Our throwaway society may find it hard to imagine a building made up entirely of recycled components, but that is just what we have to do, says Tarek Merlin

It has been said that this nasty credit crunch that’s going around will either be short and deep or long and weak. Whatever your preference, you should prepare yourself for some uncomfortable times ahead.

There’s something darkly poetic about the rhythms of the financial world, something that speaks of the cycles of nature, where everything is connected. Growth followed by decay, followed by growth again. The nutrients of whatever just died feeds the soil of the new. This process has become a philosophy to many who are seeking to find new ways of moving forward in the construction industry sustainably, morally and ethically.

William McDonough, architect and proponent (some say prophet) of the “cradle to cradle” philosophy, seeks to redress our current construction methodologies and calls for a new kind of industrial revolution. One that sees all materials go through a lifespan from cradle to cradle – as opposed to cradle to grave, where materials are used once then discarded.

Cradle to cradle proposes a complete rethink of the ways in which we procure everything from buildings to cars. This might sound a little daunting but you forget what clever people we are. We managed to figure out how to extract metal from rock, magic it into a space ship and blast a man onto the moon. So, figuring out how to make solar collectors work for us (which, let’s be honest, are flat sheets of metal that sit out in the sun and get hot) should be no sweat.

The trouble is, of course, as McDonough readily admits, we urgently need an interlude of diligent R&D. At present much of the eco-friendly technology that we’re all rushing to install into our projects, such as biomass boilers and ground-source heat pumps, is still in its infancy, and some of the cradle to cradle concepts of re-use do read like science fiction.

Take cars, for example. We like to think that we should make cars last for a long time, being swapped from person to person for 25 years. We think that this way the materials it is made from will have as little impact on the earth as possible, and that as long as it runs on some kind of biofuel, then that’s okay. Well, consider the idea of a five-year car. As McDonough puts it: “The five-year car is a car whose materials are all coherent and tagged. In fact, all materials in the car have ‘passports’ so we know where they come from, and we know where they’re going” – back to the car manufacturers. “After five years the car could be recycled and updated with the latest in safety and efficiency. All done with the same materials that you, in effect, lease from the auto company. They keep making the cars out of the same stuff.”

We should relish the emerging worlds as an opportunity to instigate a complete cultural shift in how we build

This isn’t just recycling, this is divine reincarnation. But is it really feasible to consider a scenario where every component of a building is tagged, the whole thing having a specific lifespan, its demolition pre-planned, and everything re-used in a bigger, better building in years to come?

To gauge the seriousness of the problem our industry faces, just look at the potential impact of the development of BRICKs countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and Korea). McDonough compares the expansion of just one of those countries, China, as akin to rebuilding the US in the next seven years.

Nobody, especially McDonough, is against expansion; instead we should relish the phenomena of the emerging worlds as an opportunity to instigate a complete cultural shift in the way we think about how we build. But if China sticks to its caricature and copies the Western world’s expansion techniques, it does not bode well.

Some argue that architects should not involve themselves on projects in these countries – they reckon that this somehow exonerates them from any adverse impact the project may have. But what better way to ensure change than by working together with local clients and users on projects delivering new residential and working communities, sustainably, morally, ethically?

We need to understand that it is our hand that rocks the cradle of commerce, development, construction and manufacture. It’s not an unstoppable force that we have no control over. It just takes a bit of lateral thinking, ingenuity and political will to effect change. Is that too much for us?