Paul Astle, Decarbonisation Lead

May 2, 2024

Is being ‘less bad’ good enough?

Regenerative design promises to reset our relationship between the built environment, nature and society by not only mitigating environmental harm but also restoring and revitalising ecosystems. However, the transition towards regenerative practices in the building sector is far from straightforward – here we explore the key enablers that will help make it a reality.

At Fælledby in Copenhagen, Henning Larsen transforms a former junkyard site into a model for sustainable living with timber being used for 80% of the construction materials and 40% of the site preserved as undeveloped habitat for local flora, fauna and wildlife.
Ever since the Kyoto protocol there has been an ever-increasing push to measure, control and ultimately reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It has taken decades for these efforts to translate into the regulations we are now seeing around the world with respect to energy efficiency and, increasingly, embodied carbon.
However, reduced energy consumption and lower carbon materials still have some impacts, they are in effect, ‘less bad’.
Is ‘less bad’ good enough?
Embracing regenerative design calls for integrated approaches that consider both carbon reduction and ecosystem restoration, recognising that the two are not mutually exclusive but rather complementary aspects of our longer-term transition to a healthier planet.
It is crucial to recognise that this transition is not a binary choice between good and bad. Rather, it involves navigating through a spectrum of possibilities. For instance, while energy-efficient buildings reduce carbon emissions, they might not contribute to ecosystem regeneration, or could require more carbon intensive materials in the first place.

We cannot let the desire for a perfect answer paralyse our ability to make progress. We must recognise that on any given project we can make progress in some areas but not all. What matters though, is our long-term transition.

Paul Astle
Decarbonisation Lead, Ramboll

From degeneration to regeneration
Emerging policies and interconnectedness
To achieve a transition to regenerative thinking, there is a need for suitable policies and regulations, beyond those in place today.
Energy efficiency regulations in new buildings are relatively mature with nearly all national standards requiring a minimum performance.
There is an emerging landscape of regulation with respect to embodied carbon, the carbon associated with the extraction, manufacturing, transportation, and installation of building materials. Some countries have started to require the measurement of whole life carbon, which includes both the embodied carbon, as well as the operational carbon associated with the energy consumed.
Carbon assessment and target regulatory status in selected countries and cities
The need to measure the ‘circularity’ of a building is also starting to be considered in regulatory frameworks such as the EU Taxonomy, California state’s CalGreen regulations and in many city level regulations, Amsterdam being a notable example.
In addition, we are now starting to see attention on the ecological impacts of buildings and construction. The UK’s Biodiversity Net Gain legislation came into force earlier this year, requiring developers to address the biodiversity impact within their site. The ecological impacts outside a site are also starting to be considered, with the UK Green Building Council publishing some initial guidance on embodied ecological impacts last year.
However, what is yet to be addressed is the interconnectedness of these different items and how the industry can make the ‘best’ collective decision?
The necessity of multi-criteria decision tools in regenerative design
In regenerative thinking, given the multitude of factors at play, traditional decision-making frameworks may fall short in capturing the full spectrum of considerations.
Furthermore, the metrics that are used may need to consider the dependency of place and some will be subjective and relative rather than objective and absolute. There may be a need to answer the question, ‘What does good feel like’, as well as ‘What does good look like’.
Comparing metrics
Multi-criteria decision-making tools that can accommodate a diverse array of factors will be important to implement regenerative design. These tools allow decision-makers to assign weights to different criteria based on their relative importance, thereby facilitating a more comprehensive evaluation process.
Decarbonisation as the key to regenerative thinking
We stand at the cusp of a transition towards regenerative thinking. Whilst this transition will be messy requiring us to navigate a complex landscape of metrics, we must not get lost in trying to solve everything at once.
Decarbonisation can serve as the key to unlocking regenerative systems thinking, and whilst we may still be delivering things which are ‘less bad’, tackling carbon is a prerequisite to allowing us to deliver a regenerative future. In doing so, we not only mitigate environmental harm but also embark on a journey of regeneration, where buildings become catalysts for positive change.

Want to know more?

  • Paul Astle

    Decarbonisation Lead

    +44 7436 545367

    Paul Astle
  • Helene Bekker

    Head of Department Landscape & Urbanism

    +45 60 35 21 10

    Helene Bekker