Responsibility in the Construction Industry: What is Sustainability?

Applying cradle to cradle philosophy in construction for a greener future.

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In light of the climate emergency, the issue of how we approach development and how we approach building has become more and more urgent. Raising questions about what buildings can do to be less impactful on the environment as a whole.

Across the breadth of the construction industry, there’s a notable lack of attention or lack of action on how materials are made and how they might be reused after their intended use has expired.

Sustainable practice can come in lots of different forms, as well as adopting new technological advances the root of a lot of the ideas around sustainable practice are simple in their essence and have been in use in different forms for millennia. The question now becomes how we apply this thinking to the construction industry of today as efficiently as possible.

Cradle to Cradle by William McDonough describes the way to treat the circularity of materials we use, revising our approach to the concept of waste, not only in construction but in the way we live our daily lives and manufacture materials.

McDonough writes, “Recycling is more expensive for communities than it needs to be, partly because traditional recycling tries to force materials into more lifetimes than they are designed for - a complicated and messy conversion, and one that itself expends energy and resources. Very few objects of modern consumption were designed with recycling in mind. If the process is truly to save money and materials, products must be designed from the very beginning to be recycled or even "upcycled" - a term we use to describe the return to industrial systems of materials with improved, rather than degraded, quality.”

He goes on to write, “Unquestionably there are things we all want to grow, and things we don’t want to grow. We wish to grow education and not ignorance, health and not sickness, prosperity and not destitution, clean water and not poisoned water. We wish to improve the quality of life.

The key is not to make human industries and systems smaller, as efficiency advocates propound, but to design them to get bigger and better in a way that replenishes, restores, and nourishes the rest of the world. Thus the “right things” for manufacturers and industrialists to do are those that lead to good growth — more niches, health, nourishment, diversity, intelligence, and abundance — for this generation of inhabitants on the planet and for generations to come.”

Thinking about the climate emergency we are currently facing, this philosophy provides a useful guide that's applicable to all facets of the construction industry. Many construction materials in use are eventually destined for the landfill, as suggested by McDonough hardwearing materials which last and are also great for multiple lifecycles of reuse. Quite simply, with things made to last, there’s less inclination to dispose of them permanently. As stewards of the earth, there has to be a focus on the long-term impacts and our consumption, and an interrogation of what we actually consider to be sustainable practice when we consider the next fifty to sixty years rather than twenty to thirty.

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