Your lawyers since 1722

How can the built environment reduce its impact on our planet’s resources?

Against the backdrop of the world’s first Global Stocktake, global attention is shifting to the solutions that must be scaled to tackle the tipping point in climate change, humanitarian challenges and economic uncertainties.

In the second of our thought leadership series this World Green Building Week, we’re focusing on the regenerative transition – exploring how the built environment has a central role to play in reducing our drain on the world’s finite resources, and the mutual benefits this creates for companies and communities alike.

What is the regenerative transition?

Our planet’s resources give us life, but they are not infinite. In 2023, a year’s worth of biological resources were used in just seven months. At this rate, we’d need the equivalent of 1.7 planet Earths to supply this level of resource demand per year (Earth Overshoot Day).

Combined with the demand for our planet to also absorb our waste, this is clearly unsustainable.

In addition, the impact of the emissions from resource extraction, use and waste, alongside associated pollution and decreasing biodiversity, is accelerating climate change.

The ‘regenerative transition’ is about establishing a thriving society that’s in alignment with nature and its resources based on a prosperous circular economy. A world where humanity can use natural resources in a manner that maintains available levels at an equilibrium and, through renewal, ultimately ensures use without reaching exploitation levels.

A regenerative approach challenges short-term thinking, and combines nature and human-centric solutions that allow co-existent living through the:

  • regeneration of nature and redundant built spaces (including biodiversity and natural systems) to the benefit of local communities and environment
  • reduction in consumption of materials and resources
  • optimisation of materials and product lifespans
  • reuse of products and materials and elimination of waste

Why is it important that we don’t demand more than our planet can supply?

So far, efforts to combat climate change have focused predominantly on the critical role of renewable energy and energy-efficiency measures (as outlined in the energy transition). These measures would address 55% of emissions. However, meeting climate targets will also require tackling and prioritising the remaining 45% of emissions associated with the things we make, including building materials (Ellen MacArthur Foundation), alongside the regeneration of our natural carbon sinks that exist, for example within our forests, peat bogs and aquatic environments (WSP).

With around 30% of the carbon emissions for the construction sector being generated at the product and construction stages, action across the whole value chain – from construction to demolition – is needed (GlobalABC).

What are the benefits of the regenerative transition?

Stakeholders across the value chain can take advantage of multiple benefits of applying the regenerative transition throughout the lifecycle of building:

  1. Manufacturing: Minimising the extraction of raw materials and using local and secondary materials reduces supply chain risks whilst supporting local communities.
  2. Design: Circular (adaptable) designs will be energy efficient, retain asset value long-term and ease the refurbishment process.
  3. Construction: Elimination of waste and thoughtful construction processes will lower cost of unnecessary resources.
  4. Operations: Buildings that are resource efficient and well maintained will remain operational longer and are more cost efficient to run.
  5. Retrofit: Spaces that are allowed a second and/or more useful life will significantly lower rebuild costs and reduce the need for more materials.
  6. Deconstruction: Rather than demolition, it is imperative to maximise, reuse and recycle practices as this allows more materials to be kept active for as long as possible and reduce the cost for new materials.

How can the building and construction sector join the transition?

Every actor in the building and construction supply chain must take action and support the transition. As such, cross-sector collaboration will be key to overcome barriers towards a circular future.

David Leversha, Global Net Zero Lead for Property & Buildings at WSP, a WorldGBC partner, advises that: ‘Challenging the status quo and being disruptive is essential if the transition towards a healthier world is going to occur.

‘Take the reuse of structural steel. This process could save 97% of the embodied carbon associated with new steel. Or exploring the utilisation of natural materials, such as better-than-zero-carbon materials like hempcrete (mixing the woody stem of the hemp plant with lime or other binder) that lock away more carbon than it takes to produce them. Additionally, hemp farming often utilises the fourth “fallow” year of planting cycles and doesn’t require pesticides or herbicides allowing organic farming to thrive, whilst avoiding the conflict of food production.

‘The Glenroy Community Hub is a good example of a low-carbon space that uses natural materials, engages with the local community and looks great as well.

‘In addition to the moral imperative it also makes commercial sense to be at the forefront of the revolution. The regenerative transition presents huge opportunities for innovation. The best talent wants to be associated with the most forward-thinking companies and without talent any organisation will struggle.’

Sustainability consulting firm and WorldGBC partner, Brightworks Sustainability, supports the importance of community engagement in regenerative thinking: ‘We spend so much time talking about data, and a need for more and better data, because data tells a story. There are other less quantifiable, but important, ways to listen to the stories of our communities and places by being directly in relationship with one another, which are being left out in our quest for data.

‘Being able to understand and integrate all forms of feedback from the systems we are a part of into design thinking is foundational to creating a regenerative transition. This will then support further benefits for both the people and ecological systems they are a part of.’

Software solutions and professional services company and WorldGBC partner, VinZero, an ARKANCE company, agree that: ‘The call to transition has never been clearer. The global focus has been on reducing emissions, driving energy efficiency, protecting resources, and driving both social and economic benefits for communities and customers.

‘The desire to bring back nature is now taking the green building movement beyond net zero. Designing to last for 100 years and regenerating nature, while ensuring it can exist in harmony with the built environment is what sustainable development is about.’

WorldGBC is calling for all stakeholders to be ‘circular ready’ and lead the sector towards circularity and regeneration becoming the new business-as-usual.

WorldGBC’s The Circular Built Environment Playbook showcases examples of innovative schemes to reclaim and reuse resources, designs inspired in nature, and refurbishments of historic buildings. We encourage you to use this resource and discover how you can build the transition towards a more regenerative future.

About World Green Building Week

This year’s World Green Building Week runs from 11–15 September 2023 and calls on the global building and construction sector to accelerate the transition to secure an energy efficient, regenerative and just future for all. Find out more.