Regeneration has become a “buzzword” used interchangeably with sustainability by many companies in an attempt to market their products or services, in some cases, to Greenwash. We spoke to regenerative design specialist, Piet van Zyl from Positive Impact Forever, to dispel some myths and better explain what this means within the built environment.

Regeneration defined

Regeneration is defined as “create again” from the Latin word “regenerare”, which translates into renewal or restoration of something damaged, back into its original state, before either humans or natural disaster has intervened. The opposite of regeneration can be defined as waste, deteriorate, degenerate, stagnation or inefficient.

Sustainability vs regeneration

Sustainability is in general aimed at making things less bad – to reduce energy, water and waste consumption, or make CSR contributions to organisations, all with the final goal of net-zero. Van Zyl explains: “We are way past making things less bad. We must start designing and developing new projects and products to have a positive impact, not just a less negative impact.”

The step up from sustainability is regeneration. Regenerative design is aimed at having a positive impact on the ecosystem in which the designed components will be placed. To be regenerative can mean different things, dependent on where you apply it, as it is place based – local regeneration is the path to global impact.

A new mindset

Regeneration requires a new mindset, one that sees the world as built around reciprocal and co-evolutionary relationships, where humans, other living beings and ecosystems rely on one another for health, which shapes and is shaped by their connections with one another. People must become eco-literate to change their mindsets, as it will be very hard to develop regenerative systems, designs, communities and lifestyles without it.

With the current climate crisis, having a “less negative” impact on the environment is not enough. Regenerative approaches are holistic and systems focussed, and intended to discover how a project can contribute to the whole and be a positive participant where it is situated.

Design process

Most of the buildings currently in the world would still be here in 50 years’ time, still not having a positive impact. People must therefore start designing with regeneration in mind. This is a whole-systems approach to design – a process that restores, renews or revitalises resources of energy, materials and community.

The first step in the regeneration design process is to start mimicking nature or learning from it.

The next steps will be to restore the natural systems and then tend to them. “True regeneration is when we see ourselves as a part of the ecosystem, not in control of it nor trying to manipulate it,” says Van Zyl.

Regenerative design is being influenced by biomimicry, permaculture, biophilic design, ecological economics, circular economics, cradle-to-cradle and the blue economy.

Interactive wholistic system

There are three interactions to consider in a regenerative design: Place, harmony and co-evolution.

  • Place:

Most projects fail to have a regenerative effect because it is focussed on an element or a problem without seeing how it fits into the ecosystem in which it operates. Some fail because they are trying to fit into human ideals but fail to align with the essence of a place and the larger patterns of nature that make it work. A design prerequisite is to develop an “essence of place” through an integral assessment of cultural, economic, geographic, climatic and ecological systems and impacts as it affects the living system of the place.

  1. Work with whole systems.
  2. Work with potential, not problems.
  3. Develop capabilities. How do you achieve the potential?
  4. Build a collaborative field. Work as a team with the ecosystem and follow nature’s lead.

(From Regenerative design and development, Pamela Mang and Bill Reed, 2012.)

  • Harmony:

The ultimate effect every regenerative project seeks to achieve is a long-term beneficial relationship between the human and natural systems in a particular place. The natural ecosystems include wildlife and vegetation, local climate, mineral and other deposits, soil, water and geologic structures. Human ecosystems include distinctive customs, expressions of values, economic activities, forms of association, ideas for education, traditions, physical artifacts such as buildings and constructed infrastructure.

“When you build a thing, you cannot merely build that thing in isolation, but must also repair the world around it and within it, so that the large world at that one place becomes more coherent and more whole; and the thing which you make takes its place in the web of nature, as you make it.” – Alexander C (1997), A pattern language: Towns, buildings, construction, Centre for Environmental Structure Series.

  • Co-evolution – antifragile:

The definition is “the influence of closely associated species on each other in their evolution”. A good solution today may become a bad one in a few years, so solving for pattern harmony requires a progressive rather than one-time harmonisation, a continuous re-patterning. It is called co-evolution. This is best explained by the Australian Aborigines, who have a saying that they are planning for the seventh generation from now.

When the building comes to the end of its lifespan, will its removal still have a positive impact or will it have a negative impact? How do you make the system “antifragile” so that no matter what stresses are put on the designed system, it will only get stronger?

You must ask yourself the following:
WHY is this ecosystem here (essence of place)? Or the product or design required?
HOW are you going to protect it or regenerate to the original? Or how can it make a positive impact on the whole?
WHAT are you designing to make it positive for the ecosystem, for generations to come?

“Less emphasis needs to be placed on an isolated element and focus more on the evolution of the whole system.” – Regenerative design and development, Pamela Mang and Bill Reed, Encyclopaedia Sustainable Science & Technology, 2012.

Over its lifecycle, a regenerative system/structure would give back to nature and society more than it takes. Existing buildings may last a hundred years, but few are designed for upgrading/adaptability, so they will soon need retrofitting to a higher standard. This retrofitting process should ask the same questions as for a new design.


The brainchild of Van Zyl, the Z6R0+ acronym is a guide to regenerative design.

Z – the last letter of the alphabet reminds you about the essence of place from A-Z, and it is very important to ask: “What will happen to this product or system when it gets to the end of its lifespan? How will it still have a positive impact at the end of its life?” You must design this in from the beginning.

6R – follow the six steps:

  1. Review A-Z as the essence of the place. Get the holistic view.
  2. Remove the things that will not have a positive impact.
  3. Replace them with things that will have a positive impact.
  4. Restore the system that was there before. Learn from nature!
  5. Renew broken connections, harmonise everything so that it “plays a symphony” for generations to come.
  6. Regenerate the whole internally, externally, regionally, nationally and globally. Then go back to step 1 again and see how this will work under different stresses. Will it be “antifragile”?

Stating that a project, design or business is regenerative, should not be done lightly. Regenerative design is an involved, wholistic, connected and system-focussed process. No design is freestanding and separate from its surroundings.

For more information, contact Positive Impact Forever:

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