The STARFish App

STARfish aids professionals, educators and students in designing for net socio-ecological sustainability gains. It is the only tool that corresponds with net-positive sustainability. The net-positive baseline is sustainability, so ‘positive’ means improvements over pre-settlement, industrial, urban conditions (as relevant to the issue). Other tools assess performance relative to existing codes, norms, site conditions or typical buildings, etc., so ‘positive’ means only better than before construction. Guidelines are provided for modifying STARfish to suit special problems or priorities. A working example is provided by SoftUrb, an NGO, that modified STARfish to focus on socio-cultural issues in disadvantaged communities.

1. What does the STARfish app do?

The STARfish app is a logical outcome of Positive Development (PD) theory and analysis. It is one of several PD methods introduced to reverse failings in contemporary approaches to sustainable governance, planning, decision making, design and assessment. It emphasizes reason and ethics over rules and numerology. Although the app is meant to be self-explanatory, a basic understanding of PD theory and practice, and net-positive design concepts is necessary. The theory is straightforward, but it challenges all aspects of existing (even progressive) thought in sustainable design and development. The paradigm shift underlying the STARfish app is briefly described here.

The STARfish app reverses the structure and concepts underlying certification and assessment tools and implements a genuine sustainability design standard. This is made possible by distinguishing restorative and regenerative actions from net-positive actions. Net positive means increases in whole-system (global) sustainability. Few if any tools incentivize, let alone quantify even positive impacts but label reductions in negatives as positive. Some simply add positive and negative impacts together, which conceals adverse outcomes that might have been avoided by design. In STARfish diagrams and metrics, negative impacts remain visible. The STARfish is briefly explained below. The following resources are also available:

  • The video may be the quickest way to get started, which is found here.
  • Instructions are embedded in the app itself and also in the text below as well as here.
  • Short (and long) articles describing the app can be found in Further Reading.
  • The book Net-Positive Design 1 dedicates Chapters 15-16 to explaining the tool in depth. If you cannot access this or other materials, just send a note via the Contact Box.
  • STARfish can be modified by the user to accommodate different needs, contexts and circumstances – but not weakened. New criteria and benchmarks can be added by the user if they follow the guidelines (see section 6 below) to ensure the standards are not lowered.
  • Any suggestions, clarifications or feedback are welcome via the Contact Box or email Dr Birkeland with technical or philosophical questions at [email protected]

The STARfish can be downloaded free of charge from this website. Attribution is required and STARfish may only be used for non-profit public interest purposes. The app is free for at least one year. After that, you may need to subscribe to be entitled to upgrades and design support. To maintain the integrity of the PD concept, and avoid misunderstandings, the best approach is to communicate and collaborate with this organization for free assistance.

