07 - 09 March 2023 | ExCeL, London

07 - 09 March 2023
ExCeL, London

Opinion piece

Sustainable construction is a degenerative design option

An opinion piece by Chaline Church, Founding Partner, 540 WORLD

Fortunately, much of what I intended writing is in Futurebuild’s previous July newsletter by Dr Oliver Jones. This has allowed me to take a deeper dive into what is critically missing from many conversations around circularity, waste and building sustainably, namely, regenerative design and the material health of products.

Sustainable building as an ambition level is not good for the planet.

According to the updated work of Bill Reed we must aim for a higher benchmark than sustainability to increase systemic vitality for our planet.  In a nutshell, ‘sustainable’ design ambition levels are actually part of the systemic decrease in socio-environmental vitality for our planet.  Since we have globally transgressed six of the nine planetary boundaries, the construction sector needs to re-examine their ambition levels and advocate for a higher benchmark than sustainability. Even John Elkington recalled his famous Triple Bottom Line (TBL) management concept in 2019, known widely as People, Planet, Profits for sustainable business. He now advocates regenerative design which aims to credit the future, instead of the current linear system which steals and pollutes resources from future generations. While there are multiple progressive management steering concepts, such as Doughnut Economics, Circular Economy and Cradle to Cradle® Design Principles, we are still seeing an unprecedented exponential overshoot of planetary boundaries such as novel entities including chemical and plastic pollution. The real bottom line is that we need to adopt a regenerative, circular design ambition level globally, now and at pace. Earth overshoot days mark the date we steal from future generations in terms of overconsumption. The global date indicates when humanity’s demand for ecological resources exceeds what Earth can regenerate annually and for 2022, the date is 28 July. Heat records, fires, floods and science all stress the need to adjust ambitions, to align them with what our planet can comfortably deliver as a first step approach. This means we need to fully embrace regenerative design and make construction ambition levels such as compliancy and sustainability, redundant.

The starting point for regenerative design in construction

Regenerative design starts with enterprise ambition levels. These should impact goals, networks, governance, ownership and finance. Secondly, material health and key performance categories should be aligned, ideally as framed by Cradle to Cradle Certified® for products. If products are designed regeneratively, within the C2C Certified framework, they will be optimised for material health both for use and post-use. We need to design out the concept of waste as a matter of emergency and recognise that materials directly affect climate health. All construction materials and processes, including wastewater, needs to be addressed, so that all project stages are optimised for a healthy planet.

Adopting Regenerative Design in Practice

Setting regenerative standards and game-changing case studies is vital.  This is precisely why we often mention the pioneering work of the Environment Agency’s TEAM2100.  After establishing eMission:2030 goals and completing their due diligence on material certifications, TEAM2100 robustly embedded planet-positive kpi’s into their contracts and implemented pilot projects like the world’s first sustainable Accoya® fender in the Thames. They actively engaged with regenerative design material tests, (going beyond certified sustainable materials swaps), as evidenced by their recent fender designs, including crenulation detailing for their Deptford Walls scheme to encourage flora and fauna on these large timber interventions. Their pathfinding includes hybrid collaborations to deliver exemplar projects and they intend to deliver circular design CPD’s soon as mandatory for members of the Institution of Civil Engineers – here is their very practical CPD audio explainer introduction:   https://www.podbean.com/ew/pb-dwfr4-1269e6d

Materials impacting Climate Change & Biodiversity

As regenerative design consultants, 540 WORLD frequently practice knowledge-sharing using our global network of scientists and pathfinders.  We often highlight the ground-breaking work of the Global Oceanic Environmental Survey (GOES) Foundation to indicate the importance of designing products with optimised ingredients health.

GOES, Dr Howard Dryden, a speaker at Cop26 and international consultant on marine crisis, states that pollution is the single greatest threat to the planet, due to its impact on marine plankton. Dr Dryden states that plankton are the very life support system for the planet and while we continue with carbon mitigation, we must simultaneously focus on nature and marine plankton – responsible for removing as much as 80% of our carbon.

The GOES team manage a citizen science project to monitor marine plankton and pollution in the deep ocean. Their most recent results confirm a 90% decline for the Equatorial Atlantic and a high pollution load from microplastic fibres and partially combusted carbon (PCC) from burning fossil fuels. The loss of marine life is caused by climate change and pollution, from toxic ‘for-ever’ chemicals, plastics and PCC and these toxic materials reduce the very biological mechanisms that could stop climate change if regenerated. GOES note:

  • NASA and Nature Journal et al indicate a 50% reduction in all marine life already
  • IPCC confirm 50% of the remaining carbonate marine life will be gone by 2045 when pH corresponds to pH7.95 due to Ocean Acidification unless we reverse the trend
  • Net zero carbon emission targets for 2045 will not stop ocean acidification and a trophic collapse of the marine ecosystem and further catastrophic climate change

Needless to say, water stewardship is vital and already included as a key performance category within Cradle to Cradle Certified – the global standard for safe, circular and responsibly made products which is why 540WORLD rigorously advocate for these verified safe products.

Regenerative Design Conclusion

Water stewardship, climate and material health are among five key performance categories rigorously assessed by C2C Certified. These categories can provide a framework of headlines that the built environment could embrace to help deliver regenerative design in projects. Planetary boundary transgressions clearly indicate that singular-focused, carbon-chasing is an insufficient strategy to balance the books or drive forward a thriving future for us all. This means closing the book on sustainable design and fast-tracking regenerative design and healthy materials in all sectors.  Fortunately, there are incredible healthy material solutions, many of which 540 WORLD are showcasing at Futurebuild 2023. With regenerative design and safe materials in place, we can then enable healthy circularity and safe materials re-use, instead of waste, pollution and climate crisis. What a world that would be!

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