William McDonough: The Original Green Man

Virginia's dean of green architecture talks about eco-efficiency, a multi-disciplinary approach, and the need for a new platform of thought

William McDonough, FAIA, the dean of green architecture, foresees what he calls “the next industrial revolution,” in which environmentally driven new product design and manufacturing processes would usher in an era of good design and abundance. McDonough argues that reducing the use of natural resources will only slow the rate of pollution and depletion, so what’s needed are new industrial production strategies that eliminate waste altogether, an imitation of nature. He sees a future in which manufacturers, who now equate profitability with disposability and waste, create products that can be repeatedly recycled and upgraded (“upcycled,” he calls it) with each reuse. This kind of environmentalism, McDonough argues, will be good for business and job retention. McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), a partnership McDonough formed with German chemist Michael Braungart, helps clients develop eco-efficient strategies and products. In their book Cradle to Cradle (2002), McDonough and Braungart make a hard-headed pitch for improving productivity by designing for reuse at every step of the manufacturing process. In 2005, the partners launched a product certification program.

Born in Tokyo, raised in Hong Kong, and trained at Dartmouth and Yale, the 56-year-old McDonough founded William McDonough+Partners, Architecture and Community Design in 1981. The 30-person firm has translated cradle-to-cradle ideas into built form, designing structures that make oxygen, store carbon, produce more energy than they consume, and provide animal habitats. After completing the 1984 headquarters for the Environmental Defense Fund in New York City, McDonough sold his ideas to such corporations as The Gap, for which WM+P designed a grass-roofed corporate campus in 1997, and the Ford Motor Company, for which it is performing a 20-year, $2 billion re-engineering of the River Rouge Plant in Dearborn, Michigan. WM+P’s mixed-use Courtyard on Bear in Banff, Alberta, and its affordable residential sister project, Cave Avenue (both of 2004), embody the three components of McDonough’s holistic environmental strategy: ecology, economy, and equity.

In 1994, when McDonough became dean of the University of Virginia School of Architecture for five years, he moved his firms to Charlottesville, where they remain today. In 1996, McDonough became the first and only individual recipient of the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development. His work takes him to Europe, Canada, and China, where he is helping draw up infrastructure plans in six new city districts. And he travels the globe explaining the “next industrial revolution.” Last August, Record’s Editor-in-Chief Robert Ivy and McDonough talked in McDonough’s Charlottesville office, their chairs resting on a sand-colored carpet of white nylon pellets and polymers that will be reclaimed again and again in a near-infinite cradle-to-cradle loop

In your professional life you’ve been something of a polymath, someone interested in many things. How do you see yourself? How do you define yourself?

William McDonough: I went to 19 schools in different countries before college.  I’ve been exposed to different cultures and places and ideas. I think that broad exposure shows in my range of interests. I’m fearlessly engaged in my interests.  Being a dean at the University of Virginia, I was impressed by the breadth of interests of the University’s founder, Thomas Jefferson. In comparison to him, everyone looks like a slacker. It doesn’t frighten me to deal with lots of different issues at the same time.

Talk a little about how you spend your time, and how your interests fit into the professional life you’ve created for yourself.

I practice architecture, and that’s where I’m grounded, so I spend a lot of time on specific design questions for specific buildings and projects. I also have a business with the German chemist Michael Braungart. We developed a cradle-to-cradle approach to design and get down to the details of architecture and products and systems.

That involves connecting with corporations and spending time talking to CEOs and meta-managers at these companies.

Another part of the business is called McDonough Consulting, and that’s where I work on behalf of CEOs and write my books and articles, give speeches and design products. And then I have not-for-profit work, to which I contribute significant time. And I do academic work on-demand for institutions with which I’m affiliated.

Is there a motivating or underlying influence that has led you where you are? Do you have an underlying ethic? What has impelled you?

I think that having seen people starve to death of disease in places of extreme shortages and having seen people thrive in places of abundance—that kind of exposure has yielded a broad set of values about the human right to celebrate life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as Jefferson characterized it, and also the right of nature to exist and thrive.

Did you have an “aha” moment or did you grow into this?

It was a combination of things. Growing up in Hong Kong was a major influence. And my grandparents lived in the woods in Puget Sound. So I spent my summers pretty much alone in the woods and on the water. As a child, I was either there or in the center of a bustling city with 6 million people on 40 square miles. So that affected me.  At Dartmouth I studied international relations. People have said that our work today is a form of high diplomacy as well as a form of action.

