At a pessimistic time when “development” is often taken as a euphemism for environmental destruction, architect William McDonough offers an optimistic possibility: What if our buildings and the materials used to construct them could make the world a better place? As one of our most forward-looking architects, McDonough has racked up three U.S. presidential awards and numerous blue-chip clients by delivering on that seemingly radical hope. He calls his design philosophy Cradle to Cradle—a vision of a continuous cycle of use and reuse of materials without any waste. He hopes to create a new Industrial Revolution through sustainable designs. The former “green dean” of the University of Virginia School of Architecture, McDonough has parlayed his thinking into the influential book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, an international movement, and a thriving business.
As realized by William McDonough + Partners, his architecture and community design firm based in Charlottesville, Virginia, McDonough’s projects have garnered wide acclaim. Ford Motor Company gave him $2 billion in 1999, with which he transformed the company’s ancient Rouge complex in Dearborn, Michigan, into an icon of green design, complete with the largest living roof on the planet: a 10.4-acre assembly-plant roof blanketed with sedum, a drought-resistant ground cover. The firm has done similar work for Gap Inc., Herman Miller, Oberlin College, and Chicago’s city hall. McDonough has also recently drawn up plans for a number of new, ecologically friendly cities in China. Separately, MBDC (McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry), the company he cofounded with German chemist Michael Braungart, consults on the creation of healthy products and processes, such as utilizing sustainable materials for Nike sneakers.
DISCOVER caught up with the architect and designer at his Charlottesville office.
How do you see the future of architecture and design?
Given the obvious concerns for human ecological health—in terms of climate change, heavy metal toxification, indoor air quality, air pollution, plastics in the oceans, and things like that—there will be a large-scale trend to buildings that start to act like organisms. The green-roof movement, for example, will be promulgated so that buildings make oxygen. We’ll also see roofs that make energy, as in solar energy. In effect, the buildings will become photosynthetic and make either oxygen or energy, or both. We’ll see materials that are derived from healthy sources and are designed for reuse and recapture.
What kinds of healthy materials will we be using?
Well, sustainable forestry, recycled metal, things like that. They’ll be characterized in terms of where they were sourced. Right now when you order wood, you don’t necessarily know where it came from. If you order metal, you don’t know if it’s recycled, you don’t know where it came from. But I think in the future, materials will have passports. We’ll know where they came from and where they’re going.
Why is knowing the origins of your materials so important?
Because in the current system, we take, make, and waste. Things come from just about anywhere, get used, and then get taken to the landfill or are incinerated when we’re finished with them. And it won’t be possible for 8 to 10 billion people on the planet to celebrate a high quality of life if we deplete all the resources in a flawed cradle-to-grave system. When we look at things like plastics, they should be seen as what we call technical nutrients. They should be materials that get used over and over again for lots of different purposes over time, rather than being used once and then buried or burned.
What do we need to do to realize this vision?
We need to adopt the Cradle to Cradle approach in the design and deployment of products and systems. It would mean, for example, in the United States, that we take recycling seriously. Right now we don’t have curbside recycling in half of America. And a lot of the materials that are “recycled” are basically being baled up and simply sent to China, where they’re burned or, in the case of paper, made into packaging. We need a recycling consciousness. The other thing we need is to recognize that renewable energy is potentially the largest job-creation program in the history of the planet. The conversion to renewable power in all its forms—wind, solar, et cetera—will create indigenous jobs because these forms of energy are inherently local and are not exported. In the deserts, for example: solar thermal. In the Great Plains: wind. Once we become aware of that, we’ll realize that not only will we be getting energy security, we’ll be getting job security as well, on a global basis.