From sustainable design to regenerative design

Author: Traci Engel Lesneski

As a sponsor of the Library Journal Design Institute held in Nashville earlier this month, MSR had the opportunity to explore the environmental impact and social benefits of sustainable design for libraries with a mix of librarians, designers, and vendors from across the country. The experience gave me an opportunity to think more deeply about the topic.

With the recent climate talks and landmark accord in Paris, living, working, and building sustainably has been top of mind for many. Given that buildings account for about 40% of overall energy consumption and nearly 45% of CO2 emissions, the building design and construction industry has a major responsibility to play a crucial role in reversing the warming of our planet.* To affect real change, the industry must reach beyond sustainable design to strive for regenerative design, which makes a positive contribution to the environment. This evolution will require education of those who fund, design, manage, and use buildings and will necessitate altering our collective daily behaviors.

Libraries have a key role to play in the journey from sustainable design to regenerative design. Much of the public was first exposed to sustainable design through public buildings such as libraries. Today, most people have heard of common tools used to measure and reward green building efforts, such as the US Green Building Council’s LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certification program, American Institute of Architects’ 2030 Commitment, and Green Building Initiative’s Green Globes system. Regenerative design will gain exposure (through programs such as the International Living Future Institute’s Living Building Challenge) as communities and campuses increasingly institutionalize green building practices and take them to the next level.

Libraries should take a leadership role in sustainable and regenerative design for these five reasons:

1. Libraries are visible

Libraries are at the centers of their communities and campuses, literally and figuratively. Highly visible to many, they attract a wide diversity of users, ranging from persons of influence in the community or their own workplaces to young people who seek to shape their understanding of the world and their impact upon it. By setting a positive example, libraries serve as an important cog in the cycle of behavioral change.

2. Libraries provide opportunities to engage

Libraries have always been a place for public discourse on important topics of the time. Libraries offer formal settings for presentations and input sessions about sticky issues. Perhaps more important, libraries offer informal settings for in depth conversations about critical topics, or spontaneous discussions, on neutral turf.

3. Libraries are models

As public buildings, libraries can be demonstration sites. While green roofs and solar arrays are sexy and effective symbols of sustainable design, demonstrations and educational panels that highlight often-hidden methods for building smart (e.g., ultra-efficient mechanical systems, low-energy lighting solutions, or sustainable cleaning products) bring the nuts and bolts of green building to light. Given typically modest library construction and operation budgets, this demonstration packs even more punch, showing that building and operating responsibly isn’t out of reach for the average company, home-owner, or institution.

4. Librarians are trustworthy

Librarians are viewed as highly trustworthy people. Libraries are one of few places that are viewed as apolitical. Librarians are regarded as facts-only guides to knowledge. When libraries model best practices in design and operations, library users take note. When libraries convene a public conversation about important topics around sustainable behaviors, attendees know it’s in the spirit of learning and sharing knowledge without any hidden agendas.

5. Libraries can champion good behavior

Librarians are in a great position to shine a spotlight on positive behaviors of the library’s staff and customers. Ever wonder about the counters on bottle-filling stations that count how many plastic bottles were eliminated? Psychologists tell us that positive reinforcement is the most effective path to behavioral change.

The building design and construction industry has a long way to go in addressing its role in climate change. The path is not entirely clear. In his recent National Geographic article, “Fresh Hope for Combating Climate Change” (October 15, 2015), Robert Kunzig references the late novelist E. L. Doctorow’s description of the writing process: “It’s like driving a car at night—you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” We don’t know everything about how to solve climate change issues, but the desire and passion to work toward solutions will go a long way toward getting us there. And we need librarians on the trip with us, helping to educate the public and support an important public dialogue.

*Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration


  • Missoula Public Library’s Downtown Flagship Library wins national ALA/IIDA Library Interior Design Award

    The interior materials palette builds upon the metaphoric experience of climbing a mountain. The design team selected finishes through a set of holistic sustainability lenses, including climate health, human health, ecosystem health, social health, and circularity.

  • 2 out of 2: MSR Design receives both the 2023 AIA Minnesota Honor Awards

    The state’s most prestigious recognition for buildings designed by Minnesota architects, the AIA Minnesota Honor Awards celebrate projects that demonstrate excellence in two or more of the 10 AIA Framework for Design Excellence measures.