This research document presents findings from a study of several approaches towards a fully sustainable built environment in New Zealand. It examines the value and opportunities for central government agencies of adopting these approaches. It is intended to stimulate discussion and debate about emerging concepts, rather than determining a particular single path towards achieving a sustainable built environment.
Prepared by Sarah Jenkin, URS New Zealand Limited and Maibritt Pedersen Zari, Victoria University
Rethinking our built environments: Towards a sustainable future was subject to review by key contributors in the fields of regenerative and restorative design. The authors wish to thank the following contributors: Bill Reed, AIA, LEED, Regenesis Group, New Mexico, President of the Integrative Design Collaborative; Nils Larsson, FRAIC, Executive Director of the International Initiative for a Sustainable Built Environment (iiSBE); Craig Pocock, Director of Pocock Design: Environment, and contract lecturer in landscape architecture, Lincoln University; and Alex Couchman, Principal, Warren and Mahony Architects.
The negative environmental impacts of New Zealand’s built environment are immense. Globally, 40 per cent of all energy and material resources are used to build and operate buildings, 40 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions come from building construction and operation, and 40 per cent of total waste results from construction and demolition activities (UNEP, 2007). Added to this are additional impacts on land, water and air quality, as well as human health.
Current sustainability practices as applied to the built environment, which aim to do ‘less harm’, are insufficient to achieve a sustainable environment. This document presents cutting-edge thinking about how New Zealand’s built environments can be developed to create a built environment with environmental, social, cultural and economic benefits.
The definition of a sustainable built environment is changing rapidly. While aiming for neutral or reduced environmental impacts in terms of energy, carbon, waste or water are worthwhile targets, it is becoming clear that the built environment must go beyond this. It must have net positive environmental benefits for the living world.
This implies that the built environment needs to produce more than it consumes, as well as remedy pollution and damage. It is a departure from the idea that the best the built environment can be is ‘neutral’ in relation to the living world.
Concepts such as regenerative, restorative, cradle-to-cradle (eco-effectiveness) and eco-efficient development are likely to contribute to achieving a sustainable built environment. According to leading professionals in the field, the goal of such concepts is ecological and community restoration or regeneration, where success is measured by improvements in health and well-being for humans, other living beings, and ecosystems as a whole (Reed, 2006; Kellert, 2004; McDonough, 2002). This requires an expanded notion of what the built environment is and how it should perform, as well as a better understanding of the relationships between it and living environments.
Proponents of the concept of regenerative development suggest that the required shift to regenerative development cannot be a gradual process of improvements – rather, it will require a fundamental rethinking of architectural and urban design.
In 2007, the Ministry for the Environment (‘the Ministry’) undertook a strategic review of the sustainable building work stream that led to a number of changes. The review did not address the work stream’s short-term aims, which were to ensure central government organisations accelerate the adoption of ‘best practice’ sustainable building practices to improve the sustainability of their buildings.
The sustainable building work stream worked with industry to develop tools, guidelines and guidance to assist central government organisations. The Ministry has also helped the New Zealand Green Building Council to ensure Green Star rating tools were available to central government organisations and New Zealand businesses more generally.
The review suggested taking a more holistic, integrated approach to long-term sustainable building.
The Ministry for the Environment commissioned this research document – Rethinking our built environments: Towards a sustainable future – as a way to identify the benefits of this approach for central government organisations, and New Zealand as a whole.
The purpose of this document is to stimulate discussion and debate. It does not seek to determine a particular path, but presents concepts that challenge us to significantly shift our thinking about the built environment. This will allow central government organisations to explore how the concepts discussed in this document could strengthen and progress their policy areas as they relate to the built environment.
The document is directed primarily toward people with a general understanding of sustainability principles. Its key elements are:
New Zealand’s existing built environment will largely still be in place in 50 years’ time. The development of a sustainable built environment will therefore largely rely on retrofitting existing infrastructure and buildings (Storey et al, 2004).
Business-as-usual in New Zealand has included conventional approaches to building design, and green or high performance building design, termed here eco-efficiency.
Awareness has been growing, particularly over the last five years, of the importance of a sustainable built environment. This is reflected in a number of ways, including the development of the New Zealand Urban Design Protocol, the establishment of the New Zealand Green Building Council, the New Zealand Energy Efficiency and Conservation Strategy 2012 target of at least a five-star Green Star rating for new government buildings, the Building Code review, and built environment sustainability research consortiums, such as Beacon Pathway.
Each of the four main development approaches explored in this study has benefits, some of them similar. It is expected benefits will intensify when moving along the sustainability continuum from eco-efficiency (least sustainable) through to regenerative development (most sustainable).
Eco-efficient development, while an improvement on conventional approaches, ultimately still results in negative environmental impact (Reed, 2007). Given the scale of environmental issues like climate change, and the short window for action some experts predict, this may not be an adequate response to the problem beyond the short term.
Regenerative, restorative and cradle-to-cradle development aim for net positive environmental outcomes. This is a new way of thinking that sees development as a way to improve the health of ecosystems. The key differences between the three concepts lie in the perceived role of humans. Restorative and cradle-to-cradle strategies seek to improve ecosystem health through active human management, while regenerative strategies seek to repair the capacity of ecosystems to function at optimum levels without ongoing human intervention.
Some of the key potential benefits the three approaches could deliver are:
The regenerative approach potentially delivers the greatest positive outcomes for human communities and culture, as well as ecosystems and the built environment. It would also contribute towards offsetting the ongoing negative environmental impacts of the existing building stock and reduce the percentage of energy-dependent new buildings.
Connections between components of the built environment, such as individual buildings, transport systems, urban landscapes and other infrastructure are important. When these are viewed as elements of a system that also includes humans and ecosystems as key participants, the ability to achieve change is considerably greater than if they are considered as individual elements with limited or no relationship to each other.
The cradle-to-cradle, restorative and regenerative approaches allow an integrated approach to development that extends beyond the design profession, to include project stakeholders, professional institutions and governing bodies. By doing so, such approaches become a means of bridging the gap between current ways of working and the desired outcomes of a sustainable built environment (Yang et al, 2005).
This research document explores short, medium and long-term timeframes for implementing the approaches discussed, as well as possible benefits derived over these timeframes.
In the short term (five years), eco-efficiency is already rapidly transforming business–as-usual in the built environment.
In the medium term (40 years), cradle-to-cradle, restorative and regenerative developments may provide a more suitable built environment for humans in a changing context.
In the long and extra-long term (80- to several hundred years), a regenerative approach to the built environment will more likely ensure a continuous suitable environment for humans and other species.
The different approaches pose a number of challenges, primarily associated with the current lack of an integrated approach to development.
Because cradle-to-cradle, restorative and regenerative development are aligned with a whole-systems approach to the built environment, they also pose potential challenges in terms of current methods for dividing land and the consequent legal boundaries for larger scale projects.
There are, however, opportunities for central government organisations and others to show leadership and take New Zealand forward to a sustainable built environment, by helping develop momentum for adopting these approaches.
To realise those opportunities, short-term adoption of cradle-to-cradle, restorative and regenerative approaches is needed to produce New Zealand examples and allow capitalisation of the long-term benefits. This could take several forms: individual projects could eventually transform the built environment in a building-by-building, or development-by-development way; or concepts could be applied to neighbourhoods, larger developments, sections of cities, suburbs or whole new towns to more effectively demonstrate the benefits of a systems-based approach to design.