Designing for a Regenerative Future: What’s Love Got to Do with It? With Jason F. McLennan
What would it feel like to live in a world where our built environment was as elegant as nature’s designs? What if our living and working spaces nurtured our human communities and quality of life? Architect and designer Jason F. McLennan takes the revolution from the heart of nature and the human heart into our built environment. He is shifting the fateful civilizational inflection point we face – from degradation to regeneration – from fear to love.
Jason F. McLennan, one of the world’s most influential visionaries in contemporary architecture and green building, is a highly sought-out designer, consultant and thought leader. A winner of Engineering News Record’s National Award of Excellence and of the prestigious Buckminster Fuller Prize (which was, during its 10-year trajectory, known as “the planet’s top prize for socially responsible design”), Jason has been showered with such accolades as “the ‘Wayne Gretzky’ of the green building industry and a “World Changer” (by GreenBiz magazine).
- Executive Producer: Kenny Ausubel
- Written by: Kenny Ausubel
- Senior Producer and Station Relations: Stephanie Welch
- Program Engineer and Music Supervisor: Emily Harris
- Producer: Teo Grossman
- Host and Consulting Producer: Neil Harvey
- Production Assistance: Anna Rubanova and Monica Lopez
This is an episode of the Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature series. Visit the radio and podcast homepage to find out how to hear the program on your local station and how to subscribe to the podcast
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In this episode, architect and designer Jason F. McLennan takes the revolution from the heart of nature and the human heart into our built environment. He is shifting the fateful civilizational inflection point we face – from degradation to regeneration – from fear to love.
Neil Harvey, Host: “In the design world, when you’re talking about regeneration of a place, you have choices that you make. And every design intervention, there’s a decision whether you’re going to participate in a feedback loop that is regenerative or degenerative.
What is fundamental, and this is the work that we all have to do, is we actually have to focus on love. Imagine going into design meetings with developers and say let’s talk about love. [LAUGHTER] But my belief is that only through the sustained awakening of the human heart are we going to have a future.” [APPLAUSE]
Jason F. McLennan: We need to design our built environment in the same way that nature devises its architecture, running off of the sun rather than fossil fuels, using the water that we can capture, and not polluting our environment. The important thing, of course, is that we solve these issues in an interconnected fashion. They aren’t isolated issues. They are things that have to be solved together. And that holistic framing, if you will, is fundamental to the Living Building Challenge. And what we’re trying to imagine, of course, is a world that actually is living, that will be worth living for.
Host: Now, contrast that vision with current reality:
In the US, buildings are the number-one energy-using sector. They account for 40% of primary energy consumption, 39% of CO2 emissions, and 13% of water consumption.
Instead, what would it feel like to live in a world where our built environment was as elegant as nature’s designs? Where nature itself is our design model, mentor and metric, so we live comfortably within its boundaries and limits? What if our built environment actually enhances natural systems? What if our living and working spaces nurture our human communities and quality of life?
And yes, what’s love got to do with it?
Those paradigm-changing questions have inspired Jason McLennan’s lifelong quest to design and build what he calls “living buildings” that are in harmony with nature and create vital healing spaces for people.
He’s among the world’s most influential visionaries in contemporary architecture and green building. As a sought-after designer, consultant and thought leader, he’s the principal of McLennan Design. As a global design firm, it uses regenerative design to solve some of the most vexing challenges bedeviling society at this transformative inflection point.
He published the influential WELL Building Standard and has written seven books on sustainability and design, including the cornerstone in the field, the Philosophy of Sustainable Design.
In 2006, McLennan transformed the still nascent field of green building with a shot across the bow called the Living Building Challenge. It conceptually leapfrogged the leading green building certification standards – by a country mile.
Jason McLennan spoke at a Bioneers conference…
Jason F. McLennan: I started writing the Living Building Challenge, and the idea was that we needed to fundamentally change architecture, that we needed to reimagine the impact that our built environment was having on the world. And it was a bit crazy in people’s minds, and I was told that this will never happen or be a long time, and I’m glad that that has been proven wrong. It was so far out there when we launched it, it was illegal, in fact, in just about every jurisdiction in North America, so we had to get to work on that. And it’s amazing to think that doing things in support of life would be the thing that was illegal.
So a lot has happened since I launched the challenge. I remember not only was it illegal and we had to change water laws in particular, and you couldn’t find the materials, but of course energy, renewable energy at the time was more expensive, and now that’s changed. Right? The cheapest form of new energy is renewable energy, and that’s incredible. It’s amazing to think that when we launched the challenge, we didn’t have Smartphones, we didn’t have Teslas. This idea that we can now electrify everything is much more real, and people are doing it, and they’re doing it all over the world, which is exciting, again, which is good. It’s progress. And we can imagine that we have all the tools now that we need to have a fundamentally different world.
