Circular-economy architecture or cradle-to-cradle has been coined ‘the next industrial revolution’, but what is it and how can we adapt our approach to incorporate it?


At this year’s WantedDesign Show in Manhattan, the Finnish Cultural Institute of New York commissioned a beautiful installation – the ‘Zero Waste Bistro’. Blue speckled walls, a series of arches and sleek, simple finishes made this pop-up restaurant look like a Wes Anderson set. The key aim for this installation was to draw attention to the concept of zero-waste and how we can adapt our design approach to incorporate this. The blue speckles are there because the walls are made from recycled Tetra Pak, which has been left untreated, with the finish created by the original packaging, text and colour.

The most widespread approach to sustainable design at the moment is the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ idea, which whilst cutting down our environmental impact, can arguably just be pushing the problem further along for later generations to deal with. Designers believe we can do better, and are looking towards circular economies or life cycle assessment. It is not simply about using sustainable materials or thoughtfully getting rid of waste, but creating a waste-free cycle where waste itself becomes a resource. 

One of the methodologies is Cradle-to-cradle. Popularised by Michael Braungart and William McDonough in their 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things; it is not merely an architectural theory but applies to any form of manufacture. Cradle-to-cradle promotes an almost biological approach to manufacturing – components are thought of as nutrients in a ‘healthy metabolism’. 

Each component can be categorised as one of two types: technical nutrients or biological nutrients. The aim for technical nutrients is for them to be disassembled at the end of a product’s life and reused to create a new product. The aim of the biological nutrients is to be returned to the earth where they can be safely decomposed and have a regenerative effect – as food for insects, plants, and then indirectly humans. 

The building of the Netherlands Institute of Ecology was designed in line with cradle-to-cradle ideas. Materials such as glass, steel and timber can be reused at the end of the building’s lifespan. On the building site, lots of biodiversity has been created. A constructed wetland filters all the wastewater from the different buildings. Black water is used to create bio-gas and treated by an innovative micro-algae technology. The algae can be turned into fertiliser, which potentially can be used on the building site. Claus en Kaan Architecten designed the space to be as flexible as possible, allowing for old systems to be replaced if newer and better innovations come along.

If you want to study the fundamentals of Cradle-to-cradle you can join a course at the Lyle Centre for Regenerative Studies in California. A building which is itself an example of Cradle-to-cradle principles. The building is a teaching tool, with staff and students living on site, growing their own food and actually living in the circular economy. Much like the Netherlands Institute of Technology, a wide range of sustainable design systems are utilised; sunlight for lighting and heat, solar heated hot water, natural ventilation. Energy comes from a co-generation plant on a nearby landfill and compost for crops from the users’ waste. This again highlights one of the most important aspects of circular economies – waste as a resource. 

Although the c2c website proudly welcomes you to “a new industrial revolution,” the current number of buildings and products qualifying for Cradle-to-Cradle standard implies this may currently be a little premature. But I believe it is this bold kind of thinking we need. For truly sustainable design we should think about the entire lifespan of a product – right from the initial design stages. 

As well as thinking about form and function we must also think about the building’s construction, life, and afterlife. This means considering the materials we use to construct, how they will behave when in use, and what will happen to them when the building is taken apart.  To reframe this in our minds we can think about materials this way – we don’t use materials we merely borrow them. RH


Words by Roisin HANLON
Image Credits by The Netherlands Institute of Ecology