What will it take to go beyond net-zero?

A report on the keynote panel from the 2022 OAA Conference.

The OAA Conference returned in person for the first time in two years, kicking off Wednesday, May 11th with a keynote panel discussing this year’s theme: Inspiring Climate Action. OAA president Susan Spiegel introduced the keynote panel with an acknowledgement of the land followed by an announcement of a five-year facelift for the OAA. The refresh designated equity, diversity, and inclusion as well as inspiring climate action in a time of climate emergency as the lens to approach the conference and overall goals in the coming years. The keynote panel intended to bring together working professionals to discuss the future of regenerative architecture, what it is, and why it is important.

Panellists spoke with Shawn Micallef (Top Left) of the Toronto Star. Pictured: Craig Applegath (Top Right), Nina-Marie Lister (Bottom Left), Michael Pawlyn (Bottom Right).

The first morning, registrants were welcomed both in-person and virtually to the panel discussion sponsored by Brampton Brick. The conversation was moderated by Shawn Micallef, Toronto Star weekly columnist, Spacing magazine editor, and author of Frontier City: Toronto on the Verge of Greatness, Stroll: Psychogeographic Walking Tours of Toronto and The Trouble With Brunch: Work, Class and the Pursuit of Leisure. He began by noting the heartening effort to address the climate crisis by the architectural profession, followed by brief introduction of each speaker:

Craig Applegath is a founding partner of DIALOG, an integrated design studio in five cities in North America. He serves as co-chair of the Mass Timber Institute at the Daniels Faculty at the University of Toronto. Additionally an OAA Past-President, he is a founding board member of Sustainable Buildings Canada, a fellow of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (RAIC), and an honourary member of the Ontario Association of Landscape Architects (OALA).

Nina-Marie Lister is Professor and Graduate Director at the School of Urban & Regional Planning at Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson), where she founded and directs the Ecological Design Lab, and is Visiting Professor of Landscape Architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design. She holds the 2021 Margolese National Design for Living Prize and is Senior Fellow at Massey College in Toronto. 

Michael Pawlyn has been described as an expert in regenerative design and biomimicry. He established his firm Exploration Architecture in 2007 to focus on high-performance buildings and solutions for the circular economy. He is a founding member of a group called Architects Declare A Climate And Biodiversity Emergency, and has co-authored a book called Flourish, with Sarah Ichioka breaking down what regenerative architecture really means and stressing the importance of the shift from sustainable design.

The difference between sustainability and regenerative design—or what it means to go beyond net-zero—might only be clear to a few of us. Micallef started the conversation off with a question prompting the panellists about what a regenerative design means and to speak on their interpretations of the movement. Craig Applegath began by explaining that “sustainability is about doing less harm, whereas at its best, regenerative design is about a reciprocity with natural systems.” Applegath expresses that it is all about thinking more holistically. 

Nina-Marie Lister explained, in response, that regenerative design begins with extraction. “There is no architecture without land, and land is life. So we start from reducing our extraction potential which also includes the dispossession of people from land. Let’s think about this integratively and systemically.” 

The idea of how we can do better by thinking systemically in connection with nature was expressed by both Lister and Pawlyn, whose book addresses defining what design that addresses the climate emergency looks like. Pawlyn  went on to explain that there are really fundamental differences between sustainable and regenerative design, and concluded echoing Lister, in stressing the importance of embracing complexity and a shift from “a human-only focus to a bio-inclusive one. In many ways, this is about expanding our idea of ‘we’.”

Micallef continued the conversation with questions about the public reception of projects, as well as how to bridge the gap between specialized knowledge and the public about why these concepts matter compared to past movements. Lister emphasized the importance of wellness.  She sees these issues as deeply personal concerns. “I would say that the ecological literacy … is really about bringing nature home, if you will. We are it, and it is us. How do we help people connect with the living world within their daily lives in a way that is meaningful? We can’t talk about green architecture unless we help people understand from a health and wellness perspective.” 

Pawlyn’s response was in a similar vein to that of Applegath, discussing the biological research that has gone into persuasive communication. He noted that “If you overdo the negatives and fear factor, it triggers the wrong response, and it is actually more difficult for people to think rationally and creatively.” This response was followed by questions about how politicians can approach the climate emergency. All speakers went back to those psychological approaches to disseminating information to the public and avoiding the further political division of our communities. 

The final minutes of the session included a Q&A before attendees went on to their next conference activities. Questions from the audience covered concerns about Highway 413 and the potential continuation of suburban sprawl, as well as how to inspire owners of building projects to do more than the minimum required by law or code. Demonstrating the ways that sustainability and net-zero may not go far enough, these pioneers of the industry explored how to convey this to the public—and the weight that these concepts hold for our planet’s future.