The STARfish app: New sustainable design tool to aid net-positive sustainability outcomes

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2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the first UN Conference on Environment and Sustainable Development. Sustainability has since become the buzzword for our times. Yet, in the intervening years, the global population has increased by 50% – and biodiversity has decreased by 50%. Architect, lawyer, and urban planner Dr Janis Birkeland, from the University of Melbourne in Australia, argues it’s time for radical change. The originator of Positive Development Theory has now developed a new sustainable design tool, the STARfish app, to help create urban environments with net-positive sustainability gains.
Architect, urban planner, and lawyer Dr Janis Birkeland believes it is high time for a paradigm shift in thinking about how green buildings are designed and constructed, in order to prevent humanity from exhausting the planet’s natural resources and nature. With many decades of experience in sustainable design and development, the Honorary Professorial Fellow at the University of Melbourne in Australia has long argued that radical change is needed, as part of a broader move to ‘Positive Development’. This includes going beyond designing green buildings that aim for zero harm to ‘net-positive’ design, which produces more social and ecological benefits than no building at all.

As previously reported by Research Features, Birkeland’s theory of Positive Development explains why existing approaches to sustainable development have been ineffective, as outlined her in an eponymous book of 2008. Her latest textbook, Net-Positive Design and Sustainable Urban Development, takes the argument further and shows how cities and buildings, despite their enormous impacts, can increase nature and social justice in real terms. The book is accompanied by a new open-source, digital aid – the ‘STARfish’ app at, The STARfish is a design tool that marks a radical departure from current sustainable design standards, which only aim for improvements over existing practices and conditions.

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Sustainable architecture: the challenges

The problem, as Birkeland sees it, is that urban development has already exceeded the earth’s regenerative and ecological carrying capacity. As she explains: ‘Our contemporary “solutions” – recycling, restoration, adaptation, regeneration, and resilience – cannot, in themselves, achieve net sustainability gains.’ While steadily improving, most ‘sustainable’ buildings merely tweak conventional building templates, and only aim to ‘do no harm’. Because they overlook the potential of net-positive design, they ‘neither increase natural and social life support systems nor provide net public benefits’.

Most so-called sustainable buildings fail to compensate for the full damage to nature caused in creating them. However ‘green’ they claim to be, they often ignore core sustainability issues, such as biodiversity and ethics, and ‘measure the wrong things in the wrong ways’. For instance, most designers still consider a reduction in negative impacts, such as ‘50% less water’, as positive. Similarly, most call buildings ‘zero carbon’ if they only use renewable energy after construction when, according to Birkeland, buildings could and should sequester the carbon emitted in their production.

Birkeland argues that using conventional buildings or current conditions as a yardstick simply encourages designers to mitigate impacts, rather than to increase sustainability and future options. For instance, a ‘sustainable’ building may add on greenery or regenerate what remains of the landscape after construction, but this is not ‘nature positive’. Hence, she has proposed a number of building-integrated ecosystems such as Green Scaffolding: structures that wrap natural systems around existing buildings to provide a wide range of building and environmental functions, such as passive solar energy, pollution control, and urban biodiversity.

“The STARfish app is a digital sustainable design tool that helps users to develop urban environments that create net public sustainability gains.”

In addition to failings in design, Birkeland finds that the green building rating tools, which are increasingly used to assess developments, fail to provide an accurate metric of sustainability and set the bar too low. Rather than seeking true sustainability gains, rating tools reinforce the many outdated premises of sustainable building, such as ‘the illusion that the damage from the conventional industrial building model can be cancelled out by reduction, recycling, value-adding or regeneration’. For instance, such tools assess issues in isolation from one another and largely only help designers to choose more efficient products or design features. They are also retrospective, so they cannot inform preliminary design – the most impactful stage of development. In essence, ‘they are tools for decision-making (choosing among existing options) – rather than design (creating new options)’.

Brian A Jackson/

The STARfish app

According to Birkeland, current design standards, development practices and building rating tools fail to address the scale of the sustainability crisis. ‘The real race should be to save the planet and humanity’, she says. To help solve the problem, she developed a unique net-positive design app, called ‘STARfish’. This digital sustainable design tool helps users to develop urban environments that create net public sustainability gains.

Using a positive prism, this app reverses virtually all aspects of ‘sustainable’ design and assessment tools, whether prescriptive or subjective. Primarily geared towards architecture professionals, educators, university students, and young graduates, the app is in effect an interactive, collaborative game that challenges designers to create the most sustainable design possible. STARfish can be downloaded here – free of charge. Instructions for its use are embedded in the app as well as on the website.

The app requires users to consider a holistic range of sustainable design criteria and indicators for the development they are creating. These include: conventional design issues, such as energy and efficiency; health and quality of life; planning and spatial relations; embodied carbon and sequestration; ecology and biodiversity; and materials and waste. The app represents and displays the input data in starfish-shaped diagrams for each set of impact factors. For example, the materials and waste category is assessed according to factors such as the development’s construction waste; recycling systems; use of biodegradable materials; use of modular or durable parts; end-of-use ‘ecocycling’; and multifunctional uses.

The STARfish app presents assessments using a sliding scale, which translate into points along the radii from the centre. These create coloured polygonal shapes which record the anticipated negative (red), restorative (green), and net-positive (blue) sustainability outcomes.

The app also considers a wealth of factors usually neglected by previous metrics for ostensibly ‘sustainable’ design projects or products, such as social and environmental justice. The basic criteria have fixed benchmarks in the app. However, the app also allows additional impact factors and criteria to be added as satellite diagrams as appropriate to the development, such as transport or building management – as long as the basic rules for new criteria are followed. Rules for new impact factors are explained by the app, and designers must justify any new criteria, benchmarks, weightings, or scores.

