Profile in Innovation: The Regeneration of Bill Reed

Bill Reed

Profile in Innovation: This article is one in a series that will highlight new and innovative technologies and profile people making a mark in support of the passive house community’s efforts to decarbonize buildings.

By Lia Grainger

The father of green building certifications in North America wants you to build a field of positive energy

When it comes to green building, Bill Reed literally wrote the book on it. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find a seminal green building guideline or system that Reed’s work hasn’t influenced. He’s the co-author of the foundational “Integrative Design Guide to Green Building,” a co-developer of the LEED green building rating system, and a founding board of director of the US Green Building Council. Yet talk to him today, and scorecards and certifications are far from top of mind.

“Regeneration is about building a field of energy, and that’s a much better attractor than a checklist,” says Reed.

A trailblazer his entire life, Reed is now at the forefront of the regenerative development movement. Regeneration moves beyond sustainability and restoration, examining the integrated systems of a place as an evolving whole. Traditional development, planning and building practices compartmentalize communities, says Reed, making it impossible to see the patterns that reveal that community’s potential. Creating a regenerative community means examining it as a whole, ever-evolving living system. Today, Reed is a principal at Regenesis, where he and his team have been working for almost three decades to hone and expand regenerative design practices.

“The easiest way to understand it is to think about a person,” says Reed. “We don’t look at a person as a bunch of separate organs and parts — the liver, the skeleton, the skin — we understand them as a whole.”

Reed found his calling early: he credits the texts of historian and sociologist Lewis Mumford with inspiring an obsession with regional and urban planning all the way back in Grade 8.

“I was inspired by his prescience about the automobile, how it would destroy the city — it’s done that,” Says Reed. “It was one the main reasons I went into this field,” 

Reed’s passion led him to pursue a degree in architecture, but his college years left him disappointed with the shortfalls he saw in urban planning’s fundamental structures and values.

“It made no sense, it was all about zoning and economic and political issues — no one was focusing on the quality of life of the people actually living in the place,” says Reed.

His disillusionment led Reed to a profound realization: sustainability was the key to creating quality of life. Yet the concept of sustainability was almost entirely absent in the field. Undeterred, Reed found his way to like minded designers and developers and became a key player in the passive solar movement. Yet even among amenable colleagues, Reed couldn’t help but push for more.

“I remember sitting in a passive solar meeting in DC in the ‘90s, and saying to the group, ‘This is so passive. We need something active.’”

That action would become LEED. Industry leaders at the time were looking for ways to define green building, a system to integrate energy efficiency and all the other issues that come with architecture and development. Reed was one of six green building leaders who developed the LEED system. At the time it was transformative, forcing builders and developers to shift their thinking from business as usual to asking questions about sustainability and pursuing concrete benchmarks for certification.

“To the extent that it makes us think more rigorously it’s been successful, but it’s been a failure in defining sustainability,” says Reed of the system he co-authored. “It defines a level of greenness that aspires towards sustainability, but it does not explain how to develop regenerative relationships with the living systems we live within.”

Reed’s own move towards regenerative design practices happened in 1996 when he met members of the burgeoning Regenesis firm. The company had formed just one year earlier, and was quickly gaining a reputation for its innovations in living systems theory and design. Within a few years, Reed was working almost exclusively for Regenesis. 

In the early days, Reed expected his clients would be nonprofits and governments, the organizational bodies often responsible for managing large and complicated places and systems.

“Zero,” says Reed. “We got absolutely no traction there.” Instead, it was developers who most frequently invested in regenerative design consulting. “These are riverboat gamblers, they’re risk takers. They’re smart,” says Reed.

Today, governments and institutions are picking up the regenerative mantle — Reed just finished a contract with Destination Canada. He even received a call from the Club of Rome requesting his regenerative perspective on the Palestine-Israel conflict.

Reed has consulted on hundreds of projects around the world over the years, but it was a Canadian wastewater treatment plant that has perhaps won him the most accolades. Reed worked with the Lions Gate Secondary Wastewater Treatment plant in North Vancouver, B.C., to integrate the work of more than 20 design firms and the desires of more than 24 communities to create a plan that would turn an undesirable neighbour into a community amenity complete with urban gardens and public spaces for meetings, education and outreach. The project has become an international example of how regenerative thinking can reconcile conflicts between a public agency and community stakeholders, while simultaneously improving long-term environmental outcomes. 

“It’s a real example of integration,” says Reed.

Today, much of Reed’s work is in education. The Regenesis Institute for Regenerative Thinking is the educational arm of the Regenesis firm, and it has a lofty slogan: “It’s time for humanity to develop the capability to regenerate life on earth.”

“We need to build the capacity and capability of people to coevolve with the living system that supports us,” Reed says, “And this means building the capacity of the people that we’re teaching to do this work.”

No easy task, but Reed has witnessed the capacity of communities to learn to live in harmony with their evolving environments time and time again; he seems optimistic that we’re up for the job.

Though he wrote the book on green building, Bill’s greatest work will endure far longer than any single LEED certified building or project. With regeneration, he’s building communities ready to evolve with their changing environments for generations to come.
Passive House Canada Conference, Keynote Speaker Bill Reed, Principle at Regenisis Group, June 17-19, 2024, Victoria

Join Keynote Speaker Bill Reed in a 3-hour Workshop

We are pleased to announce our Keynote Speaker for the Passive House Canada Conference is Bill Reed of Regenesis Group, taking place at the University of Victoria from June 17-19, 2024, under the theme “By Design!: Transform the Built Environment.” He will be speaking at our conference opening, as well as conducting a three-hour workshop for our attendees.

Bill is an internationally recognized pioneer, practitioner, teacher, and authority in integrative systems design, sustainability, and regenerative community planning and implementation. Bill is a principal in Regenesis and The Place Fund – organizations working to lift human activities into full integration and evolution with living systems.

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