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William McDonough, FAIA

The renaissance man of the green movement

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Interviewed by Robert Ivy, FAIA, Edited by Andrea Dean

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.

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Architectural Record: 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, FAIA: 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 that 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.

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

WM: 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.

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

WM: 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.

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

WM: 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.

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