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Engineers call for the design of buildings, towns and cities that will repair the natural world

Posted: 15th January 2024

An impassioned appeal for a profound transformation in the global built environment sector to take a more radical approach to design and construction is made by leading regenerative thinkers and engineers Oliver Broadbent and James Norman in their new book.

The regenerative structural engineer, published by the Institution of Structural Engineers (IStructE), is a creative call by the authors for fundamental change that challenges engineers and the wider built environment industry to think and design differently - to do more good.

While detailing technical issues, the book is also clear, accessible and written with the non-expert in mind, using UK and global case studies to draw on a number of existing projects and practices. These all illustrate how a regenerative transition can be achieved in a way that feels plausible and deliverable.

The book takes a deep dive into broad themes of holistic sustainability, community co-creation, and their links to design and construction. The content confronts the factors that have limited regenerative progress so far:

  • the notion of continuous economic growth;
  • the problem of aiming to just “do less harm”, and missing that target;
  • the issue of focussing mainly on carbon instead of addressing the wider system;
  • and the failure to consider how the damage already done to the planet’s life support systems can be healed.

James Norman, Professor of Sustainable Design at the University of Bristol, says: “These factors point to the urgent need for a new design approach so that the impact of our work across the built environment increases the health of our planet and communities.

Oliver Broadbent, 1851 Fellow in Regenerative Design, adds: “The aim of regenerative design is for human and living systems to survive, thrive and co-evolve. Our book advocates adopting a systems thinking approach to change, one that takes a holistic approach to design and construction. We illustrate this using case studies, diagrams and metaphors, making this complex subject accessible to the reader.”

The authors explain: “Systems thinking enables us to see the impact of our design choices on the wider construction industry, and in turn on the wider ecosystem. It’s an interconnected approach to address a huge concept. It helps us to organise for change, enabling how we transition from where we are to the future we choose."

“Observation is core to this change, really looking at what we’re doing. This moves us from viewing the living world as a natural backdrop to our work, instead seeing it as a dynamic, evolving system which our design is deeply connected to. Once we understand these relationships, we can not only create better designs, we can work to change the system to enable others to do so too.”

The book explains the role of the structural engineer in this regenerative approach - one that depends on collaboration and challenging existing ways of thinking.

In the book’s epilogue, James describes a possible future (2050) where he currently lives, and how homes and streets will change. It gathers all the different themes of the book to paint a detailed and evocative picture of the future.

James concludes: “This demonstrates why we still have hope, just how much work we have to do and why we need to start now if we are going to get there in the next 26 years. To practitioners today it will both challenge them and give a fresh impetus and direction for the work that needs to be done.”

The regenerative structural engineer is available from IStructE’s website: