One of William McDonough's first memories of his early childhood in Tokyo is lying in bed at night, looking up at the wooden ceiling, and listening to the sounds of carts that collected "night soil" in the city and carried it off to the farms. In the mornings, he would hear the sounds of carts delivering fresh tofu. "Out with the waste and in with the food," says the 55-year-old eco-architect and designer. "It just seems natural."
The statement might describe McDonough's approach to his chosen profession as well. A pioneer of the sustainable design movement, he believes that industrial creations should be self-renewing. Products should be crafted so they can be broken down into their basic functional or biological elements for reuse, he explains in Cradle to Cradle, a landmark book he co-authored in 2002. (Flip over this volume, which has been translated into six languages, and the back cover proclaims: "Waste equals food.")
"My goal is very simple," says McDonough, who won the National Design Award in 2004 from the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. It's to help create "a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy, and just world, with clean air, soil, water, and power -- economically, equitably, ecologically, and elegantly enjoyed, period. What's not to like?"
O.K., even brilliant architects don't get to redesign the planet from the ground up. Still, McDonough has demonstrated that pieces of this utopia are possible on a small scale. One of his most famous projects is an eco-friendly site restoration of Ford Motor Co.'s (F ) historic River Rouge Complex in Michigan. On the roof of a vast assembly building, McDonough planted 10.5 acres of sedum, a succulent herb that absorbs water quickly, and he built a natural drainage system that slows the passage of rainwater. These design touches saved $35 million on costs, compared to installing a conventional storm-water system. McDonough designed a solar-heated and solar-cooled factory for Herman Miller, cutting energy costs by 30%. He has also worked with a Swiss fabric manufacturer to create a biodegradable wool blend used in the "Think" chair made by Steelcase Inc. (SCS ). The Swiss plant once had to handle the fabric trimmings as hazardous waste. Now they're used as mulch by nearby garden clubs.
McDonough, whose father was a globe-trotting Seagram's executive, attended 19 different schools growing up, then studied art at Dartmouth College. The summer before he headed to Yale University's School of Architecture, in 1973, his professor asked him to be part of a team developing a 100-year master plan for the Jordan River Valley. When he moved to Jordan, McDonough had a chance to experience sustainable living first-hand -- in a Bedouin tent. "You can roll them up, you can take them with you, you make them out of [goats] which follow you around and eat everything you can't," he explains.
Now, the architect's own cradle-to-cradle circle is taking him back to Asia. As co-chairman for the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development, McDonough is helping to draw up plans for infrastructure, including transportation and the integration of green spaces, in six entirely new city districts in China. (Some 400 million people are expected to move from the country into cities over the next 12 years, he says.) McDonough is particularly excited about one site, a state-run sugar-cane farm near the city of Liuzhou, in the southern Guangxi province. Rather than completely displace that farmland, McDonough wants to move it up: onto the buildings' roofs, for insulation.
Buildings in this district will be set at an angle, rather than on a traditional north-south grid, so that each window gets sunlight. And a waste-water system will convert sewage into fertilizer. "I hadn't thought of it until now, but it's obviously connected to that Tokyo [experience]," he says. Cradle to cradle, indeed.
By Jena McGregor