Cradle to Cradle certification to go public

Michael Braungart co-author of Cradle to Cradle

Cradle to Cradle authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart performed a double act at the RIBA last night for a youthful audience in a packed Jarvis Hall. I had heard them speak separately before -  in smaller venues to non-architects -  so I was curious to see how they would present to an architectural audience. Braungart charmed the crowd by passing around an edible t-shirt and a highly toxic toy.

McDonough and Braungart plan to make public the data and criteria of their cradle to cradle certification process within the next year.  This may be in response to recent mounting criticism about its transparency and the potential conflict of interest with clients who pay to have their products certified.  They encourage one and all to trial it in different projects and contexts so that it will become a dynamic tool. This is an important development and one to be applauded.

It’s virtually impossible not to be taken by the cradle to cradle argument. It all makes great sense, as many corporate board rooms are finding. Their ‘growth is good’ message obviously appeals and it contrasts with most sustainability experts who talk about tightening belts. McDonough’s view is that public and private sector alike will ‘go renewable’ as soon it becomes affordable because they will then have a fiduciary responsibility to do so.

But how do you do it?  Here the duo provided disappointingly few answers. Question after question was graciously side-stepped. McDonough himself acknowledged that he has clients who are converts, just waiting for marching orders. He spoke about identifying ‘five key messages and ten stories’ for each project - a kaleidoscope of innovation. ‘Sustainability checklists are stultifying to innovation,’ McDonough says. I totally agree, but this all came across as a bit vague. Yet we know it’s not, because Braungart is a materials scientist who deals with ppm of toxic elements in materials.

It’s clear that these two men have moved the debate forward in boardrooms across the globe. No wonder they find it difficult to address the nitty gritty of embodied carbon in concrete.

All in all, an evening not to be missed, despite my reservations.  Bill Dunster and Paul Hinkin of Black Architecture were there, along with almost 300 others.

3 Responses to “Cradle to Cradle certification to go public”

  1. I agree with Hattie - the logic is elegant but the path to delivery is clear as mud. The challenge is architects understanding the wholistic environmental implications of every design and specification decision. This is a challenge previously only met by seriously deluded egos or those claiming divine powers. There are people like Best Foot Forward’s carbon and ecological footprinting databases and Bobby Gilbert’s Carbon mixer software who are getting close to communicating the environmental performance of a range of well understood typologies and constructions - with the Code for Sustainable Homes supplying similar aspirations through a checklist format. A C21 vernacular is starting to emerge. I personally await a free issue Google sketch up model with on screen dials providing real time carbon, ecological footprint score, code status, cradle to grave toxicity analysis, green transport plan, life cycle carbon performance, approximate construction cost with an integrated library of manufacturers components ranging from windows to solar panels. Then we can stop printing doorstop Index catalogues of out of date trade lit - Anyone want to help?

  2. I thought that the materials science section of the presentation given by Michael Braungart was entertaining, logical and included a number of interesting case studies. The fact that a black Porsche is less harmful than a green one due to the substances required to make green paint got the message over in a memorable manner; another reason to avoid greenwash! It is hard to argue with the notion of treating materials and products as a series of technical or biological resources that can be deconstructed and reused. This philosophy has already been adopted in a number of pieces of environmental legislation.

    I was anticipating that the second section of the presentation given by William McDonough would provide case study examples of how their cradle to cradle philosophy has influenced the design of their buildings. This did not turn out to be the case and the discussion of their work did not address the key question of how architects can develop specifications that will allow the reuse of the resources that we use to make buildings. There was reference to the Interface flooring leasing arrangement where the manufacturer retains ownership of the resources and the customer pays for the service of floor covering. This arrangement clearly offers the supplier the benefit that their products can be easily disassembled and the materials reused by them to make new products. However this arrangement represents a significant departure from the current methods of building procurement. Until all building product suppliers are made responsible for the reprocessing of their products at the end of their life then there is little chance that this arrangement will be more widely adopted.

    It is hard to disagree with the cradle to cradle vision but as with all good ideas the devil is in the detail. For this to be realised it is essential that their assessment criteria are placed in the public domain along with contents of their database identifying the make up of all of the building products that they have assessed.

  3. Dear Bill -

    I would be happy to help!

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