2010 Emerging Leaders

Saskia van Gendt

Fostering a new breed of environmentally-friendly construction and packaging materials that promote reuse, cut down on waste and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

As a young scientist at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Saskia van Gendt is leading innovative efforts to help foster green building construction, and promote the design and development of reusable packaging to significantly reduce waste.

Van Gendt, 29, has focused her work on a new field that she calls “Climaterials”—the connection between climate change and materials.

“Saskia’s work is inspiring the re-design of buildings, products and packaging to encourage techniques that reuse materials instead of wasting them, paving the way for resource conservation and a sustainable society,” said Timonie Hood, EPA’s green building coordinator. “She’s a true environmental visionary.”

Van Gendt’s goal is to encourage the use of materials in construction that have as small a carbon footprint as possible in their creation, and that will be able to be reused or have a minimal environmental impact when they eventually are discarded.

“Construction materials often have large quantities of embodied carbon, which is the total amount of greenhouse gases that are emitted over the life of a material,” van Gendt said. “For example, materials like cement inherently emit large amounts of carbon dioxide during production, and it is important to examine how we can reduce our consumption of cement and facilitate its reuse and recycling.”

The issue has huge implications.

Each year, millions of tons of construction related materials are incinerated or dumped in landfills, accounting for nearly one-third of our nation’s total solid waste generation. New construction will significantly increase landfill waste in the future and result in harmful emissions from the use of new materials.

To encourage this new approach to construction, van Gendt in 2007 developed the Lifecycle Building Challenge, a yearly online competition that recognizes cutting-edge building design and challenges students, architects and builders to reduce the environmental impact of buildings.

Lifecycle building is designing buildings to facilitate disassembly and material reuse to minimize waste, energy consumption, and associated greenhouse gas emissions. Also known as design for disassembly and design for deconstruction, lifecycle building describes the idea of creating high-performance buildings today that are stocks of resources for the future.

“The results of Saskia’s work to create this challenge have been incredible,” said Hood.

The Challenge website has received more than two million hits, and entries have poured in from more than 250 participants around the world since it started. All of the entries involved buildings or innovative products that together conserved more than 35,000 tons of construction materials compared to conventional construction practices and saved an estimated 8,115 tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

“This competition has had a global benefit of reducing climate change impacts, and has directly influenced the thinking and actions of architecture students, product and packaging designers, public servants, researchers, builders, and architects,” said Hood. “Leading architecture firms and students around the world have changed the way they design buildings based on this competition.”

One winning entry from last year’s competition, a modular construction wall and barricade, is not only re-usable but is entirely recyclable in a one-step process with no separation of material needed. Another winner was a stylish modular home that used environmentally-friendly products and was constructed for future disassembly and redeployment.

Van Gendt and colleagues at EPA help the winners promote their designs through national conferences, magazines and online, and connect them to receptive companies.

Van Gendt also has contributed significantly to other initiatives.

Since 2008, van Gendt has worked with a high-profile StopWaste grant program, a recycling and waste management effort in Alameda, Calif. The program helped Peerless Coffee purchase new equipment that cut packaging waste by 95 percent and allowed the company to set up a comprehensive program to recycle paper, cardboard and beverage containers, and compost food scraps and spent coffee grounds.

“She’s very committed, but also very charming,” said Andrew Gunther of the Center for Ecosystem Management and Restoration, where van Gendt was an intern “Her work requires initiative, diligence, and confidence, and Saskia has all of those things and more.”

As van Gendt seeks to revolutionize the building industry and foster use of products that have low environmental impact, she frequently thinks back to her original inspiration, which came while studying environmental science at Northwestern University.

“I learned that the natural world is, and should be, the perfect example for the industrialized world,” she said.

This medalist was the recipient of the Call to Service Medal, which was updated to the Emerging Leaders Medal in 2020.