And then the energy crisis happened when I was in architecture school at Yale, and that had a profound effect. I was shocked, after having read Vitruvius, when major architects taught that solar energy had nothing to do with architecture. A few of us broke from the ranks at Yale. We were looking for what it meant to be a swan in the next century.

We explored the specifics of energy and building, and I built my first solar house in Ireland while I was a student at Yale. We started the Environmental Trust Fund, and that was the first time we started working with materials on a molecular level. And then I won a competition for a skyscraper in Poland, for which I proposed that the developer plant 10 square miles of trees to offset the building’s effects on climate change. That was 1989. Seventeen years ago, we were talking about climate change in our buildings.

And then in 1991 I met Michael Braungart and that probably had the largest influence on my thinking. Michael is a genius, and you know he showed me that the disparate threads that I had been looking at in an intuitive way had a scientific basis and that science had a design basis. That was a revelation. The two of us coming together was what we called design chemistry. That was a great moment.

How did you come together?

I had won a competition for a daycare center in Frankfurt, was looking for eco-toxicological information for it, and had heard about Michael. He’s famous. We started talking at a social function one evening and kept talking into the night. We haven’t stopped talking since.

The basis of your understanding is architectural, and his is scientific. Yet you’re delving into areas that involve the intersection of these two worlds. Has it taken you into science?

For me science is like music. I love listening to it, but I am not a scientist. I appreciate science from a designer’s perspective. I am very attention-deficit disordered; I jump around a lot. So I’m always amazed at how scientists are able to drill down and stay with a subject.

The work you have done has taken you fairly deeply into science for an architect. In fact, I would say that most architects are deficient in their knowledge of science. To do environmental thinking and planning, do you have to have science appreciation?

We’d have to ask the question: how can something be high-quality design if it makes you sick or destroys the planet? And often the answers require science. It’s easy to tell the truth; it’s harder to know what the truth is. And that’s what science is for.

The practice of architecture at this point in history necessarily has to be informed by the science of making.

Vitruvius’ books on architecture describe materials and talk about finishes, plasters, woods, and all their “natures.” He got down to the science of the time. You can see these polymaths like Vitruvius or Goethe or Jefferson being very interested in science. Franklin did the fundamental science of electricity, and yet he was also dealing with politics and journalism. So you couldn’t have a fundamental review of the human experience without science.

Is architectural education grappling with these questions or making us inquisitive enough to make these explorations?

As a dean, I didn’t have faculty trained in these areas and there was a confusion in many educators’ minds about interdisciplinary thinking and multi-disciplinary thinking.

Expand on that please.

I rely on a chemist for chemistry, and I need a multi-disciplinary team to do my work, but I don’t have to know chemistry. I think the important thing for architectural education is to teach that we need multi-disciplinary teams to do the green work. Not every firm can have a chemist, but they can rely on us for chemistry. We’re doing the chemistry of products and materials. We’re looking to create a cadre of thousands of designers who use the same index for ecological intelligence.

I think an important thing that’s been missing is a coherent framework for design based on a sustaining strategy. It’s sort of like we need a new Bauhaus, a new platform of thought and activity, and it will require a broad range of interests. The Bauhaus had fundamentals of engineering brought to the arts and the values of art brought to engineering. We need to bring those two dimensions back together and combine them with advanced science, the understanding of relativity and DNA.

Who do you talk with about the theory of relativity? It is not something that architects typically address in a conversation.

It started with Michael talking about the quality of mass. What we were interested in is the fact that we have energy income on the planet, so we will solve the energy problem, but what we don’t have is mass income. So if we toxify the mass and destroy its capacities, we won’t be able to recover from it. Then it became clear that you have to look at the theory of relativity, because energy and mass are equal. The question is dimension, which is “c” squared. I don’t have the math or science to be able to engage in a comprehensive discussion with a physicist or chemist, but I can read an equation. I can understand that the fundamental mathematical relationship is equality with a difference in dimension, that energy equals mass, mass is not growing but energy and biomass are growing.  So growth can be good. From a design perspective, that’s an immensely valuable piece of information.

That brings us to DNA, because what’s missing in the equation is biology. That’s the next discovery of our era—DNA and nanotechnology, which includes knowing what’s going on at the molecular level, what goes on in a virus, what goes on in genetic engineering, and synergetics.

