Cradle-to-Grave Sustainability and the Circular Economy

July 6, 2021 | Technology

A Simple Summary of a Complex Concept

In the modern construction economy, sustainability is more than just a lofty ideal. It can be a sound business practice. Studies consistently show that sustainable building practices result in more efficient resource spend, lower long-term costs, and a greater return in investment down the line.

Enter the circular economy. Built on the cradle-to-grave sustainability concept, it shifts the mindset of traditional building construction, which begins well enough with compliant construction techniques yet ignores the issues with end of life material disposal and construction waste. The result of incorporating sustainable practices: better use of financial resources, more long-term organizational planning, and both the perception and execution of good stewardship that key stakeholders expect and require. Let’s dig in.

Defining Cradle-to-Grave Sustainability

At its core, sustainability is the ability to meet today’s demands without jeopardizing the potential of future generations. Built on a foundation of social, economic, and environmental principles, it motivates organizations to formulate long-term resolutions with a positive impact on humanity and the world.

Within that context, cradle-to-grave sustainability describes the process of evaluating any product from its initial manufacture to the end of its life. It’s a lifecycle assessment that estimates exactly how many resources are required, from the beginning all the way to the end.

The benefits of embracing the concept are clear. A more comprehensive understanding of resources required, from materials to energy, leads to smarter long-term decisions about minimizing these resources (along with their cost and negative impacts) in the long run.

In building construction, for instance, the idea that materials are more cost-effective is not true simply based on the fact that they bring construction costs down. Initially these higher performance materials may often require a higher up front investment, in the long run these products may also multiply their true value in the ease of installation, reduction in future repairs and the savings due to lower energy costs—hence, a better return on investment.

The cradle-to-grave sustainability of a building or product is the sum of its components and development process throughout each phase of its development.

  • Materials extraction
  • Processing
  • Manufacturing
  • Distribution
  • Use
  • Repair
  • Maintenance
  • Disposal
  • Recycling


From Cradle-to-Grave to the Circular Economy

Now, take it one step further. What if the cradle-to-grave philosophy didn’t stop at the end of a product’s life, but naturally led into the next lifecycle? That’s where the circular economy enters the equation.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation describes the concept best:

A circular economy aims to redefine growth, focusing on positive society-wide benefits. It entails gradually decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources and designing waste out of the system. Underpinned by a transition to renewable energy sources, the circular model builds economic, natural, and social capital.

In other words, it goes beyond the traditionally linear process of a given micro-economy. A lifecycle of a product doesn’t simply end with waste, but naturally leads into the next lifecycle. That’s accomplished through three core principles:

  1. Minimizing and designing waste and pollution out of the system.
  2. Keeping products and materials in use where possible.
  3. Regenerating systems or the reuse of products.

It’s about far more than simply being “green” for its own sake or ideological reasons. Especially in high-waste processes like building construction, embracing a circular economy approach comes with tangible benefits. A recent report by the MacArthur Foundation, for instance, found that this approach can save up to 40% of the energy used in real estate, reducing carbon emissions by 38% in the process.

Embracing the circular economy approach also reduces reliance on volatile building materials prices, with initial costs taking a backseat to long-term financial and environmental benefits.

Rather than “cradle-to-grave,” this is the cradle-to-cradle approach. A construction project or product lifecycle doesn’t simply end, but leads naturally into the next lifecycle, minimizing waste (and wasted resources) in the process. Wasted resources could mean energy, water or failure to capture value from non renewable resources like steel. It is sustainability at its finest, designed to optimize organizational processes for long-term business success.

How the Circular Economy Opens the Door to Other Opportunities

Think of the circular economy approach we’ve discussed above as an entry point. Once an organization adopts a mindset in a sustainable direction, other topics with similar, compounding benefits begin to open up as well.

For example, a Health Product Declaration (or HPD) can help communicate the ways in which sustainable building practices were followed to customers and other stakeholders. It identifies sustainable elements in areas including architecture, design, manufacturing, and others, minimizing the use of products that may be unsafe or hazardous in the process.

Working with HPDs and Environmental Product declarations (EPDs) in mind allows builders to match their planned materials with those deemed safe and sustainable. Think of it as a checklist from experts who have done their homework already, allowing the organization to embrace the principles of the circular economy without additional resources or expertise required.

Following HPDs and EPDs, of course, can also lead to public certifications such as LEED, communicating sustainable building practices to key stakeholders in the process.


5 Examples of Circular Economy Construction in Action

The above-mentioned MacArthur Foundation report also includes several real-world examples of how embracing the circular economy has led to business benefits across the globe and in a variety of applications.

These examples are built on five models:

  1. Flexible Spaces, building on coworking trends by listing unoccupied spaces online for short-term tenants. In a test office space in Milan, this concept brought in 18% of the net lease cost in additional revenue.
  2. Adaptable Assets, which are buildings that can adopt more than one use during their lifetime through streamlined retrofitting. A residential development test in Denmark found that embracing this approach increased its internal rate of return by 3% over 50 years.
  3. Relocatable Buildings, moving across several unused locations thanks to modular design and highly durable materials. A study in Amsterdam estimated that this approach could create an internal rate of return of up to 26% over 11 years.
  4. Residual Value, creating futures contracts for leftover materials at the end of a building’s life cycle. Tested on a retail fit-out in Berlin, this model reduced the whole life cost of ownership by more than 5% across ten years, with the reduction of waste a pleasant side effect.
  5. Performance Procurement, which takes the concept of product-as-a-service to the building level in which construction clients and tenants buy subscriptions for services rather than using their capital expenditures. In a test in London, the internal rate of return increased by 3% over 30 years.

Yes, sustainability is still considered a feel-good approach in many circles. But, as highlighted through these real-world examples of the circular economy, it can lead to significant benefits as well. Embracing the approach, and investing in products like Gridd® low-profile raised flooring that support minimal waste and models like the Adaptable Assets example above, can help you transform your facilities for the lifecycle of a building and beyond. In the instance of Gridd, the floor may be easily reconfigured an infinite number of times, and even picked up to move with a business to another room, building, or state.

It’s time for sustainability to become more than just a “green” opportunity. Within the circular economy, it might just be the engine that drives organizations forward.

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