Design philosophy Cradle to Cradle is set to emerge into the mainstream as part of our future design and build decisions, says Michael Willoughby
Cradle to Cradle (C2C): another addition to the jumble of letters that hang off the contemporary project like luggage labels? I am sure I wasn’t the only attendee at the RIBAJ’s half-day conference who had some misgivings about taking yet another buildings standard on board – and I only have to write about them.
However, as Professor Dr Michael Braungart, co-creator of the C2C certified product standard, spoke the letters expanded into an environmental design philosophy, a critiquing methodology – almost a moral system.
We discovered that C2C incorporates many principles beyond ‘simple’ materials reuse and the circular economy. These include everything from safe materials sourcing through renewable energy use to social fairness (see definition overleaf).
Braungart, a master of rhetoric, poked, prodded and tweaked us into relinquishing our Lutheran ideas about sustainability and climate change.
His overall message is that our approach to ‘saving the planet’ is insufficient, based on fuzzy thought and shot through with quasi-religiosity. He wants us to understand our ideas of sustainability are based on a false premise: that we can minimise our planetary footprint out of existence.
He threw scientific absurdity after scientific absurdity at us to shake us from the tree of certainty and complacency:
- ‘Mother Nature’ produces the most dangerous toxins – we must not romanticise it (not her).
- LEED Platinum is named after one of the most toxic chemicals in the world.
- ‘Natural’ carpets release more noxious gases than the regular kind.
- 36 types of solvents are made to produce Kinder Surprise Egg toys for children.
- Computers’ materials are so hazardous they should only be used outside or in a room with an open window.
- 60% of super-insulated Dutch houses have mould (thanks, Mother Nature).
- The circular economy is linear thinking in cycles (because it doesn’t start at the design stage).
- Taking the stairs releases more carbon than taking the lift. Bonus: you’ll die sooner and be less of a burden.
Western humans feel guilty about living on and being the scourge of the planet; the ultimate way to minimise our footprint is not to be here at all.
‘A tree,’ he said, ‘doesn’t have to manage its guilt [even if it could], because its presence is beneficial.’
Why, he wanted to know, can’t humans design and manufacture or grow safe products (with renewable energy) that can be fed back as nutrients into the two circular streams of the C2C economy – the biosphere (where nutrients go into the earth) and the technosphere (where nutrients go back into manufacture)?
Running out of resources
However, for all the inspiration and mischief, it wasn’t Braungart’s message that hit home, but a more basic and urgent one from Dr Mike Pitts, head of urban living and environment, at Innovate UK: materials scarcity will have – or is having – a serious negative impact on the construction industry long before climate change. (Arguably, climate change mitigation and adaptation are a boon for contractors and consultants.)
Pitts pointed out that metal production has more than doubled since 1950, with, for example, copper ore production rising from barely 10,000 tonnes then to 860,000 today. Iron ore extraction has rocketed from nearly nothing to 2,800 tonnes as of 2013 according to the US Geological Survey.
A new iron ore mine the size of Birmingham (such as that at Pillbara, Australia) will need to be discovered annually to keep up with current global supply, let alone growth.
In fact, some experts think iron ore could run out within 64 years, based on an extremely conservative extrapolation of 2% growth per year. Extraction of resources is predicted to account for 40% of the world’s energy use by 2050.
‘Ore grade quality is going down while demand has rocketed,’ he told me afterwards. ‘The trends are clear – we need to expend much more energy to stand still on production rates, never mind accommodate increasing demand.’
Given the problems that designers are currently having working up budgets and contractors are having meeting them, perhaps the scarcity is already starting to have an impact.
The general industry assumption is that the 5% year-on-year tender price increases reported by the likes of the Building Cost Information Service (BCIS) come as a result of a fall in skills and manufacturing capacity during the downturn – could this be incorrect?
If a difficulty in finding and extracting steel, copper, aggregates and other elements from the ground is contributing towards project price inflation, it wouldn’t be a surprise.
‘The biggest threat to the bottom line is resources,’ said Pitt, unequivocally.
Even if resources were not scarce, their extraction is highly problematic, leading to environmental degradation, pollution, water usage, neo-imperialism (the Chinese presence in Africa) and strife.
‘We don’t want to fight over materials for future use,’ said Nitesh Magdani, director of sustainability at BAM. And surely minimising harm to people elsewhere on the globe should be a concern equal to our ability to consume.