Host: The Living Building Challenge standards were so radical that initially, even when the practices were legal, there simply weren’t many architects, developers or construction companies that dared even to try to achieve them.
But what may have seemed like wild-eyed idealism or fringe folly has matured into dozens of certified Living Buildings and thousands pursuing it on six continents. These efforts are rapidly spawning the beginnings of a global movement.
The nonprofit Living Future Institute that McLennan founded, along with numerous other innovative organizations and companies, have been systematically disrupting and transforming an entire sector: the architecture, construction and design industries.
On the ground, the work has evolved from Living Buildings to initiatives to create entire Living Communities. The Living Building and Products standards include the world’s first social justice label, called JUST.
And that’s not to mention certifications for zero carbon, zero energy and more.
In 2019, Jason McLennan connected with some colleagues in his Seattle home base who landed him smack in the middle of mainstream. The firm behind a billion-dollar stadium project in downtown Seattle – the new home of the national hockey league’s Seattle Kraken – was hoping to sell the naming rights to Amazon. Together, the Oak View Group and Amazon opted to call the venue “Climate Pledge Arena,” and they engaged McLennan as lead Sustainability Consultant to ensure that it lived up to its ambitious name.
Jason F. McLennan: I got involved and I got asked to figure out, well, how do we actually live up to this kind of name; what would we do differently? And this is a major sports venue, 17, 18,000 people or something like that.
First of all, there was this incredible 1962-era building for the Seattle World’s Fair. It was designed to be kind of like a rain hat, a Coast Salish looking rain hat. And one option was that it would have been torn down. It’s right next to the Space Needle. You know, there was, of course, it was on the Nationally Historic Registry and people love it, and there was a decision to keep it, which was the right decision.
They brought me in and said, okay, we have an opportunity to do something amazing and to be a beacon for the sports and entertainment industry and be the greenest venue of its kind in the world. And I said, well, the first thing you need to do is get rid of all the natural gas and have no fossil fuels inside the building, and that wasn’t done for a building of that size. But they – to their credit – they said, okay, alright, we’ll do that, even though we’ve ordered the equipment, paid for it, we’re going to cancel the orders, suck up the lost cost, and we’re going to go all electric.
And then the second thing was, well, but then we’ve got to get all of our electricity from renewable sources, so we have to have on-site solar, which we had put in a few places, and then we’ll have off site renewable energy as well, and 100% of the energy will be from renewable energy sources, so now we’ve decarbonized the energy. We already had lower embodied carbon because they were recycling the building. Then there was a decision to go even further and say, how do we actually track all the transportation of fans getting there, all the food purchased, all the materials that are used in the building, track the carbon footprint of that as well. And there’s all sorts of other things that are pretty cool when you go there.
Environmentally, it’s not a huge benefit in Seattle where it rains a lot. But it is cool that why would we not make the ice from rainwater, and why not do that everywhere? Why do you spend all this energy and resources to treat water and then use it to make ice when rain falls naturally on these big roofs of these venues? So, it had been done once somewhere else, not for a professional hockey team. But, I knew that rainwater was going to be actually a better source of ice.
So we essentially put in cisterns just like you would at your house with a rain barrel. We have a big rain barrel under the plaza of the building. And we collect rainwater and we make NHL hockey ice on it. And the good news is the experts there believe it’s the best ice they’ve ever made, which I already knew it was going to be; water is distilled, and they have to make sure that it’s clear so you can see the puck on the ice and everything else, and they love it.
Host: Even the beloved Zambonis that sweep the ice are electric and charged by renewable power. The Climate Pledge Arena aims to be the first zero-carbon stadium certified by the Living Building Challenge.
The initiative is also pledging to produce zero-waste and eliminate single-use plastics by 2024, which is unprecedented for a major arena.
Although the stadium project is one high-profile result of decades of prior learning and practice, McLennan’s efforts behind the scenes to transform the way we create the everyday products and materials that surround us has had widespread impact.
He and his organization developed a Red List of toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, PVC and some flame retardants to eliminate from building materials. Now, Red List-free products are available throughout the building industry.
Taking a holistic, nature-based approach requires a fundamentally different mindset. Jason McLennan says it also engenders a change of heart.
He spoke on a panel at a Bioneers conference.
Jason F. McLennan: The hardest barriers that we have found to doing regenerative projects, to doing living buildings in the end are not technological, they’re not economic, they’re not educational like know-how based, it has been the resistance that we face from people and attitudes and inertia of, “well, that’s not how we do it here, or that’s not how we did it last time, or I don’t know if you can do that, I’m afraid to do that” and all the excuses. And so that, and there’s just this inaction that happens.
