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Materials Economy Marks New Era in Sustainable Building

Tags: built environment (593)

Lewis Perkins, president of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, travels throughout the U.S. and Europe exploring and espousing the importance of the Cradle to Cradle® design methodology and the Cradle to Cradle Certified™ products program. We asked him to offer some insights into the new Built Positive movement and its growing influence in the world of architecture and design.

Q: How would you describe the current state of the building industry in terms of circular economy and Cradle to Cradle® philosophy?
We are entering a new era in the built environment—the materials economy. The green building movement has made tremendous progress in efficiencies related to energy, water, and waste because there was an economic case for doing so. This focus led to a tremendous amount of design innovation. But there hasn’t been the economic case for materials.

The Cradle to Cradle® philosophy and design methodology has long provided a galvanizing platform to help the sustainable design community fully consider the environmental and human impacts of materials and products in the built environment beyond their immediate lifecycle.

Now, with the concept of a global circular economy taking root, the Cradle to Cradle CertifiedTM products program provides a framework for developing and verifying materials for the circular economy that is more relevant than ever—and the conditions are right to make the economic case for materials.

That is exactly what our new initiative, Built Positive, aims to do. Built Positive is a movement to increase the built environment’s positive impact on people, planet, and economy by designing for circularity, innovating to improve inputs, and quantifying positive impact from the molecule to the metropolis. Built Positive will help the sustainable design community create buildings that are essentially material banks whereby the materials a building contains are selected based upon Cradle to Cradle principles of circular design, material health and design for disassembly and recovery, as well as value chain collaboration. In turn, this approach will help owners realize greater economic value, occupants have improved health, and the environment will bear less of the burden of growth and consumption.

These Built Positive concepts dovetail nicely with the innovation that is being driven in circular economy efforts including new business models, systems for recovery tracking, and sorting, and breakthroughs in the cleaning up of recycled feedstocks.

For years in the Cradle to Cradle CertifiedTM products certification program, manufacturers and suppliers have been innovating in their design and production departments to be able to provide the built environment with inputs that are safe, cyclable, and manufactured in ways that create positive impact for humans and the environment. This is foundational and necessary to enable circular systems. Now, the conditions are ripe to scale these ideas and to realize the Cradle to Cradle® world our founders envisioned and to create a robust circular economy.

Q: How should the building industry embrace the circular economy and the Cradle to Cradle® philosophy and why?
The why is easy. There is economic value in the materials that are used every day in the built environment. But, we need to design products, buildings, and cities differently to realize that value. When we create value through intelligent design, we not only create economic value but we also create positive impacts for people and the planet. That is the beauty of the Cradle to Cradle® design philosophy.

In terms of how the building industry can embrace the circular economy and Cradle to Cradle® design methodology, the Built Positive initiative offers a point of access for members of the building sector to learn, share, and innovate in an open and collaborative environment. One of the ways Built Positive helps to accomplish this is by encouraging early and often collaboration throughout the value chain, from suppliers to manufacturers, architects and designers to owners and developers, and even banks and financiers.

Q: Do you see any difference between U.S. and European building industries in terms of implementing sustainability and circular economy in their market approach?
Material health has been the hot topic for the built environment in the U.S. for the past several years. This is largely driven by the need to systematically eliminate chemicals of concern in the absence of regulation. In addition to the continuing need to eliminate chemicals of concern, less regulation in the U.S. also makes other issues such as waste disposal more pressing and creates a situation where we need to influence change from the beginning of the cycle not the end.

In Europe, more stringent regulation in place overall for chemicals of concern and waste disposal means that the conversation has already shifted further toward the circular economy and material flow.

The beauty of these differences is that the scalable solution requires both material health and the ability of materials to be perpetually cycled. We don’t need recycled feedstocks that carry chemicals of concern, and the elimination of chemicals of concern is prerequisite for recyclability. We are already starting to see collaborations between the European and U.S. green building movements about these concerns.

From a policy perspective, while the U.S. largely operates as a single market with regional differences, public policy plays a small role in stimulating the transition toward a circular economy. By contrast, there are many European markets each with their own policy, and policymaking has more impact. In both cases, standards drive decision-making, especially beyond the ‘early adoption’ phase of change.