Regenerative Design - Full Page Version

 Regenerative Design - Full Page Version

Hi Bill,

Thank you so much for your presentation at West Coast Green. I was able to attend your session on the Philosophy and Practice of Integrative Design on Thursday and I’m still talking/thinking about it. It absolutely blew my mind! Your presentation challenged me in many ways and inspired me to think way, way, way out of the box. I was also overjoyed to hear an architect mention permaculture. I have been a marketing manager for architecture firms for a few years, but I am also studying for my permaculture design certificate. I hope that you will speak again on the West Coast so that I can drag my office to see you.

- Nicole Collins -

Bill Reed was a terrific catalyst for this subject – regenerative design. Everything is connected – It all makes sense. I truly enjoyed his slide show on this important subject – our relationship to the systems of life connects us all. Bill is a spiritual healer of the Ecosystem.

SMUD Presentation 2009

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Some Points to Consider on Regeneration


  1. Experiencing Whole Systems

    There is really no such thing as a regenerative project – nor can there be – an object by itself cannot be regenerative. It’s about the relationships between the objects and how they are continuously evolving that make them regenerative. Some hopefully clarifying thoughts - Regeneration is a process of engagement with the purpose of healing living systems (humans and “nature”) and birthing a new spirit to consciously participate in expanding the healing process. It does this in a way that enriches the possibilities for greater diversity living relationships. If a deeper potential for living relationships is not part of the story then it isn’t regeneration. Many designers use this word for photovoltaics but that is a subset of what it takes to make life occur on a continuing basis. There are two basic aspects to regeneration:

    There needs to be a process that helps participants experience the whole system they are part of.

    • I.e., the whole and complex relationship of culture, earth systems, biotic systems, technical systems – this can be done with keystone issues. It doesn’t require infinite knowledge.
    • This cannot be taught. This needs to be experienced. Facts and technologies can be taught, but facts are not ‘understanding’. Understanding comes from an awareness of patterns of relationships.
      • “To understand is to see the way things belong together, and to see why they are together as they are. Understanding relates to underlying patterns, relationship, meanings. If each thing of the world were different from everything else, we should have no hope of understanding. We would have to rely on knowing everything uniquely and piecemeal ” (Bennett).
      • An example. If I were given the exact bits of knowledge that tell me how to build a solar house, I could be given the knowledge to do so. But if I was told to apply these same facts to a different home in a colder climate I couldn’t use the same knowledge. I will need to understand the pattern of relationships – in this case the laws of heat transfer, thermodynamics, and material performance in a harsher latitude to determine the right kind of equipment to use. Now apply this same analogy to plants, microbes, human social systems and culture – it requires a different way of engaging the participants than simply recommending technologies.
    • The design process needs to ultimately become an experiential process based on the foundation of how life works in that place in order to hope to achieve a sustainable condition.
  2. Sustaining Sustainability


    It isn’t sustainable unless the participants in a place, building, etc are engaged in evolving (self organizing around) the process of a healthy, evolutionary trajectory of life. This is the cycling process that self-organizing entities engage in. A spiral of increasing richness and diversity in support of the whole (autopoeisis).

    • This requires feedback and an organization to receive and act on this feedback.
    • The design process needs to set up the process of continuing this journey going forward. Jamie Lerner did this in Curitiba. We set up a Core Team to hold and do this.

    Many projects have the beginnings of this kind of approach – but the story should not be expressed in terms of the technical fragments of the system (energy, water, materials, etc). The story needs to be expressed in terms of the aspects of life, the purpose of sustainability – nourishment, shelter, value adding relationships, (vitality, viability, and evolutionary capability – to use a living systems framework).

    There are two avenues of greening in play right now. Both are of critical importance – but let’s not confuse the two because they require different mental models. Hopefully these two tracks will merge more quickly than they have been. The first is a “technical” model that is making the attempt to reduce consumption as well as restoring sub-systems such as woodlands, riparian systems, wetlands, etc. This is an important and critical start.

    The second track is a living systems approach that engages all of life in an intentional dance – it works with the building of an understanding of the invisible relationships that link the objects of we focus on in Western Society.

    The distinction between the two tracks is that of “purpose and understanding”.

    As stated above, the two tracks of reducing consumption and living system health ultimately merge. The question is, will we learn about the latter if we only focus on the technologies. Perhaps, but it is likely better to be conscious of the difference. That’s why we add “consciousness” to the well known statement of the need to move from efficiency to effectiveness – the trend line should read – efficiency to effectiveness to consciousness – we need all three.


Practice/Process Steps

Using the following methods, we work with stakeholders to develop an understanding of how buildings, habitat, and people can contribute to ‘the health of the whole’ over time. The objective is to align human activity with the nature of Place – the process asks how we can be participants with the Place – not limiting ourselves by assuming we can only do something to the Place.


