From cradle to cradle

If the lack of one thing makes the existence of another impossible, then this is referred to as an ecosystem. This does not only apply to nature, where the term originates, the field of architecture is also dedicated to interesting loop systems that celebrate life.

“Nature has produced for millions of years completely inefficiently, yet quite effectively. A cherry tree produces thousands of blossoms and fruit without impacting the environment. Actually, quite the opposite is true: as soon as blossoms and fruit fall to the ground they become food for animals, plants and the surrounding soil,” according to Dr. Michael Braungart. The process technician and chemist uses this example to explain the fascination of the natural ecosystem. It is a system of excess. There is no sign of frugality, austerity or reduction, on the contrary: waste material here becomes food. He thus contradicts the often quoted notion of sustainability, which he calls “not particularly attractive and also inexpedient.” He has a different vision: he would like to develop products and production processes for which wastefulness is no longer a problem. It should be completely harmless for people and nature. And what’s more: humankind should be useful for other material cycles through what it does.

Honoring the human footprint

Together with the architect William McDonough, Braungart developed the cradle-to-cradle design concept, abbreviated to C2C: instead of “from cradle to grave” and a doomsday mood, Braungart conveys the zest for life and invites us to celebrate the human footprint – not to minimize it. He encourages us to turn around our blame & shame way of thinking. It is based on our religious-Calvinistic upbringing: humankind is bad, the best we can do is to be a bit less bad. “The goal cannot be not to harm future generations. I want to be useful!”

“We should develop products and production processes for which wastefulness is no longer a problem.”

Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart, process technician and chemist

Useful instead of less harmful

Traditional approaches involve reducing negative consequences. Braungart has about as much respect for this as he does for the term sustainability: “Sustainability is backward-looking and boring!” He advocates the case for eco-effectiveness: the optimization of positive impacts. “It is not a matter of doing things less poorly, but to design products right from the beginning so that they are not at all harmful,” stated Braungart. What happens once the product has been used should be considered during the production so that all the materials used can be reused afterwards or can be composted without harmful residues. Braungart asks: “Why shouldn’t the facade of a building or the paint used inside it also cleanse the air?”

“It is not a matter of doing things less poorly, but to design products right from the beginning so that they are not at all harmful.”

Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart, process technician and chemist

Architecture that celebrates life

To celebrate life and to perform things that are energy- positive, clean the air and water and to adapt to the changing seasons like trees – that’s what architecture must do today. He presents at this year’s Biennale (May 28 to November 27, 2016, Venice) Sweden’s healthiest primary school in Ronneby, Bionorica’s administration building and the municipal administration building in Venlo.

Venlo’s municipal administration building features a genuine loop system – from water usage to energy generation and air purification (graphic: Gemeente Venlo).

Even if these structures are not perfect, at least three to five of the most important elements are considered and an additional five to ten joyous things are implemented. Through a focus on pragmatism rather than perfection, projects are not delayed or even cancelled, and are even fun. However, some architects suffer from Stockholm syndrome. “They feel like hostages to the authorities, construction codes set by developers and construction managers – the best service at the lowest price. Laymen ultimately decide whether a project is good or bad,” according to the professor.

The new municipal administration building in Venlo in the Netherlands was designed according to the principles of the cradle-to-cradle closedloop economy. The building was designed to not only be sustainable – in other words, “less bad” – but even makes a positive contribution for people, the environment and the economy (photo: Ton Desar, Gemeente Venlo).

The ecosystem challenge

Marco Steinberg, Head of the Snowcone & Haystack think tank in Helsinki, also suffered this painful experience. In 2008, he was in the middle of a project to plan a CO2-neutral city district in Helsinki with 200 apartments, offices and stores, which ultimately was never built. “It was more than just a matter of building technology, but rather a new lifestyle,” reminisced Marco Steinberg. Along with his team, he is dedicated to design-oriented cities. Like Braungart, he espouses the approach of entirely rethinking what exists and not just increasing the efficiency of the existing. “Many of the existing eco projects are still in pilot status or have weaknesses: either the vision is unrealistic, the materials used are not really sustainable or the logistics have not been thought through to the last detail,” stated Marco Steinberg.

Cities in Europe cannot be re-planned from the ground up, but must be developed in the right way from a long-term perspective. “The societal trend is moving in the direction of reduced square meters, open-space and green buildings, thus towards sustainable architecture and usage,” according to Marco Steinberg. The expert in urban planning knows that a real estate portfolio that does not consider these trends can literally become toxic in the future. “Market pressure is rising,” according to Marco Steinberg. And at the same time, he emphasizes that such concepts today cannot yet be measured by any reference models.

“Why shouldn't the facade of a building or the paint used inside it also cleanse the air?”

Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart, process technician and chemist

Wood as an alternative to concrete: being built in Vienna is the world’s first 24-story, 84-meterhigh skyscraper (photo: HoHo Wien).

Paradigm shift and adjusting the framework

The closed loop thinking of ecosystems contradicts the real estate industry’s traditional KPIs and the current investment logic: up front investments are higher while the costs for usage and maintenance are lower. Smart insulation and multipaned windows, for example, reduce the size of the heating system, which in turn creates more rental space while at the same time reducing operating costs.

