Climate Justice Radio

Episode 4: Regenerative Architecture

March 15, 2022 Climate Justice Toronto Season 2 Episode 1
Climate Justice Radio
Episode 4: Regenerative Architecture
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode we will be speaking with Melissa Poon, an architectural designer on regenerative and circular design in architecture. We explore the ways in which the built environment and its occupants can operate in symbiosis with nature and how that can help in our vision of a more green future. Listen further for our “temp check” segment on relevant leftist news, and actions to take, hosted by CJTO members Chloe Lederman and Freyja Chapman. Finally, learn the movement song “Everything to Gain” originally sung by Allison Beyer, co-written with Devon Sproule from Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ). 


Land Story Toolkit: TCAN Land Acknowledgement Framework - Google Docs 

Find Melissa Poon @mmelpoon 


  • Gitsxan Land Defender Fundraiser. Visit:
  • Mutual Aid Request. Send e-transfers to: password: climatejustice


Song called Everything to Gain, originally sung by Allison Beyer 

Co-written with Devon Sproule for Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ). 


When you're healed, I'm healed

When you're whole, I'm whole

When you're safe, I'm safe

When you're free, I'm free

When you can breathe, I can breathe

When you win, I win

When you're fed, I'm fed

We have everything to gain

When you're healed, I'm healed

When you're whole, I'm whole

When you're safe, I'm safe

When you're free, I'm free

When you can breathe, I can breathe

When you win, I win

When you feel respect, I feel respect

We have everything to gain

When you're healed, I'm healed

When you're whole, I'm whole

When you're safe, I'm safe

When you're free I'm free

When you can breathe, I can breathe

When you win, I win

When you're home, I'm home

We have everything to gain


This podcast is brought to you by Climate Justice Toronto: a youth-led collective building an irresistible movement to confront the climate crisis by addressing its root causes: capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy. Find us at  


Editing: Katie Tsang and Stefan Hegerat

Original Music: Stefan Hegerat

Interviewee(s): Melissa Poon

Host: Katie Tsang

Temp Check: Freyja Chapman and Chloe Lederman

Singalong: Dani Michie and Rebecca Nelson

Producer: Climate Justice Toronto

Interview Introduction

Katie: Hello and welcome back to Climate Justice Radio, a podcast by Climate Justice Toronto. Climate Justice Radio is a podcast that covers a wide range of issues connected to climate justice. My name is Katie, I use she/her pronouns and I'll be your host for the episode.

This episode will cover regenerative architecture, which is all about how our built environment should operate in symbiosis with nature. We'll be hearing from Melissa Poon who did her master's thesis on this at U. of T. School of Architecture. Following the interview will be our segment, where we'll take you through some news, events, upcoming actions and ways to get involved. Finally we will lead you out in a song, an important community building exercise in organizing meetings.

Land Story

Katie: Before we dive into our topic for today, we want to talk about our Land Story, a format where we personally reflect on our relationship to the land and Indigenous peoples to confront colonial histories.

Melissa and I grew up in the same neighbourhood of Mississauga, the traditional territory of the Anishinabek A-nish-ina-bek, Huron-Wendat, Haudenosaunee (hoe-dee-no-SHOW-nee) and Ojibway/Chippewa peoples; the land that is home to the Metis; and most recently, the territory of the Mississaugas of the Credit First Nation who are direct descendants of the Mississaugas of the Credit.

Our relationship with Canada started when our parents immigrated from Hong Kong in the 1980’s. This would have been impossible before 1962, due to the Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1923 that prohibited Chinese immigration to Canada, and before that, the Chinese Immigration Act of 1885 that put a head tax on immigrants despite using them for hard labour to build the Canadian Pacific Railway.

The legacy of this history is still apparent today, as we saw with Covid -19 the increase of Anti- Asian hate crimes.

As a Settler, I recognize my privilege living on this land and my responsibility to fight colonialism and white supremacy, as these same systems are intertwined with my family’s story.

The treaties signed with the Mississaugas of the Credit that apply to this land include: Head of the Lake Purchase Treaty 14 of 1806, Ajetance Purchase or treating 19 signed in 1818, and treaties 22 and 23 signed in 1820.

What is Regenerative Architecture?

Katie: Thank you for listening to our Land story! Now to introduce our guest, Melissa Poon. Melissa is an architectural designer, currently working for Moriyama and Teshima Architects, who has a deep interest in regenerative and circular design, and in exploring the ways in which the built environment and its occupants can operate in symbiosis with nature. She completed her Master’s thesis on this topic and is here to share more about this with us. Welcome Melissa!

Melissa: Hi thanks for having me! I'm excited to be here.

Katie: So first things first let's define for listeners, what exactly is Regenerative Architecture?