  1. Setting the Stage – understanding and aligning human aspirations of a project

    To understand the objectives of a project, it is necessary to understand the core drivers of why the project is proposed in the first place and what people value and perceive as significant about the Place they inhabit. It is necessary to elicit from the participants the aspirations they have about this project and locale. Questions about what is driving this project, what is important to the client and design team are elicited in a dialogue process. It is significant to note the difference between the visions for a project and the aspirations of the participants.

    A vision, as it is used in planning processes today, is basically a wish list of desirable features or wants by the project constituents. These “visions” may amount to dozens of multi-paged flip chart lists. Sometimes there are contradictory issues that cause more disagreement among participants than alignment around a purpose.

    An aspiration is a deeper, heartfelt core purpose (aspire, breathe, spirit) that, if elicited in the course of the design process, becomes a fundamental objective of the project in very general terms. The generality gives the design process flexibility. The core purpose gives the design process the energy to find solutions that support both the aspirations and the nature of the place. There are likely only a dozen or two aspirations common to most everybody – readily available food, health, family, security, love, the opportunity to voice concerns and be heard, freedom to practice beliefs, healthy natural systems, honest relations with neighbors, and so on.

    With powerful and basic aspirations understood by the participants the way is open to begin exploring how these aspirations can be met within the opportunities and limitations of the nature of that Place. The aspirations open up the possibilities of rich and fruitful dialogue with the participants as opposed to laundry lists of ‘visions’ that may pit sides against each other. This process is useful for two reasons:


    1. by eliciting the core purpose of the project the many members of the client and design team have the opportunity to see beyond the simple building program and question assumptions;
    2. this has the potential of aligning the design team around the purpose of their work. When working on unique projects, in unique places and solving problems to realize authentic solutions requires that design teams break out of past practice patterns and expectations. Without this kind of process it is unlikely they will realize the deepest potential of a whole system solution. This work is preferably done before a site is selected or the design process has begun.


  2. Learning about the Place

    In order to address the health of an ecosystem and our role in it, we need to understand how it works and how humans have interacted with it through history. By understanding the patterns of evolution and health in a watershed the relationships between the systems (human, plant, animal, hydrology, meteorology, geology) can be understood with a level of approximation. When did life express itself more fully than other times; why; what occurred to change these relationships; and so on? This knowledge gives us the opportunity to identify the key systems and keystone species in a place that made it work more effectively in the past and may provide new opportunities in the future – particularly in alignment with current aspirations of the people in that place.

    Place = Core identity of the relationships of these three aspects: earth, human, spirit. ®Regenesis

  3. Frame/sketch/outline the story of Place

    By expressing these relationships in the form of a “story of place” it is possible to more quickly engage the layperson in an understanding the complex relationships in an ecosystem and their role within it. The story of place as a context serves multiple purposes. First, history has shown that we will not sustain the will needed to make and maintain the needed changes, day after day, without evoking the spirit of caring that comes from a deep connection to place. Second, discovering the story of a place enables us to understand how living systems work in a particular place, and provides greater intelligence about how humans can then align themselves with that way of working to the benefit of both. Finally, the story of place provides a framework for an ongoing learning process that enables humans to co-evolve with their environment. (For an example see Loreto Bay - Story of Place)

  4. Marrying story of Place with aspirations for future

    This is the point where conceptual design can begin.

    From working through the above steps there is a foundation established that the design team can respond to: real issues of the environment and the aspirations of the people in relation to the opportunities in the ecosystem. At this point it is essential to form a Core Team to hold the aspirations in relation to the health of the place and project. This team’s responsibility is not in day-to-day activities but to remember, hold, and promote the higher aspirations and visions of the project – to hold the core which energizes the design process and on-going residency of the Place.

  5. Identify indicators

    Once the keystone species and key systems are generally understood there needs to be established metrics and benchmarks to measure levels of improvement. No one can be sure that the understanding of the ecosystem is correct or that the people engaged with the system will interact in the assumed way. Monitoring the success of this work is essential to receive the feedback necessary to allow a system to evolve.

  6. Integrative Design/Construction Process

    All the design work should support the establishment of the health of the whole as well as other non-conflicting or at a minimum, neutral to the system, objectives. The process of optimizing each system and part in relation to the whole requires more than a few iterations of thinking. Since we work within the framework of time – a linear process – we need to approximate the simultaneity of the whole by rapid iteration of ideas.

  7. Ongoing Feedback

    Continuous monitoring and measurement as well as feeding the results back to the Core Team who holds the long term aspirations for the project.