Architectural Record BE - Building Enclosure

Products Made of

A decade since McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry was founded, cradle-to-cradle thinking slowly permeates within and across industries
This course is no longer active
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From Architectural Record
Nancy B. Solomon, AIA
Continuing Education

Learning Objectives - After this course, you should be able to:

  1. Define biological and technical nutrients.
  2. Contrast conventional recycling with cradle-to-cradle principles.
  3. Explain Cradle to Cradle Certification requirements.



In 1995, determined to counteract the environmental, economic, and social injustices that are so often the unintentional by-products of conventional manufacturing and distribution processes, architect William McDonough, FAIA, and chemist Michael Braungart established McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC; The Charlottesville, Virginia−based company applies what McDonough and Braungart have termed cradle-to-cradle principles in order to help product manufacturers rethink the way they do business. The two visionaries subsequently expounded on their approach in the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, which was published in 2002 by North Point Press. Their revolutionary ideas, like so many significant concepts in history, are profoundly simple: Industrial production should take its cues from nature to create healthy and abundant cycles that continually and effectively reuse our finite resources.

To achieve this truly sustainable state, products must be made from either biological nutrients, which can decompose naturally without poisoning our habitats, or technical nutrients, which must be recaptured at the end of the products' useful lives so that they can be remade into the same products or ones of equal value. When substances of different chemical makeup are combined, as typically occurs in conventional recycling programs, the resulting material becomes what McDonough and Braungart dub a "monstrous hybrid." Such a concoction cannot easily be returned to its basic constituent parts and, therefore, is on its way to becoming an ineffective resource, if not an outright pollutant. For this reason, McDonough and Braungart argue that most recycling programs today are really "downcycling" initiatives: The subsequent generation of products formed from the previous one is typically of lower value.

Alas, shifting from our society's current "cradle-to-grave" framework to MBDC's "cradle-to-cradle" model is not nearly so simple as the theory itself. It requires dedication to a level of detailed research and analysis, and strong cooperation among a host of diverse and dispersed players. But MBDC continues to chip away at conventional materials and processes that-if left unchecked-may one day be the death of us all. In addition to assisting manufacturers in their optimization efforts, MBDC just launched an initiative known as Cradle to Cradle Certification.

Natural processes have flourished through biological loops (left). McDonough and Braungart suggest the development of parallel loops (right) in which a product's parts can be utilized over and over again.
Rendering: Courtesy McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry

Through this new program, a manufacturer can submit a homogenous or relatively simple product to MBDC for review of its overall health impacts and its potential for being safely composted or truly recycled. A successful candidate within this track is certified as a biological or technical nutrient. A manufacturer can also submit a more complex product with multiple material components to MBDC for evaluation of its overall health impacts; its ability to be disassembled so that its constituent parts can decompose or be reused; the quantity and source of energy required for its production; the amount of water used during manufacture, and the quality of the wastewater produced; and the company's demonstrated commitment to social justice. A product within this second track is eligible to earn a silver, gold, or platinum rating.


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Originally published in Architectural Record.