Melissa: So Regenerative Architecture it's the notion that built environments would be able to provide more than what they consume, so then in a broad sense it's about making things actually good not just less bad as many buildings are constructed or being built today.

Katie: So when you say good and not less bad,  what exactly does that mean? What are some examples of things that could be positive versus just reducing harm?

Melissa: There's a concept of sustainability and then there's a concept of regenerative design. Sustainability is where it's just about making things a diminishing the harm or reducing the amount of negative effects that the construction industry is having on the environment, where as regenerative design is about actually instilling more good into the ecosystem, and into the well being of the of the occupants and actually operating to reverse the damage. We can do things like, for example, generating and storing energy on site for the surrounding communities, cleaning stormwater runoff directly on site and you know like have like their facades could even like scrub the air so we generation is not simply sustainability and using fewer resources but it's about replenishing and bettering our environment.

Living in Symbiosis with Nature

Katie: That's a great distinction! I don't know if I would have thought about it like that. You also mention in your thesis one way to take regenerative architecture further is to push on this concept of living in symbiosis with nature. Can you tell us a little bit more about what that means?

Melissa: Yeah of course. I mean that symbiosis like the concept of symbiosis is basically a beneficial interaction between 2 different parties or individuals, and an example of this would be that's found in nature is bees and flowers or it like Khan fish and an enemy and these are just mutualistic relationships that occur out that have occurred in nature fruit like melania so it's informing this concept of symbiosis it's how we could props take the built environment and the natural ecosystems to not only coexist but to operate for the benefit of the other.

Katie: That's really interesting. I love this idea that our buildings are not just static but alive with our environments and with nature. Can we go a little deeper into what symbiotic architecture means and why we think it's so important to advocate for today?

Melissa: Something that we can talk about first is our modern perception of what nature is because I feel like we often view nature as like something other, or something to be dominated or destroyed. For many of us it’s sort of far away untouched land that we can like visit in the mountains and forests but our dependence on nature is a simple but basic truth, but one we tend to ignore or take for granted- the fact that our very physical survival depends directly on nature.

We cannot survive longer than a few minutes without oxygen- oxygen that comes from the trees, grasses and plants on land and phytoplankton in the oceans. Humans can’t survive more than a week without water or three weeks without food- the land that provides us food, vegetables, fruit, every drop of liquid we drink- comes from nature and connects us profoundly to it.

Katie: Yeah I love this idea that if we change our story about her relationship to nature we can really help change a lot. Is there anything else that we can do?

Melissa: Yeah of course. I mean it’s important for not only the industry to become more engaged in this discussion, but especially to the public, to our listeners- to people who would actually be using these spaces and living in our cities- to become more aware of how our immediate surroundings (built or natural) affects us and our well-being. And also in turn, how our activities and mentalities impact and shape the places we inhabit daily- mentally, physically, socially.

Katie: That's so interesting we've maybe dive into some of the implications of our our built environment how they do impact us once we gain some of this awareness.

Melissa: So I mean there's a lot there's a lot of like implications from that and a lot of different considerations, but one of one of the things that I think is not really widely known as like how much human health is being impacted by our impact on ecological systems.

Some studies are showing that our health really depends on the planet’s health and that it affects us directly through heat wave stronger storms flooding or indirectly through air pollution disease and contamination and buildings, the shelters we create. They are not only for the current generation but for you know all that come after us.

Katie: Thanks for sharing that with us! I think those are all examples of really great reasons why we should move more in the direction of making architecture more symbiotic. So how should we change the industry, like what are some things that we should do next?

Melissa: Some of the things that we could hope to change first is an adaptation of this mindset shift but also you know an acknowledgement that we can't really do anything in modern society without really damaging the planet in some way. Like you can’t get anywhere without cars and we can't really skip buying food without plastic packaging in it.

The architectural and planning industries really aren't exempt from this so  the need to change the way we live and construct our environments is becoming increasingly imperative. Globally, the architectural and construction industries have become rather extractive and destructive in nature.

So then there's a concept, I mean that I'd want to propose, that in our built environments, they have this kind of clear distinction between the inside and the outside. So the question here could be like if we can dissolve that boundary essentially between the natural and the artificial.

If you observe nature closely, you’ll notice that ecologies- everywhere- function in a closed, circular loop- where waste becomes nutrient and decay makes way for life.

There’s an intrinsic intelligence of natural ecologies that scientists are only recently uncovering- so can we apply this new understanding of nature to the way we design and fabricate the built environment?

If we can borrow from these circular, biological systems that nature has operated in for millennia, we may be able to create built environments that operate in symbiosis with nature.

