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The Holistic Aspect of Regenerative Design: Q&A with Cuningham’s Paul Hutton

The growing threat of climate change hazards is spurring industries to develop solutions that might reduce those hazards. One concept gaining traction among build-design experts is regenerative design. In this first part of a two-part series, Connect CRE asked Paul Hutton, Cuningham’s Director of Regenerative Design to explain the basics of regenerative design and how it differs from sustainability.


Paul Hutton

Connect CRE: What exactly is regenerative design?

Paul Hutton:  Regenerative design is the concept of creating buildings that actively “do good” rather than “do less harm.” In essence, it is a philosophy of design that seeks to create positive social and environmental impacts, not just neutral or less-negative impacts.

It is Cuningham’s belief that designers must accept where the world is today. This means acknowledging that past sustainability efforts haven’t worked as well as intended. Our climate is in a worse place today than when the sustainability movement started in the 70s and 80s.

A regenerative design approach looks at the built environment as an opportunity to begin the process of restoration, not just environmentally but from a community standpoint as well. We need to reuse existing sites and limit greenfield development; upcycle and reuse materials as much as possible; and seek to reduce water, fossil fuel use, and embodied carbon in both the construction and building operations. We also need to think in terms of the circular economy, where consumption of finite resources is decoupled from economic activity. 

Connect CRE: Where did the concept come from?

Paul Hutton: Regenerative design is a natural result of the evolution of environmental-oriented architecture trends dating back to the 1960s. Along the way there have been numerous milestones that moved from energy-specific design to the more comprehensive LEED certification up to today’s future-oriented regenerative design. There are connections to agricultural practices that focus on renewing soils and enriching ecosystems.

Bill Mollison, a biologist in Tasmania, created a set of design principles that integrate “the landscape with people, providing their food, energy, shelter and other…needs in a sustainable way.” John T. Lyle, a professor of landscape architecture at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, founded the Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies, to test how buildings can harmonize and contribute to the growth of the surrounding environment and community.

Today, the AIA and other industry organizations carry on the development of regenerative design ideas to enable practitioners to achieve truly regenerative design in all their work.

Connect CRE: How does regenerative design differ from sustainability?

Paul Hutton: The difference between sustainability and regenerative design is an evolution of thinking. Where sustainability meant “do less harm,” the regeneration paradigm is “restore the planet.”

Before going on, it’s  important to note that sustainability has achieved a lot of good, especially in terms of energy efficiency. According to Architecture 2030, while building area in the U.S. has greatly increased, the energy used by those buildings has decreased. We succeeded in decoupling floor area and energy use. But sustainability stops being effective at the point where repair and restoration becomes necessary, which is where the world is now.

Interest in sustainability is worn out. LEED registration is a proxy for interest, and in recent years we’ve seen what can only be described as “LEED fatigue.” New certifications declined from 8,425 in 2015-2016 to 1,472 in 2018-2019. The LEED system is being re-tooled to reflect a more regenerative approach and I think that’s a great thing.

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Inside The Story

Cuningham's Paul Hutton

About Amy Wolff Sorter

I love content. I love writing it, visualizing it, and manipulating it to fit into different formats. I have years of experience in working with content, both as creator and editor. The content I create and edit provides assistance with many goals, ranging from lead generation, to developing street cred through well-timed thought-leadership pieces. Content skills include, but aren't limited to, articles and blogs, e-mails, promotional collateral, infographics, e-books and white papers, website copy and more.

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