Designing a new world

Architect says Cradle to Cradle concept takes sustainability to a higher level

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Kevin Burke says that he “hit the trifecta” when he joined William McDonough + Partners in 1994. A California native, Burke and his wife, Carrie Meinburg Burke, an architecture graduate of Yale, were living in Connecticut when they began to think about moving south. “We put Charlottesville on the map and said, ‘We want to move there.’ We had no idea how we’d get back here,” he says.

Burke was no stranger to Charlottesville, having earned his master’s in architecture at the University of Virginia after getting an undergraduate degree in international relations from Stanford.

McDonough’s architecture practice was in New York City, but he became dean of the U.Va. architecture school soon after Burke joined the firm. Burke helped McDonough close the New York office and move to Virginia.

“We got to move back to Charlottesville; we were both interested in our practice in this new-found thing called green design; and the first project I would be working on was in California,” Burke says.

Now 51, Burke is the firm’s director of practice, overseeing offices in Charlottesville, San Francisco and Amsterdam, which employ a total of 36 people. He has worked closely with McDonough over the years on a number of iconic sustainable design projects including the Gap Inc. office building in San Bruno, Calif., and Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin College in Ohio.

Burke is a key design leader, heading teams that designed the Fuller Theological Seminary Worship Center and Library in Pasadena, American University School of International Service in Washington and VMware corporate headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif. His current major projects include the Ferrer Research and Development Center in Barcelona and NASA Sustainability Base in Moffett Field, Calif.

Burke also lectures on the principles of Cradle to Cradle, a sustainability manifesto detailed in a book by McDonough and German chemist Michael Braungart in 2002. Cradle to Cradle, or C2C, challenges the “cradle to grave” manufacturing model dating back to the Industrial Revolution, in which products create waste and pollution. Under the C2C concept, products can be designed so that, at the end of their useful lives, their components can be returned to the soil or used to create something new.

Virginia Business: Could you briefly de­­scribe what Cradle to Cradle means in terms of architecture?

Burke: There are five basic tenets of Cradle to Cradle, and they apply whether you’re talking about architecture, the making of a carpet, a rug or a chair. 

The first fundamental tenet is: Is the product that we’re making biological or technical?  And if it’s biological, that means that it’s designed from the beginning to stay in biological cycles.  And at the end of its use period or its life, it could go back to soil and create healthy soil, so you could compost it.  It would have no adverse impacts.  So that’s one metabolism.

And then the other metabolism is the technical metabolism.  And that’s saying that the items or products are designed from the beginning to stay in that metabolism and not cross-contaminate.  Things become toxic when they get in the biosphere basically.  And so the key is that it’s not just closing loops, but it’s designing from the beginning so that you are closing loops in a safe and healthy fashion.  So you’re understanding, down to the parts per million, what the chemical attributes are for any product … .

The second [tenet] is: Is there a means of recapture?  [If] the products in this chair are designed around the Cradle to Cradle [concept], it doesn’t mean that chair has to go back to that manufacturer necessarily, but that the materials within the chair can be intelligently codified in a way that they can be pooled at the end of its life, because some of the plastics that are developed have very particular tolerances or attributes that shouldn’t be degraded in their future use. 

The third [tenet] is: Is the production powered on renewable energy? The ideal would be that the manufacturing process itself would be powered by renewable energy. 

Then, does the process create clearing water?  There’s this example of this factory in Switzerland that makes fabrics.  And the water that comes out at the end of that process is actually cleaner than Swiss drinking water.  So that’s a high bar assignment for a factory.

And then the last of the five is around social fairness.  Are the materials being produced in a way that still honors human dignity basically?

Bill McDonough likes to call that sort of the spine of Cradle to Cradle … .

So as you extrapolate that from a product to a building, the thing that we’re really conscious of is it’s enormously complex when you take it up in scale. … So our sense is: Take it step by step, but ensure that we’re looking at all opportunities to employ this protocol wherever we can. And the easiest thing to do is to just specify building products and materials that have already had Cradle to Cradle certification.  The certification is provided by our sister company, McDonough Braungart.

VB:  How would you compare Cradle to Cradle to LEED [Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design]?  That’s the sustainability measurement that everybody hears about. 

Burke: LEED has done an unbelievable job in market transformation … .  There is not a project that comes out from a corporate, civic or institutional client that doesn’t have LEED as criteria.  So that’s phenomenal in itself.

But our concern with LEED gets back to the broad thinking around Cradle to Cradle.  Cradle to Cradle is saying “being less bad” is not good enough.  Reduce, reuse, recycle is not going to solve the global challenge. There still are vestiges of that way of thinking about sustainability that are sort of at the basis of LEED.  That would be our criticism.

But the positive thing about LEED is it has taken on this concept of constant improvement.  LEED 3.0 already has started to engage some of the issues around it [so that it] isn’t a one-size-fits-all protocol.  It’s becoming more regionally based.  It’s becoming more typology based.  There are these improvements that are built into it.  And we’d like to see 4.0 or 5.0 start to take on attributes of Cradle to Cradle thinking.

LEED is tremendous, but it’s not the endgame.

VB: Some people think going to a bigger scale is just impossible with Cradle to Cradle. What is your response to that?

Burke: We know enough about green buildings or just buildings in general to realize that it’s an incredibly complex assignment to say that you’re going to achieve Cradle to Cradle out of the box.  We can’t declare victory right now.  But by the same token … we can define what the endgame looks like.  We can define where we need to get, and that’s going to be essential.  We can’t afford to continue to make things and create buildings and cities in the same way.  We’re going to run out of resources.  We’re going to run out of space. ...

I think the key is, and this is where Bill [McDonough] really places his emphasis…, there’s a commercial aspect to [Cradle to Cradle].  It’s not about just asking businesses to do the right thing, being benevolent.  By doing something that has a commercial value and creates these benefits, you get a sort of triple top-line win instead of creating profit but still leading to environmental degradation. 

Click here for full transcript of interview.

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