By doing so, we wouldn’t necessarily need to return to a lifestyle similar to our ancestors, but by utilizing technological innovation and merging it with the intrinsic intelligence of nature, it could be a way to continue the growth and well-being of both ecosystem and humanity- thereby reinstating a symbiotic coexistence with nature.

Katie: Could you dive into maybe why the architecture and construction industry today is not really in symbioses of nature or how it might be harming our environment?

Melissa: Something I think is also not largely known is that like the architectural and construction industry actually contributes to about 40 percent of carbon emissions worldwide and part of it is from building materials and construction, but the other part is to heat, cool, light, and power buildings, and most of that is also from fossil fuels. There’s a mentality that if we adopt these energy efficient measures we can fix everything, but we overlook this kind of root cause of energy addiction which is our separation from nature

Potential Solutions

Katie: Yes it sounds like there's actually quite a bit we can do in reforming the current industry to make constructing buildings a little bit more environmentally sound. Are there any existing techniques today that we could leverage?

Melissa: Yeah of course. It’s interesting actually, like there's the idea that connecting to nature in the built environment is actually rather clear, and it's actually a pretty ancient concept that actually has been the only way that humankind knew how to build for thousands of years. 

It’s what’s called Vernacular Architecture- a way of building that emerges in response to the unique climate, ecology, culture, and community of its specific location. Indigenous homes worldwide have long been heated and cooled naturally, embracing natural breezes and sunshine to heat, cool, and light the space to make their habitats comfortable for millenia. 

Ingenious, rather simple and passive techniques were used- for instance in desert climates, the use of evaporation of water was used to cool spaces, through openings in terracotta walls, or even through large wind towers. In both functionality and aesthetically, these buildings became an expression of the people and were unique to their place. 

Katie: It sounds like there's actually a lot we can learn from history. Is there anything that we can do today leverage some of these techniques to make our current cities more sustainable or our future buildings more sustainable? 

Melissa: On an urban scale there's a concept that's called a smart cities. The idea of a smart city is to integrate technology in all levels of urban infrastructure and public communication, such as traffic and public transportation systems, waste, water management, hospitals, schools etc- in order to improve the efficiency of operations across the city. Aspects of the smart city would ideally reorient the city away from cars, thereby returning space to pedestrians and trees, and integrate regeneratively designed buildings. 

There’s one in construction in Toronto- called Villiers Island by the Portlands, but it is a work in progress and much of it seems to be contingent on government engagement and funding.  

Katie: And what about on a smaller scale Sir within the architecture industry itself any standards for a building actual buildings?

Melissa: LEED is a certification program- it stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. There are various levels you can achieve based on how many sustainable metrics the building can integrate, typically including all parts of the design process from planning, to the construction of the building to the actual operation. For instance, the building I live in is considered ‘LEED Gold’, and what that means is that it integrates sustainability measures such as efficient water and energy use, optimized daylighting and indoor air quality, the use of renewable energy, etc. 

LEED is the first step in the industry towards a more sustainable way of building, but it’s only focused on the reduction of the negative environmental impacts caused by the built environment. However, there’s another certification that’s emerging that takes it a step further. There’s something called the Living Building Challenge.

Katie: That's really interesting. Could you tell me a little bit more about what the living building challenge is is?

Melissa: Yes so the living building challenge it's another form of certification but it’s “based on regeneration, buildings that can reanimate and renew the environment, for both the natural world and human communities.”  They should be able to generate more energy with renewables than they use, even grow food, incorporate biophilic design, and collect and treat all water on site- essentially remaining self-sufficient and remain within the resource limits of their site as opposed to extracting from places super far away to get resources.

Katie: That's really interesting! Would an example of something like this be, for example a community garden or something on a roof?

Melissa: Yeah that could be definitely one of the aspects that could be integrated. Actually what you're mentioning is called the green roof and they’re starting to be implemented in more buildings around the world. We could definitely do with a lot more because they would basically reduce the temperature of a building, potentially provide community gardening and integrate or invite more biodiversity directly in the city. 

There’s something called urban island heat effect and the idea is that basically all this concrete asphalt we have and all these hard steps that we have in the city's heart are absorbing all the solar radiation and keeping it keeping the he trapped and even for hours after the sun sets. Obviously that's not beneficial for anyone in the city and by implementing green roofs we have all this horizontal real estate that we can essentially return back to nature for the benefit of both you know human occupants are individuals, other living beings and for the planet.

Katie: Are there examples of these living buildings out there in the world today?

Melissa: Yes there's actually about 350 of these buildings in various stages of certification today so they are kind of scattered throughout North America I believe, but given how big the world is we still have a long way to go. 

Katie: It certainly sounds like there's actually a lot of opportunity for more buildings like this to be built. To clarify one thing, is the living building challenge or living buildings be considered a part of the umbrella of regenerative architecture?

