From childhood, Professor Janis Birkeland was intrigued by the natural world. She spent her professional, academic, and personal life figuring out how genuine social and ecological sustainability could be achieved. Intuitively, she felt that reimagining the design of cities and buildings was essential to saving the planet. She therefore became an architect and urban designer, first working with low-income communities in San Francisco. To influence things on a larger scale, Janis transitioned into city planning. Later, to better understand the barriers to systems change, she became a lawyer. After moving to Australia, Janis completed a PhD on Planning for Sustainability and, for decades, taught and published sustainable design and development in several universities.
Janis always maintained that buildings are not sustainable if they do more damage than ‘no development at all’. She envisaged that urban development, despite its huge lifecycle impacts, could be designed to give back more than it takes. She set about to develop the new ‘mindsets, models, methods, and metrics’ that would make this possible. Her latest textbook on Net-Positive Design summarizes her theory of Positive Development and provides examples of how buildings can create net public gains. Most recently, she developed a computer app to shift the paradigm from ‘green’ toward ‘net-positive’. The app is also meant to bridge the gap between narrow technical orientations and creative qualitative design that Janis believes has always divided the sustainable design fields.
Dr. Birkeland, you advocate ‘net-positive design’. This may not be a term many individuals are familiar with. Can you explain what net-positive design is exactly?
To understand net-positive design, we first need to be clear on what’s wrong with contemporary ‘green’ development. Although buildings provide essential services and generate profits, they contribute to virtually all social and ecological burdens imposed on society. Disparities of wealth, justice and health are escalating while we have lost over 50 percent of the earth’s biodiversity in under 50 years. Nevertheless, the current goal of green building is just to ‘do no harm’ or, at most, regenerate the environments they damage. Offsetting a building’s added impacts is not a net gain. Positive Development is a new ethic. It states urban development should create net benefits over its lifecycle for society and nature, not just project stakeholders.
Don’t our planning regulations and building codes ensure that buildings are beneficial for society?
Codes set minimum standards; they don’t really consider sustainability. Nonetheless, buildings that merely perform better than code requirements are often labelled ‘sustainable’. To get points toward green building certification schemes, therefore, many ‘greenish’ designers begin with a typical building template and add green features. Such features provide savings to investors such as passive solar and renewable energy, or provide environmental amenities to occupants such as clean air, water, and greenery. However, they usually have public costs that aren’t counted. For instance, so-called ‘zero carbon’ buildings produce renewable energy, but they seldom compensate for, or sequester, the carbon emitted during offsite resource extraction and manufacturing (called embodied carbon).
In 2009, you were quoted as saying “green buildings are not sustainable.” What did you mean, and what was the fall out you experienced from organizations that worked with you?
I meant they do not increase our natural and social life support systems in absolute terms. Representatives of several organizations attempted to get me fired or blacklisted, even though they had not read my material. They had a big investment of time, money and energy in certification processes and criteria that aim for incremental improvements over past ‘unsustainable’ building practices. Since then, some certification companies have adopted net-positive terms, but only as synonyms for regenerative design. They have yet to engage with the ideas behind the headlines or taglines.
In your opinion, then, are architects truly making “sustainable buildings” or is it more of a PR term used to sell them to the public?
Most greenish architects believe they are doing enough, judging by their many awards schemes. This is probably because sustainable design is still new to many mainstream professionals. The 1970s green design movement aimed to increase life quality through design that respected nature and community, although just one house at a time. However, most were constructed by owner-builders using passive solar design, organic materials, and vegetation. Many architects derided these buildings as ‘hippy’ or ‘ugly’. From about 1990, however, green building organizations sprang up to promote better design and forestall the expansion of environmental regulations into the building industry.
Have these green building organizations contributed to the broader sustainability movement?
In some ways, certainly. They were successful, over time, in disabusing many practitioners and consumers of the false belief that green buildings must cost more or look whacky. In fact, these organizations have made green design totally prestigious among many practitioners. However, they aimed for mechanical efficiency through resource reduction and durability – not increasing future options through multifunctional and adaptable design. Depleting resources and degrading nature more efficiently is not genuine progress. As I used to say, green buildings are like smoking ‘lite cigarettes’ to get healthier. More is sometimes less. Unless we address population growth, we need radical changes to the urban environment.
You introduced the standard: ‘buildings that give back more than they take – ecologically socially and economically’. What did you mean by that?
