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According to Professor Janis Birkeland, green building rating tools are improving but they are only improving upon a flawed conceptual model. “As currently conceived, they only reduce ‘unsustainability’ – and at a slower pace than the environmental destruction caused by buildings,” she says.

In this article, Professor Birkeland introduces the net-positive design computer app or “STARfish” which, she asserts, reverses dozens of the failings of rating tools. She says debate is welcome.


Green buildings aren’t sustainable if they do more harm than no building at all

Around 2009, someone from a green building organisation contacted my university to say their organisation would no longer work with QUT because I taught there. My transgression?  A newspaper quoted me as saying that “green buildings are not sustainable”.

Indeed, I had said that. Despite greater efficiencies and more greenery, buildings increasingly consume energy and resources, forget the poor, and cannibalise the natural life-support system.

Figure 1. The Positive Development STARfish for Net-Positive Design

If all new buildings were “sustainable” by today’s standards, their cumulative impacts would destroy the earth, unless population and consumption rates were magically reversed, not just reduced.

Paradoxically, only the built environment can save the natural environment

Since 2002, I have contended that truly sustainable buildings would create net public benefits to over-compensate for their (currently) unavoidable material flows and embodied impacts. It is no longer enough to “do no harm”.  

Fortunately, buildings can give back more than they take by creating social and natural life-support systems or “eco-services” that increase environmental and social justice in the region (the public estate) and increase nature and wilderness (the ecological base), in absolute terms.

Absolute (here) means socio-ecological outcomes are not relative to current inequitable or degraded conditions. Social gains must improve regional equity or “environmental space”.  Ecological gains must be nature-positive: increase nature relative to pre-urban conditions.

However, with existing rating tools, what really matters is not what counts

Rating tools were, in part, adopted to head off the growing imposition of onerous environmental impact assessment in the building sector via “industry self-regulation”.

Instead of quantifying impacts and sustainability outcomes, green building organisations created prescriptive rules, point systems and thresholds. These were based on typical construction, not sustainability outcomes.

  • Thresholds mean designers get the same score if they do more (or less) than specified (for example, “X points for using more than X percentage of recycled materials”). Beyond the cut-offs, there is no incentive to invest time in designing-in more public benefits.
  • Point systems allow projects to gain enough points where easiest and cheapest to do so. This means some highly ranked buildings have performed poorly in some categories compared to ordinary buildings.

Despite the recent adoption of more “positive” adjectives, green building rating tools are still primarily aimed at efficiency: the reduction of waste.

Net-positive terms have been misused to greenwash actual performance 

“Net” signifies a whole-system analysis, so one cannot just count gains and ignore losses or vice versa. However, that is what green building and rating tools do, by using selective accounting. For instance:

  • Some count positive social impacts without deducting negative ones. Hence, a pristine island converted into a retreat for paedophiles could get a big star if it includes enough social amenities and communal facilities.
  • Some tally negative environmental impacts only after mitigation measures are deducted. Hence, design teams start with a typical building template and add mitigation measures that hide “design failures” (for example, pollution, land clearing, embodied energy).
  • Some claim to achieve “zero” energy when they only count operating, not manufacturing, energy. Then they label renewable energy sent offsite “positive” even if, in effect, it subsidises continued coal production or energy wastage elsewhere.
  • Some call recycling all construction waste “zero waste”, by ignoring the nature laid to waste during resource extraction.

To list how rating tools limit genuinely sustainable design would take too long. Here is a table on the website that lists 35 basic flaws of rating tools and how the new app corrects them.

What about recent advances in design policies, guidelines and rating tools?  

Green building organisations have been remarkably successful by many indicators. For instance, the adoption of rating and marketing tools by developers continues to snowball, green buildings are gaining prestige, and some tools now advocate the use of lifecycle assessment and building information management systems to make design more technocratic.

However, rating tools, like urban design guidelines, still ignore many core socio-ecological sustainability issues (such as ecology and ethics), they measure the wrong things in the wrong ways, and are superimposing a cookie cutter approach to building design upon once diverse sites, environments, and social contexts.

Is this really progress? The answer is: only if progress means weak sustainability. This can only delay the destruction of nature and, in turn, society. Greener growth is the old paradigm of “industrial development” in a camouflage outfit.

