What is Regenerative Design: Principles, Applications, Pros, and Cons

What is Regenerative Design: Principles, Applications, Pros, and Cons

Regenerative design is fundamentally an approach to design that equips a particular system with the capacity to restore, renew, or revitalize its own sources of energy and materials. Based on whole systems thinking and drawing inspiration from the processes found in nature, it aims to reconnect and realign humans and their activities with the natural environment, thus lessening the negative environmental impacts of the modern society while addressing pressing issues such as global warming and the ongoing climate emergency.

Historical Background and Early Developments

The concept can be traced back to several thinkers starting from the 1970s. More specifically, David Holmgren, an Australian environmental designer, and Bill Mollison, an Australian scientist and university lecturer, began working on a land management approach that is sustainable and self-sufficient by utilizing arrangements found in flourishing ecosystems. They called it “permaculture” and introduced it in their 1978 book “Permaculture One: A Perennial Agricultural System for Human Settlements.”

American adherent of organic farming Robert Rodale began working on advancing an approach to farming that renews and regenerates agricultural resources beginning the 1980s. He introduced the concept of “regenerative organic agriculture” which represents a new model of farming that goes beyond the mere concept of sustainability.

Specifically, when compared to sustainable agriculture, his concept maximizes the natural tendencies of ecosystems to regenerate when disturbed using closed nutrient loops, greater diversity in the biological community, fewer annuals and more perennials, and greater dependence and utilization on internal rather than external resources

Nevertheless, John T. Lyle, an American professor of landscape agriculture, saw the link between the concepts introduced and developed by Robert Rodale and the possibility of developing a regenerative system that has applications beyond agriculture. He published the book “Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development and Design for Human Ecosystems” in 1996 that positioned “regenerative design” as a whole systems design approach. Take note that this book has also laid down the foundation for the circular economy concept.

Modern Definition and Core Principles of Regenerative Design

Comparison with Sustainability and Green Design

To understand further, note that several of its adherents have explicitly defined the difference between sustainability and regenerative design. For example, Rodale emphasized the need to move to a new way of producing food that goes beyond sustainable farming. He explained that regenerative organic agriculture takes into consideration the capabilities of land resources, as well as other natural resources used in farming, to regenerate through the use of natural fertilizers to maintain soil health, as well as promotion of animal welfare and fairness for farmers.

It is also important to highlight the fact that sustainable development focuses on meeting the fundamental needs of the current generation without compromising the capabilities of the future to satisfy theirs. On the other hand, the focus of regenerative design is to develop and deploy regenerative systems that are both dynamic and emergent, as well as beneficial for humans, societies, and other species.

There is also the difference between green design, sustainable design, and regenerative design. Green design simply involves limiting and managing the environmental impacts of human activities and human development. Sustainability centers on proper management and appropriation of natural resources to avoid depletion to reach a state of equilibrium in which there is a balance between inputs and outputs or production and consumption.

Regenerative design goes a step further than green design and sustainable design. Hence, by default, it supports green initiatives and promotes sustainability. However, the key difference is that it aims to create a system characterized by a closed-loop of inputs and outputs, as well as by the capacity to develop and maintain resilient and flourishing ecosystems. In his 2012 explanatory article, architecture professor and researcher Raymond J. Cole highlights the close-knitted relationship between humans and natural systems in differentiating regenerative systems from green design and sustainable design.

Fundamental Characteristics of Regenerative Design

There are still some variations with regard to the specific definitions of regenerative design. Different researchers, thinkers, and industry practitioners have integrated their own conceptualization according to preconceived applications. Nonetheless, these definitions have common themes that collectively represent the fundamental definition or principles and characteristics of a design approach based on a regenerative system. Take note of the following:

• Coexistence and Coevolution of Humans and Nature: Humans and the built environment should within the natural environment. In other words, a regenerative approach to designing the built environment takes into account the need to coexist and coevolve with the natural environment.

• Designing in Context and Consideration of Place: Cole stressed the fact that ensuring the coevolutionary relationship between humans and nature requires considering and understanding the location and place of a particular design project, their patterns, as well as the unique dynamics between the design project and the natural systems.

• Difference Between Conservation and Preservation: There is also a need to understand the difference between conservation and preservation. The latter focuses primarily on the built environment while the former puts a heavier weight on the natural systems. Conservation is another fundamental principle of regenerative design.

Established Frameworks and Industry Standards

Variations in definitions have also brought forth some degree of differences in execution and application, specifically in the development and implantation of regenerative design. Below are some examples:

• Living Building Challenge: Developed by Jason F. McLennan and Bob Berkebile, and launched in 2006 by the nonprofit International Living Future Institute, the Living Building Challenge is an international building certification program that aims to promote the development of regenerative built environments.

• Sustainable Project Appraisal Routine: Software developers and sustainability experts developed the SPeAR software as a tool for the design of sustainable buildings and infrastructures. As a framework, it also incorporates four categories: transportation, biodiversity, culture, and employment and skills.

