Michael Braungart: Buildings should make life better

All too often, sustainability becomes a matter of guilt management and minimizing harm to the environment, says Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart, one of the founders of the Cradle-to-Cradle design concept.

Instead, we should construct buildings that support and improve life and leave a positive footprint. To achieve this, buildings need to be more flexible and designed as services.

Around the world, cities, companies and countries take pride in their ambitions to become more sustainable and carbon neutral. But according to one the world’s leading environmental thinkers, Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart, reaching zero CO2 emissions should not be a goal in itself. Instead, the aim should be to leave a positive impact.    

 – When we talk about sustainability, we take the moral approach, where sustainability becomes guilt management. People think they are protecting the environment by being less bad. Sustainability is defined as fulfilling the needs of the current generation without compromising the needs of future generations. But you don’t say “I don’t want to compromise the needs of my children”. You want to make things better for them, says Michael Braungart.


A city like a forest

Michael Braungart demonstrated this line of thinking when he and his colleagues from the Environmental Protection Encouragement Agency (EPEA) were asked to exhibit at the 15th Biennale di Venezia in 2016. Under the title “A building like a tree, a city like a forest”, Michael Braungart and his team presented their vision of how buildings can be transformed so they clean the air and water, and support biodiversity and ecosystems.

– Have you ever seen a zero-emission tree? Trees are not neutral, they leave a positive imprint. Buildings today generate two thirds of all waste and one third of the contaminants in human breast milk are chemicals from the building industry, such as flame retardants. So, we need to design buildings that are not poisonous, but can sustain life and harbour a diversity of species, just like trees, says Michal Braungart and continues:

– This goes even beyond sustainability. It is also relevant when we talk about beauty, quality and innovation. A building that makes me unhappy and ill is not beautiful or good quality.


Buildings as services

To achieve this, we must get better at using natural materials in the right context and defining the use periods of all materials, so the buildings can become material banks.

– Buildings need to be far more flexible and designed as services. You don’t need to own a door or a window, you need to use it. So, we must design the components, so they can provide the needed service and then be disassembled, and the materials reused. And we need to use healthy, natural materials, otherwise we create a waste problem later, says Michael Braungart.  

About Prof. Dr. Michael Braungart

  • Professor Dr. Michael Braungart (born 1958) is the founder and scientific CEO of EPEA Internationale Umweltforschung GmbH, an international environmental research, and consulting institute headquartered in Hamburg.
  • Educated in Chemistry and Process Engineering, he dedicated his work to Greenpeace in the 1980’s and helped to establish the chemistry section of Greenpeace International, which he took over in 1985.
  • Michael Braungart is co-author with William McDonough of ‘Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things’ (2002), ‘The Next Industrial Revolution: The Cradle-to-Cradle-Community’ (2008) and ‘Upcycle’ (2013).