shift to happen. For example, when the great fires of Chicago and San Francisco happened, new regulations and codes were put in place that still shape buildings today. We need that level of sea change for energy and climate.

Another example is the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act). Some firms were designing/constructing compliant buildings even before there were accessibility regulations. However, the trajectory was pretty slow until the government passed the ADA.

DI: Beyond codes and mandates, what else do you think it will take to scale regenerative design and have universally adopted standards?

JM: Basically, the other path is the economic path. As we know, change happens rapidly when there is a strong economic reason to do so. We’ve been working hard to make green buildings less expensive, and that is working at certain levels of performance. There will come a time when we reach a crossover point—where the better thing is cheaper, and then the uptake will be immediate.

We’re closer to reaching that crossover point with renewable energy and solar in particular. Certainly, in many markets around the world, solar is now the cheapest form of new energy generation that can be installed—and that’s why it’s being installed.

A recent example of this rapid adoption is LED lighting. When LEDs first came out, they were very expensive and they weren’t very good. We tried for years to make fluorescent and incandescent lighting the standard, but there were efficiency and environmental problems with both. Now, suddenly LEDs have replaced both fluorescents and incandescents almost overnight. This is a huge victory in terms of energy efficiency and fewer toxins in the environment. But it happened because of an economic driver, and the change was measured in months, not years.

If something has an economic basis that can win, if it can be cheaper and better, the adoption will happen very quickly. And so, I believe that change will happen in relation to energyrelated issues, but there are other, more difficult issues that aren’t so easily translated to economic payback. That’s where legislation becomes necessary.

DI: Another example of this idea of rapid adoption is the tablet—how quickly they entered our lives and became pervasive. But tablets are on a completely different scale than buildings. Another unique issue with the built environment is this massive stock of existing buildings. How do we deal with those?

JM: Existing buildings do have a different layer of scale that makes them slower and more difficult to change. Buildings are bigger. The systems are not controlled by a single manufacturer. A computer is made by a single company, and then they have a supply chain that they influence. A building is not made in the same way. It’s usually a custom product, and there’s interchange between many other companies in addition to the material supply chain.

So the process of change is much slower and more difficult. It takes longer to turn that ship around. But it’s on a different timeframe because it’s more complex and burdensome.

DI: If we circle back to this idea of language and vocabulary, what needs to happen to help with both scaling regenerative design and making the pace of progress more rapid?

JM: The most powerful thing that we can do is build models that show what we’re talking about. That’s at the heart of the Living Building Challenge. With something as tangible as a building—like a home or an office building—most people need to see it and experience it in real life to understand what regenerative design means.

On one hand, there is the work that we need to do to get our language right and our visions correct. There’s good information out there, but we still need more beautifully designed examples of the philosophy of regenerative design and how it works for most people. Because most people don’t exist in a world of philosophy. It’s too abstract, and that’s fair enough.

For the sea change to happen, we need to build it and it needs to be beautiful, which is why I always focus on beauty and good design. The wrong models set us back and the right models bring us forward.

And it is also human nature that people need to see deep green examples in their own backyards. People will find ways to not believe it until they literally see a house that they can imagine themselves living in or working in an office building that has exactly the same uses that they have. Otherwise, they assume that it doesn’t apply to them or their situation.

People also need to see it working economically. The models have to be pragmatic and beautiful. They have to make sense. This is the phase we’re in now. We’re all in a bit of a hurry to show the world that this different way of building is better, to build the deep green examples—to build the iPhone for buildings, if you will. That’s why Denis Hayes built the Bullitt Center, which made a big difference for a lot of people.

DI: What do you think are some of the more persistent misconceptions or misperceptions about regenerative design?

JM: Like any concept or word, the term regenerative design is starting to get co-opted, which is a sign that it’s getting traction. But it’s also important to counter that diversion wherever possible. In the same way that “green” got slapped on anything, the momentum will weaken and become diminished. Essentially that’s why LEED was established—to create a series of standards and definitions of what “green” has to mean. That’s also what I tried to do with the Living Building Challenge— to co-opt that tendency from the outset to define what “green” has to mean, at a minimum.

DI: What is the role of ILFI (International Living Future Institute), or even a similar organization, versus what you can do in professional practice?

JM: ILFI serves a very distinct and different purpose. Practitioners are solving individual problems. The role of the Institute is to rise above the level of a particular project and to rise above competition between firms and entities and to do the job of being the gatekeepers and the curators of those ideas. In essence, the Institute’s purpose is to serve the industry more broadly and to serve the environment more specifically.

DI: What do we need to change in A/E/C in terms of scaling up projects and getting the projects out there?

JM: There are still some regulatory barriers, especially around water and waste, that need to change nationwide so that it’s not so difficult to do what we’re advocating. There are also educational barriers—what we’re teaching in schools and trade associations. And there are attitudinal, cultural barriers and economic barriers. And finally, we as an industry need to focus on making this issue relevant. How can we increase awareness? How can we make ideas concrete for people? How can we inspire change? It is such a vital topic.


Jason F. McLennan is CEO, McLennan Design and Founder, Living Building Challenge.

This article is excerpted from the DesignIntelligence Quarterly 3Q 2018 edition, where you can read more articles and research about regenerative and sustainable design.