2. How is the STARfish app different?

The systematic critique of building rating and marketing tools that led to the STARfish app had revealed that these tools perpetuate the (mechanistic, anthropocentric, industrial, etc.) ‘dominant paradigm’ (DP). They have served important purposes but could slow the transition to genuine sustainability. The analyses of structural and conceptual problems with green rating schemes and other assessment tools are examined extensively in PD books and papers. A table with differences between STARfish and most rating tools summarizes how their failings and anomalies are addressed here. A few points are revisited below.
Contemporary certification tools ignore impacts that appear too difficult to measure. Many socio-ecological impacts, such as those in the STARfish, are still largely excluded. There are increasing efforts by these certification companies to incorporate sustainability, as opposed to efficiency. However, the amendments are far too slow. Also, they also use rules, thresholds and boundaries to avoid assessing actual impacts (eg. extra points if more than 50% of construction waste is recycled). Further, scores are based on relative efficiency alone (eg. extra points if energy usage is 30% less than typical buildings). Such measures reduce the incentive to maximize public benefits or counteract mass extinctions and growing disparities of wealth and health.
Added costs are the traditional excuses for excluding meaningful sustainability issues. However, it is ‘change’ itself that costs time, effort, or money – not good design. Of course, a ‘blue sky’ design that begins from first principles and completely breaks the mould is usually more expensive, even if it should logically cost far less. This is due, however, to the inertia or path dependency of existing systems of construction and the resistance to change by many industry stakeholders and sustainable building consultants. Net-positive outcomes need not cost more since they only require multifunctional, adaptable design. STARfish incentivizes and quantifies net-positive design for free.
Due to antiquated concepts and tools, ordinary planners and architects do not look for design synergies that create multifunctional gains for nature and society. For example, many green projects are based on sustainable building precedents. This is a sure way to get better scores on rating tools, However, most model buildings only have negative or less negative environmental impacts. Increasingly, sustainable buildings are ‘value adding’ green design features that mitigate, restore, or regenerate the damage caused by the building. This is really offsetting because there is no net gain in global sustainability. (In PD, again, zero represents sustainable conditions not neutral ones.)
In short, the STARfish can facilitate the transition to genuinely sustainable design and development. It does so by correcting dozens of anomalies in current assessment frameworks, design methods, and processes that limit net-positive design outcomes. It can incorporate lifecycle assessment methods, BIM, design guidelines, building certification or rating tools, and so on, while addressing their sustainability shortcomings. These analyses, rules or principles are no longer black boxes, but are incorporated in the justifications for the scores. For instance, STARfish:
Transcends the ‘warm/soft versus cold/hard’ dualisms in the dominant paradigm (DP) that led to transactional technocracy. The DP prioritized industrial growth and reductionist efficiency over environmental quality and ethics-based relationships. The DP version of ‘efficiency’ is destroying our life-support systems efficiently.
Bridges the cultural divide between design thinking (creating) and the dominant reductionist, binary decision-making paradigm (choosing) that has handicapped efforts at designing better futures. DP Decision making is a linear system – even when made ‘circular’ – whereas design is, ideally, open-systems thinking.
Integrates quantitative and qualitative measurements which are both essential. Quantitative tools tend to simply count whatever already has numbers, even if unimportant or somewhat arbitrary. Qualitative green building assessment tools are basically just another form of traditional, subjective design review processes.
Incentivises design synergies and measures multifunctional gains and adaptability as well as cumulative losses. Adaptable design means that it accommodates future retrofitting to meet unexpected needs and social or environmental crises. Much waste is due to having to demolish durable, unalterable buildings.
Is educational because it requires explaining the benefits or shortcomings of the design proposal in evidenced-based ways. Since the automated Design Report provides reasons and calculations, others can learn from good design ideas or suggest improvements. Hence, it is a means of environmental conflict resolution.
Avoids greenwashing through its unique metrics that prevents impact reduction being counted as positive. This is achieved by setting the baseline (zero) at sustainable conditions for each impact factor and separating the idea of restoration (which is offsetting) from creating net-positive sustainability gains.
For a more in-depth discussion on why the app is designed the way it is, see Net-Positive Design (2020) 1. Another book has a chapter that lists dozens of basic structural and conceptual problems with conventional design and assessment tools and explains how the STARfish corrects each of these deficiencies .

3. Can STARfish be adapted to special purposes?

STARfish can be adapted to unique issues or local needs with the help of this organization. An example is provided by ‘SPACE’ or Softurb Participation And Cultural Engagement STARfish. SPACE is an initiative of SoftUrb, and initiative to improve urban living environments in São Paulo, Brazil at Facultad de Arquitectura, Diseño y Urbanismo de la Universidad de la República, Montevideo, Uruguay).
SPACE uses STARfish but heavily weights it toward socio-cultural and community-building criteria. It retains all the sustainable design criteria but does not enable users to change the weightings of 40% for socio-cultural criteria. This is because its immediate priority of SoftUrb is to create more meaningful community engagement and collaborative action in urban planning and design. The weightings of other criteria can still be altered if the users present good reasons. Softurb describes itself this way:

“SoftUrb is a platform for civic innovation and social impact. We create initiatives to help civil society organizations finance their community-based projects and activities, promote citizen participation to enable the green transition, and prepare communities for the future challenges that cities will face. Softurb brings together and connects community forces in order to make the city a fairer, more inclusive, and resilient living environment. We believe that many small actions can achieve system-wide changes that are more resilient and adaptable than the past one-size-fits-all urbanism which has generally ignored the local context, traditions, values, and knowledge.”

For further information, contact Matias Gatti, Softurb, via [email protected]

The SPACE save file that can be opened with the STARFish app can be downloaded here.

4. What challenges does AI bring?

Although contemporary ‘sustainable’ building rating and design tools are voluntary now, they are increasingly being adopted into law. This will delay systems change and only mitigate the designed-in damage of new construction. Even progressive rating tools fail to envisage design that can compensate for past environmental losses or social inequities, let alone increase justice and nature overall. They reward relative improvements, not increases in social and ecological life-support systems. However, these tools will soon be replaced by artificial Intelligence (AI) anyway. We need to turn AI into a solution, or it will become a barrier.