“In Finland, the legal framework first had to be adjusted, for example, when it came to the mixture of private and commercial usage and commercial wooden construction,” Steinberg explained. Construction laws also had to be adjusted to establish wood as a strategic alternative to concrete, which was not an easy task because there was a strong prejudice against wood as a building material in Finland.

And ultimately an emission-free way of life and living also requires a change in behavior of each individual. Such a change, according to Steinberg, should be supported by installing screens in each apartment and office that display the realtime consumption to make residents conscious of being more careful when using energy. “Carelessness can often be attributed to an information gap,” according to the pioneer.

Changing market rules

A team of experts analyzed the city district from all facets that are requisite for a smart ecosystem: from energy production to waste disposal, self-sufficient production of food, flexible architecture. “A project like this changes the market rules. That is a very complex undertaking for which one needs to take a long, deep breath,” Marco Steinberg sums up in an interim conclusion.

“A project like this changes the market rules. That is a very complex undertaking for which one needs to take a long, deep breath.”


Marco Steinberg, founder of Snowcone & Haystack

Despite expertise in every segment and an independent fund with a long-term investment strategy, the project ultimately failed due to a mundane issue: the investors’ profit expectations. “The doctrines and ideologies of the CFOs are based on the old investment logic,” according to Marco Steinberg. What he learned: “All organisms must be included in an ecosystem. One that is missing makes the existence of the others impossible. And you need to be a bit crazy to embark on such an adventure.”

A city as an ecosystem: Masdar City

Both European pioneers were not as fortunate as their counterparts in the Middle East, where entire new cities which are planned on the drawing board arise from the sand. What you are reading here is not merely ecological science fiction, but CO2-neutral reality: a city in the emirate Abu Dhabi shall become for climate protection what Silicon Valley is for the high-tech and IT industries – a city of science, a global role model, a pulsing center of an eco-efficient way of life.

In 2008, awareness of the finiteness of their primary export commodity led to the construction of the world’s first eco city in the desert on the Persian Gulf. The first companies and the university campus shall move in this year. The city shall ultimately house 50,000 people by 2025. It will be a new home that is far different than anywhere else.

Masdar City in Abu Dhabi is designed as an ecosystem (photo: Foster+Partners).


Marco Steinberg, founder of Snowcone & Haystack

A city from the drawing board as an ecological role model

Cars that burn fossil fuels are not permitted in the city. The so-called Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) network offers an alternative. The electric cabin transporters offer room for six people and are programmed for 1,500 different destinations which are driven to automatically. There is no point in the city that is further than 200 meters from a PRT stop.

And the residents of Masdar need not sweat even without energy-hungry airconditioners. The architects Foster+Partners from the UK are using traditional Arabic urban construction techniques: buildings not only provide shade along the public roads but also shade one another. Fresh air corridors and parks are spread throughout the building spaces and should reduce temperatures by 20 degrees Celsius in comparison to nearby Abu Dhabi. The coolness from underground is also being used for air conditioning.

The city’s strict sustainability approach is aimed at providing a global ecological role model. This includes consistent recycling and upcycling as well as water supply with a solar-operated desalination plant. Treated wastewater is used to water gardens and agricultural spaces, and companies and residents shall be supplied entirely with renewable energy. Masdar’s solar energy plant – the world’s largest with a 100 MW capacity – is supplying sufficient energy for the new city even during the construction phase.

Summary: strive for a closed loop instead of reducing impacts

First: Whether it involves a product, building, city district or a city – ecological systems are possible both on the small and large scale. The system must be a closed loop to obtain a real benefit. The aim is that at the end of the product’s life there is no unrecyclable waste or downcycling (cradle to grave), but instead a new beginning (cradle to cradle).

Second: A lot helps a lot! According to Prof. Dr. Braungart’s eco-effective approach, we should improve our industries so that nature- and environmentsupporting products and processes are possible. We shouldn’t aim for the reduction of our footprint, but for how this footprint can be set up as a never-ending, supportive source for natural systems.

And last but not least: real innovation can only arise when the existing is reconsidered and not just efficiency raised.

Michael Braungart
Marco Steinberg


Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart is a process technician and chemist. He is dedicated to research and consultation for eco-effective products – products and production processes in a loop system that are not only harmless to people and nature but beneficial. He is the founder and scientific director of EPEA Internationale Umweltforschung GmbH, as well as co-founder and scientific director of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC) and the Hamburg Environmental Institute. He also heads Braungart Consulting. He takes on academic functions at the Rotterdam School of Management, Leuphana University Lüneburg, Twente University in Enschede, and the TU Delft. He has written several books about eco-effectiveness with co-authors, such as “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things,” “The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability – Designing for Abundance” and “The Next Industrial Revolution.”

Marco Steinberg is the founder of Snowcone & Haystack. The strategic design studio in Helsinki helps governments and companies innovate themselves and to meet the challenges of the 21st century. He has also been active as an associate professor at Harvard Design School, as Chairman of the Supervisory Board for the Museum of Finnish Architecture and on the Board of the Design Driven City. Before founding Snowcone & Haystack, Marco Steinberg lent his expertise as a strategic design director at Sitra, a Finnish innovation fund. In association with them, he launched a portfolio of initiatives that systematically address the acute needs of the public sector today and in the future.