‘Cradle-To-Cradle’: Circular Concepts in Architecture

By Aasiya Aslam, Designer at DPAI

The building industry contributes over 30% of all carbon emissions in the world, from construction to operation. With the world’s building stock estimated to double by 2060, the impact of the construction industry on our environment will be insurmountable. How do we change our current trajectory? Building professionals must redefine the rules of construction, and this calls for a paradigm shift in our building approach, from one that treats our environmental landscape as dispensable, to one that is sustainable and efficient.

What is the Cradle-To-Cradle Model?

Cradle-to-cradle (C2C), also referred to as regenerative design, is a philosophy that works with materials and energy utilizing a circular model. We are all familiar with the concept of ‘recycling’, but C2C takes it one step further and promotes ‘upcycling’.  The C2C model was developed by architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart and discussed extensively in their book ‘Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.’ McDonough says that most manufacturing and building processes follow a ‘cradle to grave’ model based on systems that cannot be reused, rely on toxic materials, generate large amounts of waste and consume great amounts of energy.

The C2C model mimics nature’s processes of circular transmission of energy. It suggests that in order for materials to complete their lifecycles, they must either replenish the ecosystem in an organic way, (much like the food chain does), or else enter a new cycle with added value. The C2C model is a holistic approach that combines social, economic and efficient systems that are waste-free and can be applied to architecture. The concept is based on three principles: the understanding of waste as food, the use of renewable energy and the support of diversity.

Diagram of the C2C Process

Eliminating Waste

In the C2C scenario, there is no concept of waste. A closed cycle that treats waste as “food”, or raw material in a renewal process, is what makes the C2C model sustainable. C2C also promotes upcycling rather than recycling, as within the recycling process, the end material or system often has lower value than the ‘parent’ material. Therefore upcycling results in new materials that lend themselves to higher quality applications. The model follows the idea of generating either ‘biological nutrients’ which can go back into the soil, or ‘technical nutrients’, which can be reused effectively again.

An Illustration of the ‘Cardboard to Caviar Project’ by Michael Pawlyn, demonstrating the C2C model.

C2C in the Building Industry

What is promising about the cradle-to-cradle concept, while more prevalent in the creation of individual products and materials, is that it can also be applied to the architectural process. Despite the challenges that come with every project, architects and designers must be mindful of the building process and opt for methods that are both efficient and less detrimental to the environment. Approaches such as promoting renovation instead of demolition, designing buildings that can be disassembled and re-erected wholly elsewhere, and opting for low-impact materials, are inherent to the C2C approach. Materials and systems must be chosen ensuring that after they have served their lifecycles, their ‘nutrient’ value remains rich, unlike most ‘downcycled’ recyclables.

Renewable Systems

Renewable energy sources such as wind, solar and geothermal are also reliable and sustainable ways of using energy in building construction and operation, unlike conventional fossil fuels, which have a negative impact on the environment. Designers can also incorporate ‘passive’ design to maximize on these renewable sources. Passive design strategies are features innate to the form and design of a building that utilize available natural resources to ensure thermal comfort. This climate specific approach based on sun, wind, light and micro-climatic considerations can be employed to design energy efficient buildings and reduce overall dependency on energy-intensive systems.

Challenges and Opportunities

Architects always feel the need to build, however we need to redefine the idea of what is worthy of a new build and whether there is an opportunity for adaptive reuse, retrofit or agile construction. If so, it must be explored. This does pose its own set of challenges such as code compliance, regulatory approval, adherence to socio-economic policies, and time and budget constraints, to name a few. Where technology-driven methods like additive manufacturing or automation are involved, the choice of materials and processes can be limited. But there are great benefits to the cradle-to-cradle ideology, which encompasses the use of local non-toxic materials, the reduction of waste during construction and the conservation of natural resources, most of which is within the architect’s control. Additionally, cradle-to-cradle promotes inter-disciplinary dialogue, whereby architects can grow their awareness and understanding of materials and systems that can be incorporated into their projects.

A Brighter Future

In the past, designers have explored alternative construction methods using shipping containers, paper tubes and salvaged timber. In the future, there are endless possibilities for creative building practices using the C2C ethos. Given the impending climate crisis and the history of environmental harm caused by our age-old practices, new sustainable ideologies must be considered and championed. Though the C2C model is not yet implemented as widely as it should be for the well-being of our planet and those who call it home, it gives building professionals food for thought, and furthermore, a positive outlook for the future ahead.