Circular construction is a degenerative design option, unless we specify harm-free materials first
An opinion piece by Chaline Church, Founding Partner, 540 WORLD
As regenerative design consultants, we have concluded that the links critically missing from many conversations around circular design and building ‘sustainably’, is full stakeholder integration and secondly, and vitally, what needs to be enabled before circularity, namely the material health of product ingredients and their manufacturing processes. To build regeneratively, i.e. with safe/non-toxic materials, we need an evidence-based, verified framework for safe, circular, and socially responsible products and processes such as Cradle to Cradle Certified®. Leaving the industry to self-regulate has proven not to work from a perspective of keeping our planet thriving. Suffice to say, seven of eight planetary boundaries are now transgressed (https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-023-06083-8#MOESM2, Nature, 31 May 2023). These are called Earth system boundaries (ESBs), in the Nature article, ‘Safe and just Earth system boundaries’. We absolutely need to collaboratively agree “to urban mine (re-use) local materials, design regeneratively using Cradle to Cradle® principles and use C2C Certified® materials to ensure that the art of building is positive for people and planet”. In March at Futurebuild, we presented how Johan Rockström et al had aggregated that we had transgressed 6 of 9 known planetary boundaries. In May, they reported that “seven of the eight global-scale safe and just ESBs that we quantified have already been crossed” so that means tea time is over. It is now time for creating impactful route maps to achieve measurable targets.
Context – singular focus and sustainable design as an ambition level is no good, not for people or planet.
In a nutshell, ‘sustainable’ ambition levels are actually part of the systemic decrease in socio-environmental vitality for our planet, according to the current work of Bill Reed et al. Since we have transgressed seven ESBs, the built environment sector needs to enable ambition levels that go way beyond the ‘sustainable’ status quo. We simply must aim for regenerative design at every level and at pace. Even John Elkington recalled his famous Triple Bottom Line (TBL) management concept in 2019, known widely as People, Planet, Profits for business. He since advocated regenerative design which aims to credit the future, instead of the current linear system which steals and pollutes resources from future generations. Major think tanks conclude that the only realistic objectives must be holistic, robust, evidence-based and regenerative.
So let’s focus on solutions. Helpfully as principles and context, the World Circular Economic Forum 2023 recently published their report, ‘Our Shared Understanding – A Circular Economy in the Built Environment ( https://www.circularbuiltenvironment.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/05/Our-Shared-Understanding-a-circular-economy-in-the-built-environment-v19-01.06.23.pdf ,1 June 2023) as did Breeam, ‘Principles for Circular Buildings’ (https://www.bre.group/breeam-circularity-principles/, Feb 2023). 540 WORLD were a part of both of these technical working groups. There are collaborations working tirelessly to offer resources around context, principles and practices, not to mention the seminal book, Cradle to Cradle – Remaking the Way we Make things that was key in evolving the concept of Cradle to Cradle® and circular design from 2002. With a multi-dimensional, socio-environmental planet-positive approach and agreed regenerative design ambition, we can have positive outcomes.
The starting point for regenerative design is strategic – first establish regenerative design as a non-negotiable ambition.
Regenerative design starts with choosing to do no harm, as a minimum starting point. Then, identify and integrate regenerative design enterprise ambition levels, robustly, in goals, networks, governance, ownership and finance, ie across all departments and all stakeholders, not just shareholders. Further, an holistic, multi-category approach requires adoption, including specifying for maximum product ingredient’s health and the other key planet-positive categories, fully integrated into design and procurement, ideally as framed by the five key framework categories from Cradle to Cradle Certified® for products (material health; product circularity; clean air and climate health; clean water and soil; social fairness). If products are designed regeneratively, within the C2C Certified framework, they will be optimised for material health, both for use and post-use as well as all the other critical categories for ensuring a thriving planet. These align with the UN SDG’s as well as planetary boundary science and positively outstrip most current procurement and circular design strategies.
How to adopt safe, circular, regenerative design in practice – a UK case synopsis.
As a case study, we often mention the pioneering work of the Environment Agency’s TEAM2100 in infrastructure, since their process is adoptable. After establishing their internal eMission:2030 goals (setting ambition levels) and completing their due diligence on material certifications, TEAM2100 robustly embedded planet-positive kpi’s into their contracts (integrating their ambitions). They then implemented pilot projects, (proof of concept) like the world’s first sustainable Accoya® fender in the Thames and improved new biodiverse fender iterations (regenerative design improvements). They actively procured and designed beyond ‘sustainable’ materials, as evidenced by their 2022 fender design which included crenulation detailing to encourage flora and fauna attachments to these large timber interventions. Their choice of using certified safe, circular and socially responsible materials, their smart pathfinding, including new collaborations and ambitions to deliver exemplar projects, open sourcing their contract legalise and making circular design CPD’s mandatory for key members of their supply chain, as well creating supply chain knowledge-sharing presentations and internal expos on their circular, regenerative intentions, clearly signposted to industry that they are roadtesting multi-category sustainable ambitions in practice, now, not waiting for 2030.
Materials impacting Climate Change & Biodiversity
540 WORLD frequently practice knowledge-sharing using our global network of scientists, engineers, architects, chemists, consultants and pathfinders. For example, 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, since they have been testing and reporting on the marine crisis for years, concluding that pollution is the single greatest threat to the planet due to its impact on marine plankton, for example microplastics and forever chemicals.
GOES’ 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.
Materials in the wrong place create pollution or waste. Designing safe and circular products, third party verified and certified can rule this out.
We need to engage as nature does, not create pollution and waste, but rather celebrate our precious materials and enshrine a thriving regenerative strategy at all our points of influence. Doing ‘less bad’ will simply mean that we will transgress the last remaining ESB over a longer duration, kicking the can down the road. We need to design, manufacture, support and procure from businesses already doing a world of good. Our opinion to avoid the greenwash is to make Cradle to Cradle Certified products, materials and their highly evolved practical framework your first stop. There are over 75000 certified products available to date, mostly for the built environment and if you need a material innovated, that’s possible within the network too. You do not need to do this in a silo.
Safe, Circular, Regenerative Design Conclusion
C2C Certified’s five performance categories provide an auditable framework that the built environment can embrace to help deliver regenerative design in products which can be aggregated in projects – many digitools we know cover product passports and a variety of enabling tools. Earth system boundary transgressions highlight that singular-focused, carbon-chasing is an insufficient strategy to drive forward a thriving future for us all. Solutions include actively choosing to fast-track regenerative design in practice, in procurement, throughout projects, in manufacture and supply chain, ie across all stakeholders. Fortunately, there are incredible, high-performing healthy material solutions, many of which 540 WORLD showcase at Futurebuild. With regenerative design and safe materials in place, we can then enable non-toxic circularity and safe materials re-use, instead of waste, pollution and system imbalance. Through innovation, known safe, traceable, transparent, certified healthy materials, we can create a circular world of good. Join 540 WORLD in the UK’s first C2C Circular Design Network (CircDNet) to help make this happen.
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