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 indicators and metrics.

DesignIntelligence talked with Colin Rohlfing, Director of Sustainable Development for HDR Architecture, about regenerative design—what it means, how to define it, how to scale it and how regenerative design can foster a new generation of ideas and inspiration.

DesignIntelligence (DI): Why is the idea of sustainability not enough?

Colin Rohlfing (CR): The original intention and definition of sustainability is essentially what we’re trying to accomplish right now with regenerative design. Over the years, the actual phrase sustainability has been watered down, used incorrectly and overused to the point where it no longer stirs the blood of designers or owners. It has become very basic in conversation, associated with just doing what I consider to be minimal engagement. Sometimes it’s just code engagement. There are many industries beyond the design industry that have altered their nomenclature because words and perceptions matter. It’s unfortunate, but I believe we need to use different words to foster a new generation of inspiration and thinking.

DI: For you, is the idea of a common vocabulary focused on the design and construction industry or is it a broader language that would be shared by owners and other stakeholders? Is there a need for a shared understanding of definitions of words or even a whole new set of terms?

CR: It’s smart for us to take simple steps for creating a common language and vocabulary of terms and ideas around regenerative design. The design pioneers of regenerative design philosophy have laid the groundwork and have caused us all to think differently. We need to go beyond just building systems thinking to ecological systems thinking as well. But there is so much new vocabulary around the subject of regenerative design that we need to set a more universal foundation and build greater understanding and consensus first. It’s not just defining the words, like regenerative design, restorative design or biomimicry, because they’ve been defined fairly well. But those words can only go so far. It may be that we need a sub-glossary to define what comes next that can be even more important. When we define things better, universally, among peers and competitors that are all looking for the same common goal, we tend to get more traction. Just look at what has happened with the AIA 2030 Challenge reporting among design firms for the past 8 years.

Regenerative design is not a new concept. It has been around for 20+ years, and there are projects that incorporate many of the components of regenerative design. But there hasn’t been a framework that we can all look to that is the standard.

When we talk about regenerative design today, it’s very philosophical and inspirational, but I believe there’s also a gap. What seems to be lacking is the practical metrics of “my client has a question; how would nature solve this problem?” Design teams don’t always have the resources at their fingertips to find out how to create a design solution to mimic the way nature solved a problem and what metrics to strive for. And there are many practitioners who need a little more direction on actual metrics to help them think of a certain strategy or hit a certain target to solve the problem nature’s way.

As an example, many of us think about the water cycle in a very basic way—the fixtures in the building, the processed water in the building, the site water usage and that’s it. We draw a boundary line and we don’t think about the broader ecological picture. We don’t consider things like aquifer recharge, salinity, surface vs. ground temperature or how the water cycle influences local flora and fauna from a biodiversity standpoint. We don’t really hone in on all the different measures of water quality and the health aspects that nature is considering. A sub-glossary of terms and target metrics that takes us beyond what we’re used to—such as fixture flow rates, flush rates, etc.—will be helpful to point out what to consider in the water cycle as nature would intend. And this is where we introduce complexity because this is ecological systems thinking and not just building systems thinking.

DI: How helpful are the existing standards?

CR: There’s definitely a spectrum here. We have LEED. Then we move into Living Building Challenge where we have, for example, definitions of net positive water for a site, which is much more stringent and holistic. WELL views these elements through a different lens: it’s water conservation at the holistic systems scale plus water quality and how water quality impacts people’s health. This is about as far as we can go currently into net-positive territory. With a sub-glossary, we move deeper into the impact on nearby ecology and how we can mimic nearby “pristine” ecology. Where does the water go after it comes off the building site? Is it recharging an aquifer? Is it contributing to better biodiversity and biological health in the region? This is a complex equation to solve, but LEED, Living Building Challenge and WELL have gotten us to this net-positive territory. This is just one more step.

DI: Are you also thinking about issues like the community and social justice in this arena?

CR: Every design project, whether it’s a regenerative design project or not, should always consider social equity and community issues. This is a gray area for hard metrics, but a very necessary design philosophy to be addressed. We’re not strictly looking at engineering calculations and metrics, we’re not just looking at environmental science or ecological performance. We’re also looking at the cultural and social cues of each project, working to solve society’s larger problems. Architects and designers can be a part of the answer around social equity and the cultural impacts of a site. This will always be a dynamic, evolving target, though, based on the political climate and social issues.

We may never get to a point where we completely nail down achievement of those metrics, but it should always be a philosophical conversation in any design engagement. Ignoring it would be a missed opportunity for designers to improve society.

DI: What else do you think it would take for regenerative design to become a universally adopted standard of practice?

CR: If we can’t inspire designers or owners, it’s not going to take off. It has to be exciting, it has to be inspirational, it has to be practical. It can’t just be metrics because then, if you only have metrics, it’s just another checklist and another rating system that no one wants to push the paperwork on.

DI: The pioneers have been talking about regenerative design for a while. Why do you think it hasn’t caught on to a larger degree than it has?

CR: First, I’d like to tip my hat to people like Jason McLennan and Bill Reed. They are deeper thinkers who see things that others don’t. When talking about this regenerative design framework with some of my colleagues in the industry, sometimes the concept is hard to grasp. I know what we want to achieve, what the end goal is, but not everybody can grasp that concept right away. It’s important for all of us to take it slow and simplify in order to help it catch on—that’s why we’ve just talked about the definitions.

DI: So this is an approach that’s based in practice and realworld experience as opposed to working everything out on paper, theoretically, before getting started, right?

CR: Yes. We’ve tried these engagements in the past, using concepts of biomimicry, and I’ve seen time and again that clients have a hard time wrapping their heads around certain concepts of biomimicry until they see a practical design solution that hits the target. The lessons we’ve learned are if we only have these philosophical arguments and no real design strategies or biometrics to back it up, it’s going to lose its mystique. When clients are more technical in nature, they want to know the practicality of the solution we’re offering. We want to inspire them through the philosophy but then show them how.

DI: What will help this whole idea of scaling regenerative design?

CR: Until large firms discuss these concepts in detail with a client in the context of a potential project, regenerative design may remain prevalent on only a small amount of “bleeding edge” projects that we all wish we could work on.

DI: How is HDR going about building a regenerative design practice?

CR: The first step is the philosophical step. In our Seattle office, we’ve hired a Director of Regenerative Design and a managing principal who understand the concepts and the theory behind regenerative design. We won’t align with clients on every project, but the fact that the two leaders in the office use regenerative design as the starting point for all project engagements is our first step. So our approach to building HDR’s regenerative design practice is philosophy and discussion first, details and metrics second and hopefully inspiration and adoption third.

If we build a universal framework and a common vocabulary around regenerative design, it at least gives every design firm the opportunity and a place to start.


Colin Rohlfing is director of sustainable development at HDR Architecture.

This article is excerpted from DesignIntelligence Quarterly 3Q 2018, where you can read more about sustainable, resilient, regenerative design.