AI will measure and synthesize the vast range of issues in many dimensions that architects were once supposed to deal with. AI is already beginning to transform architectural practices in large developments. However, the criteria and metrics used will continue to be drawn from old paradigm sources, such as those in contemporary rating tools. Anyone asking ChatGPT about sustainability issues and solutions will notice that its sources of information are very mainstream, known as ‘weak sustainability’. These weak standards do little to slow global degradation. Although AI will be able to manage technical issues, obsolete socio-ecological criteria will be locked in or excluded entirely – unless net-positive standards are incorporated.

Genuinely ethics-based and nature-positive institutional and physical structures cannot be chosen until they are designed. Yet sustainable designers and advocates seem to be waiting for consumer demand or legal requirements changing. Politicians and the lay public cannot be expected to reconfigure the decision systems that shape built environment. The flaws in DP ‘sustainable‘ planning and building frameworks, methods and tools means that urban environments will only be ‘less unsustainable’. Every day, more irreversible harm is being added to the built environment in the name of sustainability. Designers must accept more responsibility and advocate for higher standards, such as those set by PD.

5. How to modify the STARfish app

STARfish assists in finding multiple design synergies and encourages design that can adapt to unexpected or changing conditions. Most design review processes and tools allow for flexibility to avoid ‘hardships’ to developers that are wedded to business-as-usual. In STARfish, flexibility is built in but does not allow for a lowering of standards. Since there can be good reasons for designers to add new criteria and benchmarks or change the weightings, STARfish allows modifications. However, to protect the integrity of the net-positive standards, it has several basic first tier criteria that cannot be changed (except via Birkeland).
The STARfish user can add project-relevant impact factors, benchmarks and weightings in the second or third tier of the criteria. This is because each project is unique. For example, a project in a highly-polluted urban area will need more pollution solutions, and a project with substantial but unavoidable embodied water will need more water collection and treatment criteria. There are principles for modifying criteria or weightings, so the user must also explain any variations or additions. Stakeholders, including the local community, are then technically able to debate the value and efficacy of the changes before the project is built or let out to tender.

Below is a general guide for adding benchmarks for new impact categories or a new Satellite STARfish. This is to ensure that net-positive standards do not become like the rubbery criteria in other tools. For example, some tools falsely label things like recycling all construction waste, or purifying all water polluted by the building, as net positive. In reality, these actions only remediate the added damage done by the proposed development. Once again, STARfish net-positive benchmarks represent increases in whole-system sustainability. Mere improvements over pre- or post-construction conditions, construction norms, customary practices and existing thresholds or standards, are seldom net positive in a whole-system sense.

The blue slider is for net-positive design elements or actions. The green slider is used for a restorative or regenerative actions. A net positive outcome is where the red, green and blue sliders add up to greater than the ‘zero impact circle’ on the diagram. This circle is where zero is ‘sustainable’ and not simply a balance of good and bad. Benchmarks are already established for the impact factors, but the user can add more. The slider can be positioned anywhere along the spectrum between these benchmarks, according to the designer’s judgement since reasons must be provided. If an existing negative, restorative or net-positive benchmark is not relevant to a specific case, the weightings can be changed.

STARfish can be seen as a ‘game’ where the goal is to escape the inner (zero) circle on the diagram. Where there will be a new (multiple function, adaptable and positive) public function or benefit it can go on a new Leg (impact factor). New Legs and criteria are easy for the user to add onto the STARfish app. If there is a new set of related criteria, such as might be the case with a project potentially affecting an aboriginal community, school, or heritage area and so on, a whole new Satellite can easily be added. The following general rules apply to adding new benchmarks.

Feedback is always welcome, and the built-in criteria can be amended accordingly.

6. General rules for adding new benchmarks

A list of the benchmarks embedded in the STARfish app are currently available in text form in English and Spanish and can be downloaded here. The Spanish version of the STARfish that does not have the 40% weighting or socio-cultural factors is also available:

Where special circumstances require, new criteria or sets of related criteria (Satellites) can be added to STARfish. Reasons must be given, which will appear in the automated Design Report. General rules apply, which are listed below:

Negative Impacts:

Restorative or regenerative impacts:

Net-positive impacts