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Adam’s Awakening: Adam Cohen on Regeneration, Decolonization, and Love in the Built Environment

Crisis. Crisis. Crisis. Most of us explore the concept of semantic satiation at a young age. As children, our furious curiosity investigates this phenomenon, showing us that repetition of a word causes it to lose meaning temporarily. The term “crisis,” defined as a time of extreme difficulty or danger, is frequently plastered across social media platforms and official reports. It’s expelled from podcasts, news bulletins, election campaigns, and conversation, but it no longer holds heavy in the air. We have become numb to the crisis. Which one, you ask? The environmental, housing, climate, financial, energy, health, to name a few. Many argue that the average person has little power to influence these issues. The sheer mental toll of such large and complex problems is uncomfortable to bear. It is natural for us to shy away. Fortunately, the world is dotted with visionaries who rise to tackle these problems head-on. Passive Buildings Canada is lucky enough to employ one of these extraordinary people - introducing, Adam Cohen.

Adam has over 40 years of experience working in the built environment. Wearing the hat of an architect, builder, energy engineer, contractor, manufacturer, mentor, and educator, he has earned the respect and admiration the PBC community holds for him. His broad perspective and cutting-edge designs allowed Adam to formulate a robust integrated delivery system that consistently delivers buildings on time and within budget. While Adam adopted systems thinking early in his career, his upbringing in the Washington suburbs and decades residing in bible-belt South-western Virginia influenced his views of the world.

In 2018, The Edmund Hillary Institute of New Zealand turned Adam's views upside down. Despite being a leader in his industry, Adam was, both figuratively and literally, constrained to "thinking inside the box" - delivering floors, walls, and roofs. Like most of us, Adam was starkly aware of the global crises but didn’t know how to help beyond the small silo of passive buildings. The weight of the climate crisis and other social issues left him with little hope. His induction to the Edmund Hillary Fellowship (EHF) tore down his reality, dissolving the philosophies he used to build his career. He was introduced to indigenous Maori elders who discussed the concepts of regeneration, abundance, and love, which are weaved into their social fabric.

The 10-day induction into EHF left Cohen questioning the role of the built environment in western society and how it could be redefined to alleviate our environmental and social issues. He took the concepts of regeneration (healing), abundance (gratitude and the concept of enough), and love (beloved community) and conceptualized them as the moral foundations of an alternative society. Adam then questioned - How would this alternate society deal with the environmental and social dilemmas we face here in 2021?

The results of this theoretical thought experiment were unconventional but inspiring. Adam envisioned a world that centred around land decommodification, societal decolonization, and shared intellectual property. He began deconstructing his own life, rearranging it around these new core principles. He refused to work on projects that lay claim to the land, stopped signing non-disclosure agreements, and began sharing his knowledge. Most importantly, Adam heavily educated himself on the Haudenosaunee, one of the indigenous people of the lands where he currently resides. To his delight, he found many of his ideas for a reformed built environment were utilized by the Haudenosaunee predating the colonization of the Americas. Their communally structured longhouses were the epitome of the regenerative society Adam now envisioned. Finally, his challenge emerged, and Adam set out to redefine the home from its current economic engine status to a place of safety and connection.

Decolonization of his own life brought renowned insights for Adam. This way of thinking released him from the shackles of modernity, a process he's vowed to carry with him and preach. He is currently dedicating his time to personal projects which embody the principles of regeneration, abundance, and love. While these concepts could be considered esoteric, Cohen is successfully integrating them into built environment and climate solutions.

Adam's current personal project, The Healing Hive, is gaining momentum through collaboration with Passive Buildings Canada. He's taking his earlier exploration of decolonization and introducing it to the built environment and industry professionals. While Adam did create an integrated delivery system that largely contributed to his professional success, he insists that his ability to open and blend traditional industry silos built on iron-clad trust with his colleagues is the real reason behind his achievements. The Healing Hive takes high-performance industry professionals and teaches them trust-based integrated project delivery methods while emphasizing the significance of communication and decolonization for better buildings.

Adam is also currently collaborating with his connections in Australia, New Zealand, the USA, and Canada on The Human Nest Project. This project aims to shift the built environment from carbon source to sink through emission sequestration building components. Through this international project, Adam, his colleagues, and other think-tank organizations will explore the concepts of abundance and decolonization on a large scale. In total, Adam believes the adoption of his core principles - regeneration, abundance, and love - by building practitioners worldwide will allow them to realize their work’s environmental, economic, and social impacts. In addition, he hopes this inclusion of circular thinking will reshape the design and construction processes to include equity, justice, and diversity.

While Adam primarily focuses on built environment concerns, his overall attitude and drive to achieve a bi-cultural society are fundamental to addressing the global crises mentioned earlier. His awareness of the role that indigenous teaching plays in addressing the climate crisis derived from New Zealand's political and cultural scene. Their efforts to achieve a bi-cultural society have brought the country to a consensus on many environmental issues, and he believes other colonizer nations must adopt these approaches to make progress on the climate crisis. In Canada, conversations around decolonization are growing, but more vigorous efforts to integrate indigenous cultures are essential.

In the final moments of our interview, Adam expressed his sentiments on keeping hope during these bleak times. His efforts, my efforts, and your efforts to talk about decolonization and practice the principles of regeneration, abundance, and love in our personal and professional lives will make tomorrow a little brighter. Articles on the PBC website reflect the views of the author and not necessarily those of PBC.