Melissa:  Living building challenge I guess is the industry's kind of approach to what regenerative design could be but basically the idea of regenerative design is basically about creating more than the building consumes so creating more outputs than inputs.

Katie: Can you maybe clarify for us what you mean by inputs versus outputs here?

Melissa: Yeah of course. An input would be, for example, the construction of the actual building itself. In the living building challenge, one of the ways they limit inputs is you’re only allowed to build on previously developed sites and not on any virgin land, or you're not allowed to for instance use of materials with toxic materials or chemicals in it and would be highly suggested to use local materials. If there was timber it would be up for approval by the forest stewardship council. There's also you know the operational side of it where what I mentioned earlier how could create more than it consumes so something like that would be creating more or you're creating more energy on site then it consumes. 

Katie: So does that look like for example adding solar panels to your building?

Melissa: Yeah exactly so it's about using like what the renewable energy technology that we have today, which does come in the form of solar panels but there's also like the wind energy and all other forms of renewable energy that could be drawn directly from on site but also from props like the local power grid and at the ideas to deck to create more of that energy directly on site and then you'll be able to contribute to our communities. 

Katie: It also sounds like whenever we construct things, we do have to extract something from the environment so we can't totally be non extractive in our construction process. Is that correct? 

Melissa: Yes, there’s definitely that kind of aspect, we do have to acknowledge that you know everything about all the built environments. The modules are used to construct them, they do come from the land and are borrowed. It’s a hard question because I feel like there's always going to be a level of extraction because that's just the way. There’s initiative that needs to be taken to find alternative material sourcing and there is this whole like field of materials science which is actually seeking to do this. 

I think every industry leader everyone in that industry should be advocating for that today yeah so it sounds like a really great vision is there a reason why they're not more of our buildings are for example living building certified under this regenerative architecture of Bella they're living buildings I think they're like a vision of what regenerative architecture should be and it's like a really great step in the industry towards achieving what regenerative design can be but it is still I find like a niece in the industry and there's a whole point and like trying to. Be able to find clients and designers who are willing to try something new and to take that step forward because you know it is actually quite if the budget allows for it's becoming more economically feasible and you know the question over general architecture it is a vision so it's it's definitely still a work in progress and there is a lot that the industry has already identified as like unsustainable and destructive and this is kind of the first step towards that end I think whatever is being established with living buildings now is just encouraging and inspiring because that just means that we can continue to build forward and better the standard and make it more affordable a globally. 

Katie: So how can we make this more of a reality for Toronto or for the world today?

Melissa: So I think one of the most powerful things we can do, both in the industry and individually, is that there could be a sizable societal shift in our perception of the built environment- that the structures we build are human habitats, ecosystems made for us, by us. In the industry, individuals need to take responsibility, to take a stance in demanding change- political change. When economies don’t allow for this, innovation in design becomes the key.

And then another thing I would say is like to be simply be even more aware of become more aware of your immediate surroundings, like how it's affecting you like you're your own bedroom, your kitchen living space offices. Is there any way that you can make them different or to be more cognisant of the room if it is dimly lit or like you don't have enough access to air flow. It doesn't have to be that way and it's actually diminishing some of your life. 

Your well-being is actually a lot more contingent on your immediate surroundings than you might think and that architects designers have the ability to help every individual and every space that they inhabit to flourish. 

Katie: That's really interesting. How can we make living buildings to to exist, can you expand on that?

Melissa: That's an interesting thing because something like regenerative building or look like a living building it does require a certain amount of upfront investment and they need like clients who would have like a long term review long term view on returns.

Incentives and policy changes are happening and a growing up bunch of experts see this as just hurdles that can be overcome and there's actually been a lot of positive regulatory changes that have been made but in some cities like Toronto the industry is really dominated by economic restraints and developers basically there's almost like a singular focus on maximizing square footage and return on investment so unfortunately that leaves no room to consider an acknowledge the fact that human beings would be occupying the spaces for 8 years and decades to come.

Katie: So one more thing before we end off if we were to have these living buildings or regenerative architecture be a part of our everyday lives. What does that feel like?

Melissa: I have a thought experiment like imagine yourself sitting in an office or like probably in a small office fluorescent lighting, really small windows and it's kind of stuffy and you're like next to this person that smells really bad. Versus for example a place in a room that's filled with dappled light and shadows you can feel the breeze on your skin, the birds and the trees when you're inside. Which one would you rather be in? 

Katie: I think that's a great point I know which I would certainly prefer. Thanks for sharing with us this inspiring vision of regenerative architecture and how that could impact us not only in helping solve the climate crisis but also just making our everyday lives feel a little bit more pleasant. 

Melissa: Yeah thanks so much I had a great time.