That means buildings need to increase the natural life-support system or ‘ecological base’ beyond pre-urban conditions, and increase the social life-support system or ‘public estate’ beyond existing regional conditions. Green buildings that don’t give back economically are seldom built, but few buildings do much to reduce economic hardships and social inequities. Currently, urban development tends to isolate the underprivileged. Cities prevent direct access to the means of survival and well-being – especially in crises. They create dependency on government or corporate authorities that set taxes or prices without increasing the ‘ability to pay’.
Are you suggesting that net-positive design could fix what the economy has broken?
Conceivably, yes. Design is about synthesis, symbiosis and synergy: not choosing among existing options, but creating opportunities. It is not limited by the laws of economics that require increasing supply and demand through population growth to sustain itself. It is not limited by the laws of politics that require tradeoffs of competing interests or balancing the good with the bad. It is, paradoxically, not even limited by the laws of physics that require equal actions and reactions, because design can make everyone better off. It can create net-positive ripple effects throughout a system by using multifunctional, nature-based, adaptable, and other low-cost design strategies.
Can you unpack those design strategies out a bit?
Sure. ‘Multifunctional’ products and spaces can provide far more public benefits than conventional single-function approaches to efficiency. Even basic green roofs can provide two dozen building and environmental functions that measurably benefit the community and nature – while saving money.
‘Nature-based’ designs and technologies are not only eco-productive and health-giving; they can support natural systems that provide important ecosystem functions and services. COVID 19 increased general awareness of how being in nature is good for human mental and physical health. Yet, parts of most cities still look and feel like dismal cemeteries alleviated only by smatterings of plastic flowers.
‘Adaptable’ urban environments can respond to changing social, technical, climatic, and demographic forces. This avoids the costs of early demolition and reconstruction. Nevertheless, we still design ‘permanent’ buildings for current codes, climates and conditions, even though change is upon us.
‘Low-cost’ sustainable design can make any living environment feel like an opulent resort or health spa without the expense. Many now understand that luxury ‘by design’ doesn’t require high-priced materials or technologies.
Those are positive strategies, but how can building materials be truly net positive over their lifecycle?
Multifunctional, nature-based and adaptable materials can overcompensate for their impacts. One of my favorite examples are products made from mycelium, or mushrooms, that can work and look like ordinary wall panels, bricks, timbers, or insulation. Mycelium bricks are strong and repel fire, water, and pests – while also sequestering carbon and waste. Many such products are coming onto the market. Similarly, for decades, many homes have been built entirely from non-narcotic hemp boards, insulation, and ‘hempcrete’. Although it’s a low-impact crop, hemp uses land and water. Mycelium, in contrast, can be grown in low-impact vertical warehouses or abandoned urban structures. This could preserve land that would otherwise be used for harmful mining, forestry, or agricultural processes to manufacture building materials. Many foresaw the magical properties of mushrooms and hemp in the 1960s.
Since buildings have so many different components, can a whole structure be ecologically net positive?
Yes. For example, buildings can double as native gardens, as opposed to merely having green walls and roofs. Such buildings could generate ecosystems and biodiversity incubators that reflect and support their bioregion’s unique natural and cultural landscapes. One way to retrofit buildings and cities for net public benefits using few resources is called Green Scaffolding. These are custom space frames that create an ecological envelop around all or parts of buildings and public spaces or serve as structural facades themselves. They can provide literally dozens of benefits, including passive solar energy, endangered species habitats, and water treatment and storage.
Even if design can create net-positive buildings, can such buildings fix big problems like climate change?
In fact, to be net-positive, a building would need to aid in reversing climate change. My co-researchers proved quantitatively that permanent building-integrated vegetation could sequester more carbon than emitted throughout the lifecycle of the building and its supply chains. Another carbon-positive building element, algae-based systems, are already being used in building facades. These systems draw down carbon and produce energy and oxygen, while serving traditional façade functions such as translucent shading. People are increasingly appreciating how nature solves man-made problems brilliantly. We next need to recognize that just mimicking nature’s regenerative systems is no longer enough.
So why doesn’t green or regenerative design have net-positive gains?