My focus, of course, has been on primarily the environmental impact of the decisions we make around buildings. But you can’t get into that in any authentic way and not understand it’s about people as well. And so the deeper you get into regeneration, the more you realize that the barriers to change, the barriers to regeneration are all between our ears and the way we think, and the stories that we tell ourselves.
So the ironic thing is that I talk about living buildings, but our buildings are not actually alive. They are actually more like—it’s not the dam, it’s the beaver that is the hydrologist. It’s not the building, it’s the people in the buildings. But our buildings are these sort of manifestations of our values, you know, the things that we believe are important, our needs, our desires. And they’re the biggest things that humans built, our buildings and cities, so they take the most stuff, and they have the biggest legacies and the biggest impacts of the non-living things that we’re surrounded by.
And I think a lot of architects overstate the importance of architecture, and a lot of other disciplines misunderstand or underplay how important architecture is as a form giver for our values.
Host: So how do we integrate the humanity, dignity and purpose of people into the design of buildings and communities? Moving beyond bricks and mortar, McLennan became engaged with a next generation of living building projects that transformed his understanding of what a living building could be and do for the people using it.
Clearly one barrier to the spread of living buildings and living communities has been inertia – or what you might call Intention Deficit Disorder. Yet as these inspiring models do get built and seen, people love them and want more of them.
According to Jason McLennan, it’s biophilia in action – the innate love and attraction that life has for life. The question becomes: Can we translate that love both to the natural world and to our fellow human beings?
From the pyramids to skyscrapers, our built environment vividly shows that that has not been the story so far.
Jason F. McLennan: What is fundamental, and this is the work that we all have to do, and this is the work that we’re trying to do in our practice more and more, which is a tough thing for architects to admit that it’s not about the buildings, because we actually have to focus on love. Imagine going into design meetings with developers and say let’s talk about love. [LAUGHTER] But my belief is that only through the sustained awakening of the human heart are we going to have a future. [APPLAUSE]
In the design world, when you’re talking about regeneration, regeneration of a place, you have choices that you make in what you do and how you design, so there’s this point of action. And every design intervention, there’s a decision whether you’re going to participate in a feedback loop that is regenerative or degenerative.
But more than that, bigger than that now is the idea that there is this need for love and reconciliation, and that same decision point, is the decision point between fear and love, and feedback loops that are either bringing us together as a people and as life on this planet or moving us apart.
And after decades and decades of this in any culture, in any country, it builds into this insidious form of institutional racism, institutional harm that is done– most people don’t even see. And these same forces are there with institutional environmental degradation.
And so this is what we have to overcome. And as you go from thinking about people and other species, you understand that it’s the same root issues, the same fear, the same lack of love allows us to justify our cruelty not only to each other but to all of life. And that’s why in my mind it’s clear – and I understand, of course, it’s clear to the people in Bioneers – that environmentalism and social justice are truly two sides of the same coin.
Host: As the scholar and activist Cornel West has said, “Justice is what love looks like in public.”
So if we’re talking about love, then what’s justice got to do with it? Are Living Buildings to be only for the wealthy?
Jason F. McLennan: The systems that we have benefit certain people and they don’t want those systems to change, as you might imagine. If you’re the beneficiary of a lop-sided system, you know?
Obviously, if I had all the resources in the world, I would love to see living buildings for those that can’t afford to pay for good infrastructure of any kind right now. It would be nice if affordable housing were all living buildings and they never have energy bills and water bills to worry about, and they were more comfortable, and they lived in a healthier environment so their kids wouldn’t have asthma and allergies, and sort of perpetuate the cycle of always being at a disadvantage because of the poor infrastructure that they have. The rich can take care of themselves.
If we could design or retrofit our cities to be truly sustainable – and by we, I mean a very large collective “we” of really smart people – we know how to do that. We could transform our energy systems, our water systems, our waste systems, our food systems. We could do that within a few years, in a decade. I believe that. I believe we could get off of fossil fuels, for example, in a short amount of time if we could get out of our own way, and if we could solve those huge political hurdles that get put in place.
We should be, as a culture, in this unparalleled moment of decarbonization, that if there was real political leadership, real moral leadership in this country, that this would be a discussion of like—not a question of if or how long or these vague targets of 2050, 2040, 2030. It should be like we are going to transition our economy, and we all need to come together on this, and this is what we’re going to do, and then actually do it. We need to engage in a more quick way.
Host: Jason McLennan says he’s been doing a whole lot of soul-searching about where this work has had the most impact or less impact. He finds himself continually coming back to the projects that embrace reconciliation as the heart of regeneration.
One of those endeavors was in partnership with the Ngāi Tūhoe a tribe from the northern Island on Aotearoa New Zealand. In the 2010’s, work began on the design and construction of their new parliament building and community center.
The building site was adjacent to their ancestral homeland (called Te Urewera), a vast area of rugged, forested hill country formally designated as a national park.
