• Bob Berkebile, founding principal of BNIM Architects, is the Vision 2020 chair for Regenerative Design.

    Credit: Eli Meir Kaplan

    Bob Berkebile, founding principal of BNIM Architects, is the Vision 2020 chair for Regenerative Design.


Time is short, and the outcome is uncertain, yet there are many encouraging signs that our culture is beginning to shift. One notable change in an industry that is highly resistant to change (the design and construction industry) is the impact of USGBC’s LEED rating system, which has educated the industry and the public about creating homes and neighborhoods that are healthy for occupants, the environment, and the industry. Homeowners of the LEED-Platinum Make It Right homes in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward are discovering that they are healthier, more resilient, and providing more than $200 per month in energy savings.

While some maintain that LEED is too advanced or too expensive, others are convinced that it does not go far enough. LEED-Platinum is only third-party verification that you are doing less damage to the environment than other design and construction projects. But for those who follow the science of climate change and its impact on life support systems, doing less damage seems woefully inadequate.

The Living Building Challenge, on the other hand, is a system that yields positive results for humans and nature. The first building to be certified both LEED-Platinum and a Living Building is the Omega Center for Sustainable Living in Rhinebeck, N.Y. It generates more energy than it consumes and purifies more water than it pollutes; in fact, it purifies all the wastewater from 119 buildings on the Omega Institute’s 195-acre campus in a biological wastewater treatment system. Furthermore, the building has become a pedagogical tool for students and visitors and has been claimed as the studio for yoga classes, the first sewage treatment facility to serve in this capacity.

Two years ago, after leading a collaborative dialogue of discovery with USGBC staff and a national group of thought leaders funded by USGBC, BNIM Architects presented a concept for moving beyond LEED-Platinum. Rather than creating another rating system, the proposal—REGEN, as it came to be known—was an open-source, Web-based tool that introduces participants to a different way of thinking and encourages them to engage in a global dialogue of discovery and creativity. We all felt the urgency to facilitate a change of behavior—a cultural shift. As Bill Reed’s diagram suggests, it is now time to discover/create the potential for the co-evolution of the whole system—for humans to participate as nature.

BNIM’s work utilizes this whole-system collaborative approach to create environments that become regenerative members of the community. One project in the Manheim Park neighborhood of Kansas City, Mo., a block from my home and close to my heart, consists of two abandoned historic schools. We are creating a regenerative living/learning community that is intended to increase the quality of life, health, and human capacity of residents, students, and neighbors by redefining community, creativity, education, and urban infrastructure. The alignment with Millennials’ lifestyles and enthusiasm of the larger community has been encouraging.

The team behind the Bancroft Redevelopment Project—encompassing many stakeholders, including residents, BNIM, local developer Dalmark Group, and Make It Right—broke ground recently to transform the old, three-story school and its grounds into 50 affordable rental apartments supported by a wide range of on-site community services. Almost everything about the Bancroft project is different than the norm. Per the Make It Right financial model, the $14 million project will have no debt upon its completion about a year from now. All five buildings, including the school, with units ranging from 668 to 1,200 square feet, will be LEED-Platinum and rent from $200 to $600 a month.

Raised bed gardens for urban agriculture and native landscaping irrigated with captured stormwater runoff will cool both buildings and grounds and foster community and sustainability; training for local contractors about building green will help develop local resources and skills, creating and maintaining jobs; and deals with a local health care provider and local police will provide on-site services and combine with job training, child care, recreational opportunities, and public gathering spaces. The project provides a great example of the value of community input and leadership and communal goals that hold the key to regenerating the industry.

The path ahead seems daunting at times, but I am reminded of the belief that a crisis embodies two forces—danger and opportunity—and that the moment of greatest danger is the moment of greatest opportunity. In this time of incredible transformation in the ways we work, interact, and communicate, it also feels like that moment of great opportunity for the human family to transform the way we live.

Bob Berkebile, FAIA, is the founding principal of BNIM Architects and Vision 2020 chair for Regenerative Design.