Regenerative Design

by Christina Noble, AIA , LEED AP
Originally published in Forward: Architecture & Design Journal, Fall 2007 

Salk Institute by Louis Kahn

Legend has it that Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute design was driven by Kahn’s persistent requests for clarification of his users’ casual descriptions of their needs.  As he pressed the Salk researchers’ on their claim that they preferred to eat at their desks, he discovered that they actually loathed the sight and sound of their labs.  Ultimately, his design completely re-imagined the researchers’ workspace.  Studies were separated from laboratories; clean air and gardens replaced the “terrible noises of the air conditioning system.”  Kahn realized that the researchers need not spend all their time in the laboratories and instead strove to understand how his users might make the best, most satisfying use of the space.  As a result of his realizations, he found the design falling into place, saying “when one knows what to do, there is only little time one needs for doing it…and to know what to do is the secret of it all.”1

On my current project, designing the Maricopa County Downtown Court Tower, my team hopes to apply a similar design approach – both in the abstract sense of deeply understanding the users’ day-to-day operations and in the more literal sense of delivering a humane environment with an emphasis on engagement with the natural environment.  Interestingly, as we have learned more about the Maricopa County judicial system, we have seen these two priorities intersect to a greater degree than we anticipated.  Specifically, we began to find a high degree of correlation between the County’s unique operational processes of restorative justice and Sim van der Ryn’s categories of sustainable architectural design.2  It is our hope that this coincidence can be leveraged to deliver a design that translates the regenerative intent of the County’s operational program into the built form.

Maricopa County is the fastest growing county in the nation.  Over 560,000 new residents moved to the Phoenix area between 2000 and 2005.  As a result, the Superior Court of Maricopa County has quickly outgrown its existing 1960s and ’70s era facilities.   Because Maricopa County has not expanded its downtown criminal court complex since 1978, the Superior Court has been forced to adopt nimble operational processes that allow it to function with inadequate space. These pressures have led the Superior Court to consider alternative justice models that emphasize efficient use of time, space and community resources.

Maricopa County employs four justice models: retributive, therapeutic, restorative and community:

  • Retributive Justice is the model in which we typically imagine courtroom operations. This traditional form of justice employs short-term solutions to remove an offender from the street so that he can no longer harm others.  It focuses on penalties and retributions rather than rehabilitation.
  • Therapeutic Justice seeks to rehabilitate an offender through programs created to address the underlying psychological and emotional issues that led him to commit the crime.  This process reacts to the crime committed with programs and services.
  • Restorative Justice focuses more intently on victims’ rights throughout the justice and healing processes and seeks to alleviate a victim’s stress caused by both the crime and the legal process of attending court.  This process seeks to restore the relationships harmed by crime.
  • Community Justice defines crime as a violation of relationships between our friends, family, and neighbors. Emotional and psychological distress can be repaired through an actively engaged community process that seeks long-term solutions to criminal behavior. Justice becomes not only a responsibility of our government to the community, but also the responsibility of the community to our government.  This active community engagement hopes to regenerate community connections between individuals and the legal process, limiting crimes into the future.

Interestingly, we can find parallels between these judicial models and sustainable models of architectural design.  Just as Maricopa County has found increasingly inventive and progressive means to create respect and value for the law and community, so too can sustainable design evolve toward increasingly proactive and community-focused practices.

  • Standard Building is the way we build today.  Buildings are hermetically sealed by glass and stucco and cooled with air conditioning. The interior environment is artificial and intentionally disconnected from the exterior natural environment.  This short-term solution satisfies basic requirements for providing shelter but does not consider the long-term impacts of our energy use or the social and psychological consequences of spending long hours in a sense-depriving environment.
  • Green Building reacts to standard construction practices and seeks to utilize more efficient processes or systems to minimize the impacts of our artificial environments on the natural environment.  More efficient air conditioning and lighting systems are often employed.
  • Restorative Buildings seek to restore buildings’ connection with natural processes.  Elements such as natural light, views and fresh-air ventilation release occupants from sealed artificial interior environments.  Building skins become ‘smart’ and respond to exterior natural elements.  Automated louvers synchronize with the angle of the sun. Windows open and close as the prevailing winds change direction.  Operable windows, personal sunshades and controllable air vents provide fine-grained environmental control.
  • Regenerative Buildings reconnect humans with the community and environment.  Long-term human needs are valued over short-term expedient solutions. Occupants feel empowered to regenerate their community and build interconnected relationships with their neighbors through active participation with government and society.  Buildings suggest growth and rebirth while contributing to the community’s energy supply rather than depleting it.  Spaces inspire justice, uplift spirits, calm stress and comfort pain.

Not only do we see parallels between theoretical models and definitions of justice and sustainable design, the real-world output of these two domains can, with careful planning, produce a positive feedback loop.  As Paola Sassi stated in Strategies for Sustainable Architecture, “The character of a place affects how people feel and can engender feelings of civic pride, communal identity, [and] security.” Conversely, this amplified civic pride derived from progressive legal practices and responsible environmental design will further enhance “the character of a place.”  We hope the Downtown Court Tower’s successful architectural integration of regenerative justice and sustainable design can simultaneously improve the community’s perceptions of the court system and reflect the Courts’ respect and value for the community.

  2. Sustainable design concepts adapted from Sim van der Ryn, Surpassability: The Future We Can Create Now, EDRA 38,



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