Cradle to Cradle will be part of our future design and build decisions, one way or another
How are we doing?
All that being said, how is the building industry doing? Depressingly badly. The amount of waste that industry sends to landfill (13.9m tonnes in 2011) in the UK is fairly well known. Less frequently reported, but pointed out by Magdani, is that the reuse of building products has declined by more than 60% over the 15 years up to 2013 (from a BRE report for Defra in that year). ‘It’s harder to recycle composites.’
Carrying this out in buildings is far more complicated than for Coke cans, he says. They are ‘long-term projects with very complex products and materials in them. The information about what went into them, after they end their life 60-100 years later, is missing.’
Magdani added that, as far as he knew, no C2C-inspired building had been built in the UK. However, he discussed BAM’s work creating green walls on Park 20|20 in the Netherlands, the first C2C working environment in that country. The park synthesises the issues of access and mobility, connectivity, passive design and integrated energy, water and waste management systems.
Breeam-NL in the Netherlands rewards the use of C2C, he said. But holding back reuse potential was a lack of information sharing and transparency. BIM held the potential to improve the knowledge of what comprised a structure.
The solutions presented by participants fell short of Braungart’s vision, and were notably less systemic, but what you do expect from a visionary?
Braungart himself pointed out that the sponsors of the event were, in fact, C2C-certified examples to the rest of us: Mosa for its tiles, AGC for its glass, Armstrong for its ceiling tiles, Shaw Contract Group for its flooring and MechoSystems for its window coverings. He also talked up bitumen that is not from oil and a concrete that cleans the air.
Pitts spoke proudly of a product one of his students had designed – Gumdrop, a waste gum collector made of waste gum.
Lydia Hopton, property Plan A manager at Marks & Spencer, talked about some of her firm’s initiatives. Most were outside the realm of building, but offered useful inspiration about what materials reuse looks like in practice. In this context the retailer is best known for its Shwopping initiative with Oxfam, where customers drop off used clothes in stores to prevent them going to landfill. Items are either resold, sent to the Third World or their fibres recycled into new clothes.
However, pilot programmes under its well-regarded Plan A for sustainability also include using office furniture recycled from waste cardboard; creating an anti-oxidant skin cream from grape pulp (a waste product of wine-making); incorporating more refurbished items into stock, such as shopping trolleys and shelving; and working with a German cement company to reuse retired mannequins in cement manufacture.
Several useful resources were mentioned for those looking for information and guidance. For example, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is focused on developing the circular economy – an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design.
The SCIN materials gallery in London’s Old Street can help designers and contractors source certified materials, and there are some 120-plus on the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute website (www.c2ccertified.org).
However, it would appear to be in moving away from ‘product supply’ to ‘service-[level] provision’ that industry might be able to make the deepest inroads. Under this model, a contract taken out with a lighting manufacturer or supplier would guarantee, say, a certain level of lux over the lifetime of the building. So the landlord would never actually own the lighting equipment, but lease it. This practice would give suppliers control over the product components, and incentivise manufacture-for-reuse. It was noted that this way of doing things shares a lot in common with PFI, although the focus is different.
Again, non-construction products and services point the way forward, here, such as Doc Martens for Life, which gives effectively gives consumers a footwear licence; neighbourhood car-hire scheme, Zipcar; and even RenttheRunway.com, which allows users to sport fancy clothes for an evening.
Cradle to Cradle will be part of our future design and build decisions, one way or the other. Whether the building trade will be able to make enough use of its methods to mitigate the impact of materials depletion remains to be seen. But it is clear that the conference highlighted a growth area in both research and practice that will emerge into the mainstream in the next few years. Look out for C2C becoming as familiar as energy conservation and, to judge from this conference, as passionately preached.
Braungart himself pointed out that the sponsors of the event were, in fact, C2C-certified examples to the rest of us
C2C: a definition
Cradle to Cradle is a design philosophy summed up as ‘remaking the way we make things. It’s a certified product standard that integrates multiple attributes, including safe materials, continuous reclamation and reuse of materials, clean water, renewable energy and social fairness. It is based on the principles of ‘waste equals food’, ‘use solar income’ and ‘celebrate diversity’. As well as a design concept, Cradle to Cradle is also a quality standard and an innovation platform. It is based on the conviction that innovative science and design can move industry beyond simple ‘reduction of this’ or ‘saving of that’ towards a new paradigm where growth is good: eco-effectiveness.
More information: www.epea.com and www.c2ccertified.org