Like Indigenous communities worldwide, the Tūhoe have experienced waves of colonization, land theft and settler violence. It has included the confiscation of the best agricultural lands, accompanied by brutal military campaigns targeting their settlements. In 2014, their ancestral home was returned to them as part of a transformative national reparations settlement.
A design team worked with the Tūhoe to co-create a design process inspired by the Living Building Challenge that incorporated an active process of reparations and reconciliation. The goal was to conceive of and build a structure that healed not only the community, but the land itself.
The question was, could that process help justice become love made public?
Jason F. McLennan: They shared it with the chief and members of the clan, and they resonated with it immediately and said, oh, this is another way of saying what we believe. And it became then a real useful tool for the architects and engineers and builders and the Tūhoe to talk about the values and the goals and the vision for what success would look like if they could build a building that would embody who they were in their relationship to the land. And so that was really kind of cool.
So, yeah, the Living Building became a rallying cry. The whole community got involved, literally. They made earth blocks together, and there’s some great photos, sometimes I show, of people from the Tūhoe making earth blocks that were the walls of the facility. And you had that happening, as well as you had a lot of sort of big glue-laminated timbers from New Zealand forests that were brought in with big equipment. So it was this high-tech, low-tech, centuries-old way of doing things and modern ways of doing things coming together. It actually was the first living building in the country, which is great. Now there’s several other living buildings in New Zealand. And yeah, it was inspiring to be part of that.
Host: Known as Te Kura Whare, the Living Building-certified structure is now a thriving community hub.
It’s 100% off the grid and off fossil fuels. It collects and treats all water onsite. It was built by the community with materials caringly harvested from the surrounding lands. Yet it’s so much more than just a structure.
The New Zealand Property Council described the deep community-process design approach as “transformative.” It’s now used as a model practice in New Zealand and beyond, and a glimmer of what a Living Community can be and do.
It starts with a change of heart.
Jason F. McLennan: We have to be able to have uncomfortable conversations. We have to be able to accept that we have had an impact on other people. We have to ask for forgiveness. We have to make amends. We have to stop the damage. We have to work together to heal and design systems together. You cannot heal an ecosystem without healing yourself. [APPLAUSE]
And the beautiful thing, though, is if you begin to heal an ecosystem, you will heal yourself, because it is an opening up of your heart, and that’s this amazing thing. When you start this journey of opening your heart to love, and asking for forgiveness, and making amends, and working together, it is a powerful path in my mind to both, again, reconciliation, regeneration. And you can begin it anywhere. All of us here have a journey, some more deeply than others, perhaps.
Narriation: As the renowned ecologist and Biomimicry designer Janine Benyus famously put it, “What life does is to create conditions conducive to life.”
Like the Gaia Hypothesis, it’s the idea that the entire symphony of all living things self-regulates the Earth’s conditions to make the physical environment more hospitable for them in an exquisite, dynamic balance. Think of it as a vast “hospitality” enterprise.
Jason F. McLennan: And the world wants to heal. It wants to regenerate. Life is the only thing in the universe that we know resists entropy. It wants to come back. And I think, and what I would add to Janine’s quote is: Love creates the conditions for love.
And so where you begin, that’s up to you. There’s so many places, peoples, cultures that we need to reconcile with as a society. We need to obviously reconcile within ourselves. And there’s so much regenerative work that needs to be done, and these are like interlooping spirals of work, I think. And one without the other doesn’t work.
And I hope that that can extend, of course, not only to the people that look like us and other people generally, but to all of life.
When we begin to see the world as one interconnected system of which we are just one critical part, and when all people and all life are deemed valuable, then we will make it. And only then will we have a future.
And we can either decide to take that point of inflexion that I showed earlier and move towards love, regeneration and reconciliation or move towards degradation, divisiveness, and essentially consume ourselves out of a planet.
I think I know the secret to life. It’s to be in right relationship to all living things. [APPLAUSE] And to be personally reconciled with our role of life on the planet. And so we need to let go of our old ways of thinking and become a new kind of human. Maybe homo Regenesis. [APPLAUSE] And if you’re homo Regenesis, you do recognize that you’re just one part of an interconnected system of all life on the planet, and that we’re all beautiful and we all have a role to play in healing and making sure that there’s conditions for life to thrive, using love as the conditions for life to thrive.
It feels at times like that starfish story. Right? You guys know the starfish story of this young child is throwing starfish back in the water, and someone says, “Well, what good is that? It doesn’t matter. Look at all the starfish on the beach.” And she says, “It matters to this one. It matters to this one.”
So I don’t know how many people we have to touch. I don’t know how much is enough. I guess we’ll find that out, but all I know is that I’m doing the work that I do and doing the best I can, and I hope that you are as well. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]