Emerging architectural practices here and elsewhere are exploring a new ethos which seeks to not only lessen the environmental harm of new development, but for design and construction to act as positive forces that repair and restore natural and human systems.

This paradigm shift from sustainable to regenerative practices aims to address contemporary environmental and social challenges on multiple levels, from policy-making and design strategy to new materials and construction processes. And as architecture transitions from “doing less bad” to “doing good”, a number of themes emerge.

Designing with nature

Sydneysider and Pritzker Architecture Prize-winner Glenn Murcutt’s dedication to working with the nuances of local climate and natural conditions is well documented, however South Australia has also produced a number of pioneers in this space. Robert Dickson and Newell Platten led the nation’s 1960s ecological building movement from Adelaide, with Max Pritchard and Troppo Architects following suit.

Educated at Adelaide University, Troppo’s founders established a global practice from Darwin which has embraced “regionally responsive” design since the 1980s. Their affordable eco housing and eponymous café on Whitmore Square is a well-recognised local beacon of environmentally and socially-sensitive design.

Troppo’s Affordable Eco Housing Project on Whitmore Square will lose its social sustainability credentials when the City of Adelaide sells off the subsidised rental component. Photo: truthloveandcleancutlery.com

Reciprocal relationships with people and place

Adelaide Sustainable Building Network chair Ken Long points out that we don’t just aspire to “sustainability” in our personal relationships: “If you actually described your relationship with your partner as merely ‘sustainable’, people would ask, ‘What’s going wrong?’,” he says.

According to Long, the built environment needs to create positive reciprocal relationships with its inhabitants and the surrounding ecology to make possible a more empathetic and forward-thinking society.

Adaptive reuse of the original 1950s brick house in John Adam Architects’ ‘Through the Looking Glass’ house recycles the embodied carbon. Image: John Adam

Adelaide Hills-based John Adam Architects belongs to this new breed of architects whose work is not limited to stylistic imperatives. “Through the Looking Glass” house at Hazelwood Park nevertheless responds with joyful style and exuberance to its clients, the creek environment, the wider community and the site’s Kaurna past. Tree protection, passive solar design, highly insulated lightweight timber construction, adaptive reuse of the existing red-brick home, permaculture and endemic native plant regeneration are among the strategies employed.

A permanent water billabong is now a haven for birds, frogs and koalas, especially in the hotter months when the creek bed is dry. Vine screens provide seasonal shading and an old tennis court is re-purposed as a productive orchard, watered by a 22,000L rainwater tank, all adding up to a cooler microclimate.

Scaling and streamlining sustainable processes

The construction industry often points to the additional costs of sustainable options as a market barrier, but local firm Goodhouse Architecture is already proving them wrong.

“People generally recognise that in Australia we tend to build too big and they therefore want us to design appropriately sized, functional and versatile spaces that connect internal and external areas,” says Goodhouse architect Mark Thomas. “They want to ‘do right’ by our planet and also save money on operational water and energy costs.”

A key driver for Goodhouse Architecture is to make its designs as affordable, efficient, scalable and sustainable as possible. Image supplied.

Goodhouse evolved out of the Weatherill government’s “Adelaide to Zero Carbon Challenge” to develop a low-cost sustainable home that was highly energy efficient, and would become carbon neutral within its life span. A key driver for the company now is to make its bespoke houses as affordable and sustainable as possible by focusing on the efficiencies gained through systemisation and streamlining of the design and construction process.

Passive design principles and efficient use of space

Khab Architects is another local firm keen to take sustainability as far as its clients will let it. Every Khab project integrates the established principles of passive design – namely orientation, shape, zoning, glazing, thermal mass, insulation, ventilation and landscaping.

It is well-recognised that simple decisions in these areas lead to big results, not only for the environment, but also for the quality of life and the cost of living of the inhabitant – and yet the vast majority of standard residential developments continue to ignore them.

Khab’s iron-clad Spinifex House is a modest and counter-cultural beachfront leader which doesn’t need flex or fake tan. Photo: Peter Barnes

At half the size of many houses that now line our metro beachfront, Khab’s Spinifex House is the new kid on the block dominated by a gang of bullish show-offs.  Like an old beach shack, this delicate iron beauty touches the ground lightly, respecting the dune and melding into the adjacent reserve. The corrugated-iron shell deftly responds to the harsh coastal setting, addressing entry, privacy and weather protection while delivering dedicated frames to beach and sunset.

Restoration of degraded sites

Positive contributions to the environment can be achieved when a new build cleans up a degraded site. When Dowie Doole Wines engaged Scholz Vinall to design its cellar door in McLaren Vale, it chose a former rubbish dump as the site, removing rocks, gravel and fencing waste to make way for a grassed area hosting three connected customised shipping containers which open up to the organic vineyard and wider natural landscape.

Captured rainwater and recycled wastewater irrigate the elevated site and its surrounds, integrating with Biodiversity McLaren Vale’s ground-breaking community and industry-led landscape regeneration project. Solar panels connected to the grid anticipate serving a future electric vehicle charging station, while disability access is incorporated in a subtle and seamless fashion, avoiding any sense of marginalisation.

Scholz Vinall’s cellar-door design for Dowie Doole embraces regenerative design principles, able to be relocated and reused as part of a larger long-term vision for the site. Photo: Eyefood

Certification and measurement of positive social and environmental impact

 As the conversation shifts from sustainability to future-oriented ecological regeneration, new forms of certification are emerging. Developed by the International Living Future Institute, the Living Building Challenge assumes typical best practices around the use of low-carbon materials, with energy and water efficiency a given, so that designers can focus on critical high-level and holistic goals that are truly regenerative.

The Living Building Challenge is a philosophy, certification, and advocacy tool for projects to move beyond merely being less bad to become truly regenerative. Image supplied.

“While the aim is very high in terms of regenerative design and positive impact, the framework itself is not complicated, especially when integrated during the design phase,” says Yaara Plaves, head of Hames Sharley’s National Sustainability Forum. Plaves is on the design team for the new Scotch College Wellbeing and Sports Centre, which aims to be a role model for the future of the built environment in South Australia – representing a new generation of designers and developers who have already determined that net zero is not good enough.

Stephanie Johnston is an urban planner and freelance writer based between the city and Port Willunga.

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This article is supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.