The term ‘net’ means whole systems. It includes all impacts – cumulative and remote, upstream and downstream, ecological and social – within and beyond the project’s borders. Sustainable design has always been contextual. It respects the surrounding heritage, culture and environment. However, the solutions are based on ‘circular systems’ or recycling-writ-large. This closed-system model defines solutions as ‘closing resource loops to turn waste into a resource’. This is essential but balancing inputs and outputs does not go beyond zero. This closed-system paradigm is reinforced by assessment tools that exclude things they cannot measure precisely using imaginary ‘system boundaries’. Actually, this circular model has been around since at least the 1960s. The shift to net-positive has to happen much faster.
Why aren’t circular or closed loop systems adequate?
Recycling and restoration processes can reduce, reuse and renew materials, but cannot, in itself, produce actual environmental gains. In the context of global deficits caused by past development, such as climate change, resource insecurity and water scarcity, we must do more than make ecosystems, communities, and economies more resilient. For intergenerational justice, cities must be retrofitted to offset their share of ALL development and increase ecology, ethics, and equity in absolute terms. Fortunately, it can be shown that eco-positive retrofitting pays for itself from the public and private savings alone. However, traditional economic accounting discriminates against sustainability.
What tools are available to enable architects to assess whether buildings produce net benefits?
There are two basic types: green building rating tools and assessment tools. Neither are very relevant to net-positive design. Few developers and designers use them yet, since they are voluntary, and ‘unsustainable’ design is not penalized. Instead of assessing impacts, rating tools list generic, prescriptive rules based on time-honored green design principles. Designers use them to score enough points for their buildings to be certified as green. This means, generally, only developers that want a classy green building for marketing purposes use rating tools. Their standards are slow to be upgraded, since most require industry buy-in. However, local government building departments are increasingly adopting them as project review mechanisms. This is a two-edged sword, because rating tools seldom even consider the ecological and social context.
If rating tools just set design rules, do assessment tools encourage design for social and ecological benefits?
Lifecycle assessment tools aim to quantify all negative impacts, but they don’t yet count net-positive impacts. They were developed back when it was assumed that impact reductions were all that was possible, so reductions in negative impacts were considered gains. Designers will tend to focus on things that ‘count’, and net-positive benefits don’t count. Also, quantitative tools usually apply to building components, not communities. There are some new tools that claim to assess positive impacts and take a whole system view, but they don’t really. For instance, some tools count the quantity of materials recycled, instead of the benefits they provide per amount of resource used or even the total materials consumed. Some tools count landscaping the remainder of a greenfield site, after putting a large building on it, as ‘net-positive biodiversity’. However, the new net-positive computer app can assist both assessment and design.
Your STARFish design app ‘aids urban design and architecture professionals, educators and students in designing urban environments that create net public sustainability gains.’ How is the STARFish app different than other design tools?
The STARfish app basically reverses the rubrics of ordinary rating and lifecycle assessment tools. The app was designed to correct about three dozen conceptual errors in the criteria, scales and indicators that most rating tools and some lifecycle assessment tools share. For instance, it provides a genuinely whole-system view. The user can expand the STARfish diagram in a fractal pattern to display myriad cumulative and remote impacts that are summed automatically. This enables designers and assessors to visualize the effect that alternative design improvements would have on the project and its region.
How does the app help professionals understand sustainability gains as opposed to restoration, regeneration or resilience?
For one thing, STARfish does not count mitigation as a gain. Some tools have given more credit for reducing gas or toxic materials than for not using any. Yet once pollution escapes into the environment, the damage is usually irreversible. To show the importance of the initial plan and design in reducing impacts, therefore, STARfish displays negative, regenerative, and net-positive impacts separately. Other tools, in effect, hide negative impacts behind remedial measures. Also, most tools give a top score for crossing a threshold, beyond which design improvements usually stop. In contrast, the STARfish defines ‘beyond zero’ gains for each impact factor to incentivize continuous improvement.
How often are professionals using STARFish or other sustainability apps in the creation of designs these days?
I am unaware of other actual sustainable design apps. Few established planners and architects have the time or energy to question the methods that they spent years perfecting. STARfish is primarily geared for university students and young graduates. Since the young generally embrace digital technology and tools, STARfish creates a game. The design team competes with itself to achieve a higher, if not net-positive, ‘score’. Since the app is aimed at the unadulterated, it is free. Positive Development theory also provides new planning analyses, processes, and design guidelines, to help designers achieve ‘genuine’ sustainability at all stages and scales.