What are some core issues that tools based on greener growth overlook?

Progress in Positive Development is expanding positive public options by increasing nature and justice against genuine sustainability standards, rather than current conditions.

For progress in the social domain, some point to how rating tools now aim to enhance the wellbeing of owners and occupants, which goes beyond reducing energy and health-related costs for owners.

However, they only make the well-to-do better off. Indirectly, greener growth consigns the poor to more inequitable living conditions as part of the machinery of wealth concentration and class segregation (with exceptions).

For progress in the environmental domain, some point to how rating tools now aim to restore degraded landscapes and create biophilic decors. Some do this by allowing “extra” development (code exemptions) in exchange for offsets such as preserving land elsewhere.

While commendable, this is still tokenistic ­­– not eco-positive. The world has lost 60 per cent of its biodiversity in 40 years. Developed land cannot really be restored to pre-settlement conditions with buildings on it, and preserving land does not increase total ecological carrying capacity.

Progressive rating tools raise the bar but use the same old framework

This is a legacy issue. New terms don’t change paradigms by themselves (See Box 1.)

When rating tools were first developed in the 1990s, net-positive impacts were deemed impossible, due to the vestiges of the nature-versus-development dichotomy. (For young readers, this was the idea that “industrial progress” was pre-ordained, so destroying nature was necessary.)

Since net-positive impacts were not a goal, no one tried to measure them. Since they were not measured, they could not be managed, so the whole idea was resisted by the management class.

Rating tools purport to improve things, but this is compared to what might have happened if nothing else was tried.  This is known as the ‘decoy effect’.  Buildings look better when juxtaposed with bad design instead of Positive Development standards (beyond zero).

Net-positive design and development is now possible and verifiable

Sustainability must be recognised as a systems design problem, not simply a matter of “making better choices”. Current design tools and guidelines are really only creativity stimulators, such as “lists” of design principles arranged in a mandala. “Build back better” does not cut it.

Rating tools are called design tools, but they are neither really design nor impact assessment tools. They are decision tools. Decision making helps to make choices between technologies, products, or processes, but is inherently reductionist, if not binary. It does not help create things that never existed before.

“Design”, in Positive Development, means thinking upstream, downstream, laterally, and vertically to find positive synergies through multifunctional and adaptable spaces and structures. Rating tools seldom count multifunctional public benefits created by design synergies, because only listed actions can receive points and they usually only count in one category.

Both decision making and design are essential, and the STARfish integrates design and decision making. Nonetheless, sustainability requires expanding future options and is design-led.

There are many examples of building components and design concepts that can, in combination, be eco-positive – rather than simply regenerating the spaces leftover around ordinary green buildings.  Some examples include:

  • Green Scaffolding, an exoskeleton that creates ecological space (unlike green facades that add a layer of leaf litter).
  • Bricks made from mycelium that sequester waste and carbon yet use little land to produce (unlike agri-waste or hemp-based materials).
  • Playgardens that provide a wide range of ecosystem services and community benefits (unlike gardens that only provide biophilic amenities).

There are no net-positive buildings, since current tools cannot verify it

Having taught sustainable design from 1992, I realised that people would not accept the idea of net-positive sustainability until it could first be demonstrated and verified in a completed construction.

However, my lame efforts at funding the project were met with “you have to show us where it has been done before”, or “we were keen, but then we heard our city already had a green building”.

Second, net-positive must be measured, which traditional environmental impact and lifecycle assessment does not yet do. Therefore, in 2010, I proposed a tool for measuring and visualising cumulative and tributary socio-ecological impacts.

However, I was generationally incapable of making the app myself. So, years later, I found someone who could do it, Dr Ivan Corro. The result is an interactive collaborative game in which a design team competes with itself to create the most sustainable design possible.

The free app is now available to aid and assess net-positive design

The key to assessing net impacts is a unique combination of radar diagrams and impact wheels, to enable the visualisation of lifecycle and supply chain impacts. To measure “beyond zero” impacts, it uses a “zero circle” in the middle of the radar diagrams. (See Figure 1.)