• Living Environments in Natural, Social and Economic Systems: Created by the Institute for the Built Environment of Colorado State University, LENSES is a process-based framework that aims to direct the development of eco-regional guiding principles for living built environments, illustrate connections and relationships between sustainability issues, guide collaborative dialogue, and present complex concepts quickly and effectively to development teams and decision-makers.

• Regenerative Design Framework: The Regenerative Design Framework or REGEN is a proposed framework and tool put forward by architectural firm Berkebile Nelson Immenschuh McDowell for the U.S. Green Building Council. It intends to guide the design and development processes of professionals working on a particular project, thus addressing the information gap while also integrating all valuable information.

• Perkins+Will Framework: International architecture and design firm Perkins+Will and the University of British Columbia introduced the Perkins+Will Framework in 2012 intended for different markets and sectors to include healthcare, education, commercial and industrial, and residential, among others. There are four primary themes: representation of human and natural systems, representation of resource flows, resource cycles, and direct and indirect engagement flows.

Modern and Future Applications of Regenerative Design

Considering its early history, the initial applications of regenerative design revolved around architecture and agriculture. However, with the expansion of the concept, emergence of numerous definitions, and development of different frameworks and standards, it has seen relevance and suitability across different industries and sectors, as well as fields of discipline. Below are the identified applications:

• Construction and Architecture: Several architects and engineers, as well as architectural and engineering firms, have designed conceptual ideas and deployed systems and practices intended to construct buildings and infrastructures that can help reverse exiting damages and produce a net-positive income on the environment. Specific applications and subfields include regenerative architecture and interior design, as well as regenerative urban planning and smart cities.

• Agriculture and Food Production: Regenerative agriculture includes novel principles and practices in farming and livestock raising that aims to rebuild soil organic matter and lessen the environmental impacts of food production. Specific practices include no-till farming, crop rotation and natural sequence farming, compost application, scheduled production, perennial crop planting, and grass-fed grazing, among others. Moreover, specific methods and technologies include agroforestry, vertical farming, and integrated farming and energy production,

• Sustainable and Renewable Energy: Integrating renewable sources of energy in a particular community falls within the scope of regenerative community planning. Moreover, specific renewable energy technologies also share several similarities with the principles of regenerative design. A notable example is the CETO Systems Technology which is a dual-purpose technology that generates electricity using oceanic waves and desalinates seawater using the generated electricity.

• Design of Supply Chain: The concept can also be used in rethinking and redesigning the supply chain of companies through careful evaluation and selection of the different factors of production to make the entire production process and business operation as green, sustainable, and regenerative as possible.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Regenerative Design

From the principles and applications discussed above, the obvious advantage of regenerative design is that it supplements and promotes all of the benefits of other related concepts such as green design and sustainable development. These benefits have positive impacts on the environment while meeting the requirements of modern society.

However, as mentioned, a design principle that takes into consideration the need to equip a specific system with a capacity to restore, renew, or revitalize has another advantage: maximize the utilization of resources from nature without endangering the welfare of the entire ecosystem. Because regenerative design integrates the needs of society with the integrity of the natural systems, it intends to create and maintain resilient and equitable systems.

Another advantage is its alignment with a circular economic system. By definition, a circular economy provides a production-consumption model that aims to reduce or eliminate wastes through the continual use of finite resources. Other related and applicable principles and practices include Cradle to Cradle process, recycling via upcycling, and natural capitalism.

Of course, there are drawbacks and challenges. An obvious challenge of regenerative design is its widescale implementation. The promotion and adoption of its principles and specific practices would require a paradigm shift that would compel modern societies, business organizations, community leaders, and individuals to redo the way they do things.

Remember that the modern economic system is still based on a linear economic model characterized by a cradle-to-grave production-consumption model, as well as the large-scale unsustainable exploitation and consumption of natural resources such as fossil fuels and rare minerals, among others. A regenerative approach to designing buildings and infrastructures, urban areas and cities, agriculture and food production, and energy production, among others, would undermine existing industries, sectors, and markets.

Another disadvantage revolves around the absence of a universal standard and the lack of strong support from governments. Despite the definitions mentioned above, there are still some variations in the definition and implementation of regenerative design among thinkers and industry leaders that could lead to confusion and improper implementation. Furthermore, due to the absence of government support, there is no strong incentive for relevant individuals and organizations to ad0pt and implement the concept and its principles.


  • Cole, R. J. 2012. “Transitioning from Green to Regenerative Design.” Building Research & Information. 40(1): 39-53. DOI: 1080/09613218.2011.610608
  • D. and Mollison, B. 1978. Permaculture One: A Perennial Agricultural System for Human Settlements. Transworld Publishers. ISBN: 978-0552980753
  • LaSalle, T. J. and Hepperly, P. R. 2008. Regenerative Organic Agriculture: A Down-to-Earth Solution to Global Warming. Rodale Institute. Available via PDF
  • Lyle, J. T. 1996. Regenerative Design for Sustainable Development and Design for Human Ecosystems. Wiley. ISBN: 978-0-471-17843-9