The third in a series of online events hosted by Schüco and Architecture Today explored the need for cradle-to-cradle construction and how much progress has been made in turning this concept into reality.

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The idea of cradle-to-cradle construction – of buildings that become part of a natural lifecycle rather than increasing the world’s load of carbon dioxide – has long been an appealing one. An online seminar on the topic, hosted by Schueco, was in equal parts exciting and sobering. The participants discussed both how urgent the issue is and how much progress has been made tin transforming ambitions from recycling to re-use technically feasible – if there is the will to do it.

The panel chaired by Ruth Slavid comprised Duncan Baker-Brown, co-founder of BBM Sustainable Design, and Technology & Practices Lead at the School of Architecture & Design, University of Brighton; Marco Abdallah, Head of Engineering UK at Drees & Sommer; Sunand Prasad, co-founder of Penoyre & Prasad and former RIBA president; and Maria Smith, Director of Sustainability at Buro Happold.

Duncan Baker-Brown said, “Humankind is the only organism that exists on earth as a linear system – we trash the joint and move on, trying to build somewhere else. The rest of Planet Earth exists as circular systems, where waste from one ecosystem is food for another ecosystem.”

It is this, he said, that we have to aspire to – a circular economy where there is no such thing as waste, just stuff in the wrong place. He has, he says, been designing buildings since the 1990s that can act as material stores for the future. To do this, he said, you need to bolt buildings together, to ‘avoid the sticky stuff that creates a monolith’. And he added, since existing buildings are just as important, he is working with people who are deconstructing older buildings that would normally be demolished.

Since plastics have no end-of-life role, they should be replaced, he argued, citing a project for Glyndebourne Opera House where mycelium, which is being grown on site, will replace plastics for insulation. Other countries, Baker-Brown said, are ahead of us in this approach. Amsterdam, for instance, has 30 per cent circular construction.

Marco Abdallah said that his practice believes that cradle-to-cradle has the potential to bring the next revolution to real estate. The circular economy, he said, is the solution to many problems in the industry and a great opportunity. In 2019 the practice merged with EPEA, a specialist in cradle-to-cradle at the product level.

Abdullah reminded the audience that buildings are responsible for 30 per cent of carbon emissions and that 60 per cent of all waste comes from the construction industry so change is essential. And, he said, “I particularly like the fact that cradle-to-cradle is a holistic approach which you can apply from the urban scale to the molecular level.” His practice is, for example, working with Schueco on a facade system that can be re-used at the end of the building’s life.

We talk about throwing things away. But where is away? There is no away.”

Sunand Prasad said, “Circularity is the latest paradigm for an increasing understanding of the world and how we live both with nature and as nature, that has been evolving for 60, 70, 80 or more years.” The circular economy can, he said, be defined by the fact that “We talk about throwing things away. But where is away? There is no away.” Therefore, he said, we have to be circular – there is no choice. And the construction industry has an enormous opportunity to make a difference to the circular economy of the world.

Maria Smith broadened the discussion still further. She talked about the need, if we are to have a circular economy within construction, for a genuinely circular economy at national level. This would, she said, be an economy “that incentivises the fair distribution of scarce resources and not the degenerative economy that we have now that incentivises a ‘take, make, throw away’ culture.” The worship of GDP does not, she said, encourage sustainable behaviour. It is difficult to behave sustainably because the wider economic system is working against that.

We need, she says, a wider shift and “architects and engineers have a really important part to play. We need to recognise that we are complicit in this wider problem and can be part of the solution.”

This was a fascinating discussion, an important one and one with a considerable degree of urgency. Let’s see how well we can do.