I doubt there are 140 architects who would understand what you’re saying. That may be hyperbole, but I think by training and inclination this isn’t where architects’ heads are.


These three issues or interests—high tech, nanotech, and synergetics combined with an underlying ethical framework and concern for the human condition—set you apart. Do you see yourself as having a point of view that differs from others?

No. I think that what I’m talking about is commonsense. I think everybody can understand what I’m talking about.

Do you see yourself as an innovator?

Only because I’m surprised that what I am doing seems to be unique. So it must represent some form of innovation, but to me it seems so obvious. I don’t feel like I’m inventing things.

I feel like I’m discovering things that are already there.

If it is as apparent and clear as you’ve described it, are you impatient with colleagues and clients for not getting it quickly enough?

I’m not impatient. I’m very persistent and very optimistic. If I were impatient about these things I would become a maniac.

Let’s broaden it out a little bit here. Al Gore’s made his movie, oil is at $70 a barrel, temperatures have been at record highs, and China recently had the largest t typhoon in 50 years. Has our clientele and the educated public come around?

Any sentient creature would have to recognize that there’s a sea change coming. There’s a huge human opportunity in the crisis.  There’s what some people have called “the McDonough paradox”: it’s the worriers who are going to solve the problems for those who aren’t worrying much. Not only will they solve the problem; they’ll seize its opportunities. Since the only constant in modern life is change, those who are ready to change will be the ones who prosper.

Are people knowledgeable about products?

No. It’s so confusing. There are so many green claims in the marketplace based on different frameworks. We’re seeing people promulgating products as having recycled content, but what if you’re recycling toxic products? The nice thing about cradle to cradle is it asks a very simple question: are you cradle to cradle or not? It’s not very complicated.

Corporations seem to be jumping on the bandwagon because of the commercial implications. Could you talk a little about the implications of this for you as a planner and designer? What does it mean to you that a broad group, not just a few, are interested and engaged?

Two aspects are exciting to me in terms of my work. One is that many people are adopting cradle to cradle and the specific strategies that Michael and I are proposing. It’s a framework that can be understood by anyone. Things go back to nature; they go back to industry. The result is clean water, clean air, people being treated fairly, and life goes on. The other is that with so many people taking this up, I can now move on to the next level. Clients have become sophisticated, which allows us to continuously push the envelope. So we don’t market ourselves; we respond to the marketplace.

That’s interesting. Do you have competitors?

We’ve been careful not to compete with other people.  We just want to do our work. The Latin root for compete, competare, means “strive together,” go forward together. I think I’ve also made a considered judgment not to expose my work broadly, but rather to expose the ideas broadly. And our ideas are not inconsistent with other peoples’ good ideas. Other groups may be very focused on, for example, efficiency or being less bad; we’re focused on being more good, because being less bad is still being bad. It’s good to be less bad but it’s insufficient. Most of the people with whom we might compete are still efficiency people, and so we don’t really compete with them.

Tell me how your work started in the U.S., but grew international.

My first building was in Jordan. When I graduated from Dartmouth, I followed my professor of urban planning to Jordan as a field representative for the 100-year master plan team for the Jordan Valley. I lived with the Bedouins, building settlements for them. After being nomads for millennia, they were settling, due to border closings in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. We had to figure out what it meant to settle a Bedouin.

So early on you were thinking internationally?

I always thought I’d be a U.S. ambassador, because when you grow up overseas and look for an American male role model, it’s going to be an ambassador.

You are now working in China. What’s your take on China’s challenges?

China is just so explosive. It’s like wrestling a supernova. It’s expanding and contracting simultaneously, so that it’s both a terrifying and thrilling prospect.

Two things we see in China. The Chinese have a long history of relating to the landscape and regard it as perpetual. So when they get the idea that we’re designing for perpetuity, it makes sense to them. The other thing is that the President of China has called on the country to adopt a circular economy, and we’re regarded as part of that.

One of the reasons I’m working in China is that, as Napoleon apparently said, “Let China sleep because when she wakes she will shake the world.” China is shaking the world now. She has us by the throat. She can flip a switch and turn off our economy. So why would we not want to engage thoroughly and try to make sure that our relationship is on a good footing? People often ask me why I work with corporations that have been the key culprits in destruction, and my response has to be, ‘Who am I supposed to be working with?’ China’s the same way. How could I not be involved in a place that’s going to build new housing for 400 million in 12 years? Why would I not want to be a miniscule part of this huge undertaking?, and we’re considered very much part of it.