It provides benchmarks for negative, restorative/regenerative, and positive/net-positive impacts, benchmarked against fixed, regional, and/or pre-urban biophysical conditions (versus contemporary buildings, conditions, or practices).

The diagram could expand in a fractal pattern to cover large-scale, complex systems. For instance, a 3D STARfish hologram could represent a whole industry or city.

Paradigm shifts outlined in the new book   

The app is just one of the logical outcomes of Positive Development theory. The books include a community planning process, a constitution for eco-governance, a set of forensic planning analyses and a community design review process. These are design-based and ethics-led approaches. They are transformational, rather than transactional. Net-positive Design and Sustainable Urban Development (2020) reviews the necessary paradigm shifts.


Part I concerns biophysical design concepts and processes, and proposes paradigm shifts:

  • From negative/fatalistic mindsets that assume development must be ecologically-terminal – to reconceiving development as a means to increase socio-ecological sustainability [Chaps. 1-2].
  • From closed/bounded system models – to open-system paradigms that enable design to externalise public benefits and expand positive future options [Chaps. 3-4].
  • From efficient innovations that create more products and material flows – to structural and spatial design solutions that reduce inequities and increase public gains [Chaps. 5-6].
  • From analyses that share the same conceptual roots as neo-classical economics – to whole-system analyses that prioritise the correction of socio-ecological deficits [Chaps. 7-8].

Part II concerns institutional or decision-making structures, and proposes paradigm shifts:

  • From reductionist decision-making – to design-based “methods” that can create synergies and multiply public benefits [Chaps. 9-10].
  • From numerical standards for green building assessment tools that only reduce the project’s damage – to design tools based on whole-system sustainability [Chaps. 11-12].
  • From either top-down or bottom-up but ineffective consultation processes – to new community-based collaborative processes for developing design criteria [Chaps. 13-14].
  • From “metrics” that assess design outcomes relative to typical projects – to measurements that allow for net-positive impacts by using stationary benchmarks and standards [Chaps. 15-16].

Professor Janis Birkeland is an honorary professor at the University of Melbourne who has taught sustainable planning and architecture at several universities. Previously, she worked as a planner, architect, and lawyer in San Francisco to gain insights into the impediments to sustainability.  Her books Positive Development (2008) and Net-Positive Design (2020) explain the theory behind the STARfish tool. The website has written instructions, and the app also has pop-up instructions.  The easiest way to see how to use the STARfish is to watch the video on the website. There is a place for questions or suggestions there, or email netpositivedesign@gmail.com.   

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9 Comments

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  1. I will try to look at the ‘starfish’ thing that Janis mentions, but isn’t what she’s saying incredibly important?…I’m in my Masters year at QUT studying architecture and one of my Tutors (Mark Thomson) also shared about Janis’s work. As a budding architect I feel inspired by Janis to expand the boundaries and possibilities to with my work.
    Would love to see Janis’s principles broken down into perhaps a video form, using RSA animate, or as an infographic? Would make it a lot easier to quickly grasp her great points!
    Or even a TED talk would be awesome!

  2. Net-positive or eco-positive buildings have not been measured, but are not impossible with substantial multifunctional design that, for example, increases ecological carrying capacity and public benefits in a whole system perspective. You may be thinking ‘energy-positive’ which is impossible due to the laws of thermodynamics.

  3. If a truly sustainable, net-positive building has never been built, is it possible at all? How would we convert existing buildings to be truly net-positive if retrofitting them is unsustainable, through manufacturing new thermally broken windows, for example, where that manufacturing has an environmental impact somewhere on the planet?
    Surely we must start with ‘no new buildings’, due to the embodied energy, mining and manufacture embedded in the process of construction? We must first, somehow, make all existing buildings sustainable, fully, first? This seems impossible! But an excellent challenge you pose.

  4. Fantastic and thanks to Fifth Estate for publishing this much needed article. So now it’s out there, ‘if all new buildings were “sustainable” by today’s standards, their cumulative impacts would destroy the earth.
    Either what Janis has written is right or wrong, if the latter just carry on, if the former we must do something about it.
    I really hope we can give more air to this topic, it looks incredibly important to me.

  5. Janis was one of my Uni Lecturers, I loved her!!! Great to see she is more active than ever. Bravo Janis!!