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The circular economy and its role as a driver of sustainability

Thinking consciously about how natural resources are used has always been a core topic at the DGNB. Right from the beginning, the DGNB has offered a certification system that favours a holistic approach to carbon footprints. Therefore, this has always involved not only the conscious selection of building materials according to their composition and origin, but also a methodical assessment of the ‘reclaimability’ of individual residual materials – all based on strict criteria, criteria that have thus become established in the market.

Until now, these were the classic issues encountered in conventional closed-loop recycling, but in recent years the circular economy has also gained attention at the European level. It’s one of the big topics of the future. This was also triggered by the Cradle to Cradle philosophy of Michael Braungart and William McDonough,whilst organisations such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation are also firm believers in the approach. The thinking goes further than it used to in closed-loop recycling. For the first time, new economic factors come into play which provide a starting point for new business models, redefining how we view inherited assumptions regarding acquisition and ownership. Effectively, this is turning the spotlight on pure service provision. As a result, even the technology giant Philips no longer ‘just’ sells lamps; since 2015 it has been selling ‘Light as a Service’.

It’s all about quality

This development coincides with manufacturers being held more accountable for their actions, and may result in a new understanding of quality. Producers retain ownership of their products and thus have a vested interest in the quality of their wares, whether they can be re-used, and whether they can again offer the same or even superior quality. This is an approach we actively support at the DGNB. For instance, the issue of manufacturer responsibility (including the obligation to take products back) was incorporated in the deconstruction and disassembly criteria as early as 2015. Of course, these criteria are central to the technical quality aspects of certification.

In December 2015, the EU signed off its first action plan for supporting and promoting the circular economy. Its first package revolved in the short term around reducing waste, and in the medium term around decreasing the use of landfills whilst increasing product recycling and re-deployment rates. The EU action plan also addresses the key idea behind the circular economy when it comes to using products over their entire life cycle – ie from production to actual use, but also maintenance (repair), waste management and the deployment of secondary raw materials, which obviously should be returned to the economic cycle.

The DGNB promotes greater use of circular economy methods in buildings

Given the growing importance of this topic and our responsibility to look after resources consciously and responsibly (or simply do what is logical and right), the DGNB has set itself the objective to become more active in this area. For instance, the new 2017 version of the DGNB System, which is currently under development, will explicitly address the circular economy, providing incentives (with corresponding bonuses) in certain areas, especially when planning and carrying out projects.

Making such aspects more outwardly visible is the DGNB’s way of providing organisations with a fillip to consider corresponding concepts when planning a building. The idea is to assess and evaluate systems as a whole. When examining certain issues that are addressed by projects, ie those that fall under the circular economy (like buildings inspired by cradle-to-cradle thinking), it is immediately apparent that the crux of the issue is quality – for people and the environment.

Taken from the angle of the DGNB philosophy, the methods applied are highly action-based and one must therefore wonder how they actually add value to a project, and what the relationship is between actual expenditure and usefulness. Beacon projects are important for showing the way forward and stimulating debate, but new ideas also have to gain critical mass. This being the case, to identify ideas that genuinely add value, for people and the environment, it is important to assess all of the aspects holistically, which of course is the approach taken under the DGNB System. Supporting positive thought and action – and using this as a point of learning – is essential if the innovation cycles required by the construction industry are to be accelerated.

Sustainability is not a matter of choice

Essentially, this is not about what we actually call things, or subtle nuances in the definition of terms like sustainability, circular economy and Cradle to Cradle. It’s about doing what’s right for people and the environment, and not creating obstacles by making unnecessary distinctions. Resources must be used responsibly. There’s no alternative. This should be a fundamental understanding shared by everyone involved in construction – just like other sustainable building topics. Designing products holistically, with a focus on the life cycle, should be something that goes without saying rather than being just a matter of choice, or something that depends on the availability of financial means, or even market demand. Accordingly, sustainability in everything we build should be the new normal.

This is a goal the DGNB strives for. It doesn’t matter which new terms are used or what aspects lead us to achieve this goal. They need to be supported; they need to be used properly. The only important elements are the sincerity of our intentions and the underlying principles observed by everyone involved in building our surrounding environment – an environment that harms no-one and meets the required quality standards, not just in terms of technology, but also ‘architectural culture’, so that we feel comfortable living in this environment.

Event tip:
An event on these issues will take place on Monday, 24 April 2017 at the DGNB offices in Stuttgart. The event is free and will revolve around the topic of: Build Positive: Together, We Build What Comes Next. More information and registration: here.


Filed under: Impulse


Dr. Christine Lemaitre was born in Gießen, Germany in 1975 and studied structural engineering at the University of Stuttgart from 1995 to 2000. After working in the USA for two years as structural engineer, she started in 2003 working at the Institute of Lightweight Structures Design and Construction at the University of Stuttgart as a research and teaching assistant. In 2007, she started as a project manager for R&D at Bilfinger Berger AG in the area of resource efficient buildings. She completed her phd thesis on adaptive lightweight structures in 2008. In January 2009 she took on the role as director certification system of the German Sustainable Building Council. Since February 2010 Dr. Christine Lemaitre is the CEO of the German Sustainable Building Council. Since 2013 she is member of the board of directors of the Sustainable Building Alliance. From 2015 until June 2019 she was Chair of the European Regional Network (ERN) of the World Green Building Council. Since 2016 she is board member of the World Green Building Council (WGBC).

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