Why Regenerative Design Is The New Sustainability
Given that human health and wellbeing is so intrinsically linked with environmental health, it’s perhaps no wonder that sustainability has been one of the biggest topics of discussion around the world over the last few years, as the realities of climate change and rising global temperatures make themselves felt with increasing regularity.
Environmental sustainability ensures that we have clean air to breathe and fresh water to drink by conserving natural resources and protecting ecosystems to better support health and wellbeing.
However, it can take time for the actions and practises being implemented to have an impact, so it is becoming increasingly important to ensure that the needs of today are met in such a way as not to compromise the needs of future generations.
Usher in the age of regenerative design!
With sustainability, the aim is to minimise harm to the environment as far as is practicably possible, but as temperatures continue to rise and the effects of climate change, urbanisation, population growth and resource mismanagement continue to converge, it may well be that sustainability practises are no longer sufficient to mitigate and adapt to future risks.
This is where the concept of regenerative design could really come into its own, allowing all industries and all sectors to not just minimise environmental damage but to actively repair and restore both natural and human systems.
Essentially, any particular system is given the capacity to restore and renew its own resources and energy through regenerative design… and one of the consequences of this is that people and their activities and operations become more connected and realigned with the natural world.
This, in turn, reduces society’s impact on the environment while addressing the climate emergency head on.
There are all sorts of benefits associated with this way of working, including net positive impacts for water, carbon, air, nutrients, biodiversity, health and social equity. It also aligns really well with the concept of a circular economy, where waste is reduced or eliminated through the continued use of finite resources.
Regenerative design prioritises the co-evolution and existence of humans and the environment, built on an understanding of the difference between preservation and conservation, with the latter one of the main principles of this standard.
Local context and consideration of place must always be at the heart of design decisions to ensure conservation of natural resources, important since no two locations are the same or face the same issues.
Perhaps the most obvious advantage of regenerative design is that it ensures a positive impact on the natural world while meeting the needs of society in the 21st century.
However, in order for this to be achieved, a fundamental change in approach is required to deliver widespread adoption of these principles, with every section of society required to rethink and redo how they operate.
Case study: Omega’s Eco Machine
One of the biggest issues we face as a result of the climate crisis is water stress and scarcity, with climate change risking supplies in a range of different ways, everything from severe flooding to drought and increased pollution… all of which means that local communities will need to rethink their water systems to ensure resilience of supply.
Although reducing water consumption is an important part of delivering on this resilience, a system redesign can help communities move past sustainability and embrace regeneration, safeguarding resources for future generations.
One company making strides in this regard is the Omega Center for Sustainable Living (OCSL), which has been operating since 2009, successfully integrating its campus and natural water reclamation facility (dubbed the Eco Machine) with its environmental education programme.
This programme focuses on the promotion of a whole systems place-based approach to solution finding, taking into account the connection between society, nature and individuals.
The Eco Machine itself uses plants, algae, bacteria, snails and fungi to recycle the centre’s wastewater (around 45 million gallons thus far) and turn it into clean water that then restores the aquifer. It is chemical free and uses zero net energy, creating a closed-loop hydrological cycle.
At Omega, the water is drawn from the aquifer in the ground and pumped uphill to a cistern to create water pressure, before it flows back down to the campus so it can be used for cooking, cleaning and drinking. From there, it then flows to the Eco Machine so it can be purified and trickled slowly back to the aquifer it originated from.
The facility is able to process up to 52,000 gallons of water per day between May and October, when the campus is open, and approximately 5,000 gallons per day between November and March (the off season).
There are seven steps involved in the purification process:
Solid settlement tanks
Wastewater flows into solid settlement tanks, with the solids settling as sludge and injected with microorganisms to accelerate decomposition. The wastewater left over then flows to equalisation tanks.
The flow of water is equalised over 24 hours to balance out natural surges in campus water usage and consumption. Water is then released evenly to anoxic tanks.
Two 5,000 gallon tanks are located underground next to OCSL’s constructed wetlands. The wastewater stream is used as food by microbial organisms, which digest substances in the water like ammonia, nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus.
The Eco Machine features four constructed wetlands, each about the size of a basketball court. Wastewater flows from the anoxic tanks to a splitter box so it can be sent to the upper two wetlands, where native plants and microorganisms reduce biochemical oxygen demand, continue with denitrification and remove odorous gases.
Once the water is processed, it flows to the bottom two wetlands. Once the water is ready to travel to the aerated lagoons, a 75 per cent increase in water clarity and a 90 per cent reduction in water odour has been seen. Some of the water is also absorbed by plants during purification, while some of it goes on to evaporate.
Once the water is in the aerated lagoons, it looks and smells clean but it isn’t safe for consumption, with ammonia still being converted into nitrates and toxins into harmless base elements by microorganisms, snails, algae, fungi and plants.
Tropical plants live and thrive here, even though there is no soil. The plants are housed on metal racks, with their roots reaching into the water so organisms have a habitat and can be sustained.
It’s certainly interesting to see just how attractive a natural wastewater system can actually be, with blooms in abundance… which are used to brighten up OCSL’s classrooms!
Recirculating sand filter
The water is sent from these lagoons to a recirculating sand filter, which absorbs and digests any particulates and nitrates that may still be lingering. This completes a level of water processing, meeting standards for disposal into wetlands and other waterways. The effluent can also be used for irrigation.
Once the water has been through the sand filter, it is pumped into two dispersal fields beneath the centre’s carpark. Here, the reclaimed water is sent back to the groundwater table, where it is further purified by natural processes and trickles down to the aquifer some 250-300ft below the campus. This final step closes the closed hydrological loop for the centre’s water use.
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