You were professor of Architecture at QUT and at University of Auckland, and are now an Honorary Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne. How has teaching and working with students impacted your career and work in design and architecture?
I learned more from teaching than my students did. I had taught regenerative design throughout the 1990s, but when I started teaching net-positive architecture in the early 2000s, I found that some students did not realize I was asking them to make a paradigm leap. After they graduated, some students reported back that their employers were not interested in even greenish design. Some are doing amazing things, but are up against entrenched conventions in a complex, disaggregated building industry that traditionally has resisted change. Perhaps the app will enable them to show their employers or clients how their designs create measurable net-positive gains.
Dr. Birkeland, you have written several textbooks used in high-level education. What led you to writing textbooks and books in general?
I wrote textbooks hoping to assist architecture teachers and students in bringing about change faster. Also, there was a need, back then, to add academic credibility and theoretical depth to a field that was ridiculed as naïve and insubstantial. There were technical books that explained how ‘contemporary’ green design was practiced, but I was more interested in diagnosing the causes of institutional, structural, and intellectual barriers to sustainability. We need to adopt systems of decision making, planning and design without waiting for politicians to evolve to a higher state of consciousness.
Will there come a day when countries stop allowing economics to dictate ecological policies?
Hopefully, because some economists are beginning to shuffle in that direction. The World Economic Forum recently started advocating ‘nature-positive’ development, which is Positive Development without the social dimension. This provides real grounds for optimism since economists rule. However, mainstream economists are barely beginning to grapple with the limits to growth. The sustainability movement championed the ‘limits to growth’ argument in the 1960s and 70s, but the backlash was overwhelming. There is now a so-called ‘donut model’ or a diagram that shows social justice integrated with economics. However, it is couched in the outdated limits to growth framework which involves trade-offs. Reframing things in positive terms – not struggle or sacrifice – might ultimately work better.
How might economists reframe things in more positive ways?
Like planners and architects, economists need to improve their accounting methods. Most accounting tools underestimate the long-term ‘public’ benefits and costs of development. For instance, green infrastructure has a good return on investment if we count the public benefits gained and costs avoided. Yet many economists still call sustainability investments ‘subsidies’ while treating loans, grants or tax breaks to risky, harmful business enterprises as ‘investments’ – although they never ‘pay back’ their environmental and social costs. There are many kinds of credit and trading schemes or cross subsidies that could be applied to support the upfront costs of eco-positive investments.
What is next for the STARFish app and yourself? Will the app be welcomed by the building industry?
There is a lot of interest, but it is early days. Paradigm shifts could happen almost instantly, but they usually take over 20 years to sweep through a society. That is about the time span that it takes graduates to begin to influence their profession. I am trying to assist future leaders rather than those with stakes in current practices or lay consumers that have no meaningful sustainability choices yet. Meanwhile, I will be adding sustainable design ideas and benchmarks to the tool. Being semi-retired, I can assist those who want to use it in teaching or practice or want their own architects to use it.
Is there a chance for a non-textbook writing in the future?
If I can find the time, I would like to write an anonymous comedy based on my life in the trenches.
Janis, how is a day in your life?
I am still trying to save the planet, but I now live on a large bush property outside of Melbourne. I spend increasing amounts of time creating biodiversity habitats to support the surrounding bioregion. For me, therefore, every day is like ‘tip-toeing through the tulips’, only it’s through Australian bush, bugs and birds.
What is something most people don’t know about you?
I worked briefly as a ski bum, go-go dancer, art teacher, cowpoke, and of course a waitress, before the architecture field opened up to women.
What makes you smile?
Being in nature, and looking at toddler pictures of my now grown children. Despite occasional slings and arrows, I have always been euphoric about the privilege of visiting Earth. I got to heaven without dying first.
What scares you?
People already have the latent design ability to fix climate change, poverty and, in fact, all basic economic, social, and environmental problems. The design solutions already exist. However, I fear that we will destroy billions of years of compounding natural miracles and amazing human cultures before we ‘try’ to save even ourselves.
If you had the power to change just one thing in the world what would it be?
Dominance relationships and zero-sum decision-making systems seem to underly most barriers to sustainability. Design thinking enables us to step outside the box of built-in lose-lose ‘choices’ to create win-win solutions. We can recalibrate systems to enable everyone to enjoy ‘total prestige environments’ at low-impact by design.
For more information on net-positive design or contact Janis, please visit www.netpositivedesign.org