One of the basic departures from other tools is that the ecological baseline – zero – is set at pre-urban or pre-industrial conditions depending on the bioregion, and the social baseline is regional conditions. A Positive Development must increase both in a whole-system sense. This requires net-positive design which, unlike other tools, STARfish can register.

Assessment is based on a sliding scale between defined benchmarks using a ‘slider’. Each design element may have negative (-10 to below 0), restorative (0), and net-positive (above 0 to +10) sustainability outcomes. The sliders translate into points along the radii from the STARfish centre. These create coloured polygonal shapes which record the anticipated negative (red), restorative (green), and net-positive (blue) sustainability outcomes. This means that negative impacts, indicators of poor design, are never concealed by offsets or mitigation measures.

Most buildings, even those termed ‘sustainable’, fail to compensate for the damage they cause to nature they cause. GoncharukMaks/

The ‘satellite’ diagrams, and any satellite diagrams added by users, feed into the main STARfish, which calculates the weightings given to the constituent parts to reveal an overall sustainability score. Users can instantly visualise the effect that alternative design features would have on other factors and the development as a whole. The aim is to achieve a higher, if not net-positive, total score by increasing sustainability gains throughout all stages of the development’s lifecycle.

Some advantages of STARfish

In a new book chapter, Birkeland outlines the app’s numerous advantages over traditional tools. She says that – unlike quantitative or qualitative green building rating tools – the STARfish provides a whole-system view of development outcomes. The app helps in identifying opportunities for eco-positive, adaptable design and crediting their multiple benefits. As Birkeland explains: ‘STARfish treats buildings as complex systems and helps to visualise the cumulative supply chain impacts, project lifecycles and spill-over effects in different categories simultaneously’.

“Sustainability is a design problem – and with a paradigm shift to Positive Development, environmentally and socially positive outcomes can be achieved rapidly.”

Birkeland also notes that current building tools incentivise new construction, even though new buildings cause more environmental damage than renovations. However, the STARfish app is also suitable for the renovation of existing buildings and sites because it can be used to identify local social and ecological deficits as well as compare current performance to a proposed eco-positive retrofit.

STARfish is also more suitable for the assessment of mixed-use buildings, and developments that combine inside and outside space, both of which are hard to assess using current building tools. For example, spatial resources such as an attached greenhouse or atrium can have multiple social and ecological benefits, but current tools only assess them in relation to standard building functions as insulation or air quality. As Birkeland comments: ‘STARfish can credit any negative, restorative, or positive impacts of spatial resources that affect human or environmental health’.


In addition, STARfish forces transparency and education by recording the user’s reasoning and input data which are automatically exported into a formatted report. This not only informs stakeholders and citizens but allows other designers and developers to learn from the user’s experience in order to expedite genuine progress. The STARfish app is already in use by designers hoping to complete the first verifiably net-positive development.

Birkeland says that the STARfish app advances sustainable architecture by helping designers to focus on social and environmental ‘reparation’ rather than just regeneration. It shows whole-system outcomes and the benefits of net-positive design, rather than just the balance of various inputs and outputs, or costs and benefits. Compared to existing sustainable design tools, the STARfish app ‘measures the distance to sustainability rather than the distance from bad development’. In short, it helps people to see that sustainability is a design problem – and with a paradigm shift to Positive Development, environmentally and socially positive outcomes can be rapidly achieved.

What feedback have you had from the app’s early adopters?
The responses I have had are very positive, because those who investigate it are inquisitive and motivated to help the needy and nature. Few lay citizens yet grasp the Sustainability Paradox: that construction and reconstruction is necessary to save the planet. The potential public benefits of multifunctional, adaptable, and eco-productive design are still greatly underestimated. However, the problem is the solution. If we incentivise and measure the numerous positive impacts of good design, we can convert cities from ecological consumers into producers of ever-increasing ecological wealth, social justice, and experiential awe. Serious critique, questions, or engagement are invited.



  • Birkeland, J, (2022) Nature Positive: Interrogating sustainable design frameworks for their potential to deliver eco-positive outcomes. Urban Science, 6(2), 1–29.
  • Birkeland, J, (2022) Open access software for net-positive design. In: Droege, P. editor, Intelligent Environments: Advanced Systems for a Healthy Planet, Chapter 16, ISBN: 9780128202470 (In press).
  • Birkeland, J, (2020) Net-Positive Design and Sustainable Urban Development. New York: Routledge.
  • Birkeland, J, (2018) Challenging policy barriers in sustainable development. In: Dymitrow, M & Halfacree, K, (eds), Bulletin of Geography. Socio-economic Series, 40, 41–56. Toruń: Nicolaus Copernicus University.
  • Birkeland, J, (2008) Positive Development: From Vicious Circles to Virtuous Cycles through Built Environment Design. London: Routledge.

Research Objectives

Dr Janis Birkeland developed an open-source net-positive design tool, the STARfish app, to set genuinely sustainable standards for urban planning and architecture. The STARfish app reverses all the conventional concepts, criteria, and indicators used in green or regenerative building rating tools. STARfish can be downloaded at:


Birkeland has dedicated her adult life to advocating for the many social and ecological dimensions of sustainability. She is currently an Honorary Professorial Fellow in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning at the University of Melbourne, Australia. Birkeland has written around 150 papers and originated Positive Development Theory and Net-positive Design.

Dr Janis Birkeland


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