You are working on at least one city plan in China. Talk about what it means to do a whole place from scratch. It isn’t often that people get the opportunity.

On a personal level, it’s very humbling. You can only posit a set of frame conditions in which the city as an organism can grow. It’s a thrill to be able to imagine the possibilities of whole systems, like human sewage treatment, as a positive material and a nutrient instead of a liability.

Let me change gears a little. Are there challenges that you’ve faced that you haven’t found a solution for or things you’ve tried that didn’t work?

Definitely. When you do experimental work you don’t slide from success to success. You kind of lurch from one stumble to the next. We stumble all the time. The things that we tried and didn’t really work out had to do with business. We’ve discovered that we’re far better as leaders than as managers. The other thing I’ve learned is that there is no instant success. We really have to keep going step by step in our plodding kind of way. It requires a kind of persistence and care. Someone said, paths are made by walking them. So we’re just trying to walk the path, just keep going.

You’ve chosen to keep your firm at a certain size as well.

Right. I don’t have the mental or physical capacity to manage a huge enterprise. I have no desire to try. I like what I do. I like where I do it. I want an organization that’s only large enough to get the work done and small enough that I can stay in touch with everybody in it.

This is counter to a trend for architectural firms to get larger. It’s a discipline you’ve imposed on yourself.

I’ve met with CEOs who ask what’s my business model, and when I tell them I’m a small service business, their jaws drop. I’m perfectly happy economically doing it the way I do it.

How is it financially?

Like any small business, we’re always on the edge, but we’re used to it. My personal security financially comes from a well-honed team of people doing important projects extremely effectively for our clients. That’s hyper-productive. I get royalties from the products I’ve designed, a sort of annuity. I make hay while I sleep, which is a good thing for someone in our business. And my time has become immensely valuable to a larger group, so I get to speak to big trade associations and corporate leaders, and I get paid for it.

What do you see as your primary strength as a professional, as who you are?

I’m totally comfortable in a corporate boardroom. I’m comfortable in a neighborhood meeting. I’m comfortable in a group of designers chewing over some knotty problem. And I think that has been incredibly valuable.

Who taught you to do that?

I think growing up in an English colony, Hong Kong, and having to learn Latin.

My father was president of Seagram overseas, so I spent a lot of time as a high school and college student with senior business executives. Their language doesn’t sound unfamiliar. My broad experiences and the fact that I’ve been not only in professional practice but also in academia gives me confidence. I think confidence is a big part of it. I’m very confident. I’m very confident when lost that I will find a way out or find my way to the center. I’m not afraid. I know I’m not going to give up. Plus my father always insisted that we work hard while we were growing up, so we had a work ethic, and we always had jobs. I don’t expect anybody to give me something for nothing.

And what do you think are your primary drawbacks, liabilities?

I’m generally happy with my life. I wish I could let go of the work once in a while in order to be completely present with my family. There are times when I’ll be thinking about some big idea when I should be focused on my daughter’s piano. I wish I had more ability to suspend this work for a while, just jog into ordinary life.

You may have all the architects in the country seeing this interview. What do you want to tell them?

One is that we are ready to help architects and others with our deep chemistry. We would like to connect thousands of firms and individuals through our website and make available our databases and cradle-to-cradle approach to them. We’d like hundreds of firms to become cradle-to-cradle firms, and we’d like to assist them in transforming industries that make things. As our tools develop, we would share them. We’d like to save firms the trouble of forming their own “green teams.” We’d share our available resource information and that of thousands of people around the world. We happen to focus on design chemistry, but there will be others who concentrate on botany, zoology, energy, water, social fairness, food. There are thousands of experts in different fields that need to be connected. That’s the multi-disciplinary part. If we all said we want cradle-to-cradle things—carpets, shoes, cars—that’s hugely powerful. I would invite everybody to join us. That would be one really important message.

The other message is that what we’re doing is fundamental to human rights. You know Mencius, [the fourth-century Chinese philosopher] said that if there were enough barley and millet in everybody’s larder, there would be no more altercations. The fact that we could be running out of natural resources makes the growth of human population. If each child being born is seen as a problem, then human rights cease to exist. So we need to restore the soil, or industry needs to upcycle it. We need to see petrochemicals as an asset, so they can be made into plastics and not burned. Right now the fear of scarcity is fundamental to our human relationships. Cradle-to-cradle is a celebration of a world of abundance not a world of limits. That’s the big message.

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