Interview with Bill McDonough

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By Alissa Walker / Published by Dwell
Next year, William McDonough's revolutionary book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, which he co-authored with Dr. Michael Braungart, will turn ten years old. During that decade McDonough has emerged as a leader of the sustainable design movement, both as an advocate for creating more responsible products through his Cradle-to-Cradle certification process, and as an architect at William McDonough + Partners who set out to reinvent buildings and is now rethinking the way we design cities. At this year's Dwell on Design he'll be talking about how designers can change the language of sustainability by creating work that is focused on being "more good" not just "less bad."
Interview with Bill McDonough - Photo 1 of 6 - Bill McDonough, the author of Cradle to Cradle, will be giving the keynote address at this year's Dwell on Design conference.

Bill McDonough, the author of Cradle to Cradle, will be giving the keynote address at this year's Dwell on Design conference.

Almost exactly a year ago, you were at a very high-profile launch of the Green Products Innovation Institute in San Francisco, with the goal of establishing standards to remove toxic substances from manufacturing. What have you been able to achieve so far?
Interview with Bill McDonough - Photo 2 of 6 -
What we announced last year is that Michael Braungart and I had decided to gift our certification process to the public. What I've been doing for the last year is working with the protocol of certification to prepare it for the public domain. It's a very, very deep assessment of chemistry, of logistics, of energy, of water, and social fairness and so it's really a quality standard—it's about total quality, not necessarily green standards. It has more to do with life than just "green something." You have logistics and economic and energy and water and people and culture—there's a cultural dimension.

So for the last year we got our scientists and our systems engineers and our advisers working with us to craft what we call version 3. But we can't put it out there unless we've really carefully reviewed it. We have to look at things like nanotechnology and genetic modification, lots of issues that are common with our clients we work with but we haven't had to deal with it in an open environment. We're very close to putting it out to public review and we have other institutes around the world that want to join us and be part of this. We also renamed it after we had the legal hurdles accomplished, it's now the Cradle-to-Cradle Product Innovation Institute.
Interview with Bill McDonough - Photo 3 of 6 - The plan of the Ames center.

The plan of the Ames center.

When it was announced a lot of people were calling this a "LEED for products" but I think that's not entirely accurate. How is this different from the checklist format we're familiar with?
Interview with Bill McDonough - Photo 4 of 6 - The Ferrer center features a butterfly hatchery.

The Ferrer center features a butterfly hatchery.

Good question. It's not really like that. It complements something like that. The first meeting for LEED was actually at University of Virginia when I was dean, so I was there at the beginning. I remember at that meeting when we said let's start LEED and it was really an initiative started a group of architects that said let's create a protocol that people can use because they needed a tool. I remember saying at the time that I was concerned that as the protocol went forward that it would have to deal with issues like polyvinyl chloride and they would have to debate and discuss it with every single industry, you'd have the people who make carpet, and the PVC industry, for example. I personally wanted to move into the next level, I wanted to talk about buildings that were like trees—building that were alive.

LEED came out with its standards and checklist not for people who want to lead, with an "a," but want to follow, and that's great so they have something to follow. But it's also fun to actually lead—l-e-a-d—some more and make buildings that actually make more energy than they need to operate. That's what I'm trying to accomplish. I'm working on cities right now where you look at the challenge of how you feed a city. What does that look like? What is that implication on design? I want to do the same for products. Cradle-to-Cradle is different. Cradle-to-Cradle is a design tool, it's not a checklist. It is intentionality expressed and that makes it tricky because it's hard to "certify" intention.How would you even define intention?That's why it's really a design tool because design is the first signal of intention. So what is our intention? If you look at LEED and say, what would happen if every building in the world was LEED Platinum, we'd still have all this carbon everywhere. If you reduce your energy by some solar collectors on the roof in New York it's nice that it's LEED Platinum but it's still incredibly energy consumptive. You've reduced it as much as you can, that's a great thing to do. But why don't we have buildings that make more energy than they need to, like an organism? If every building on the planet was LEED, we'd still destroy the planet. It's insufficient to be "less bad." There's nothing wrong with it if you're working the demand side, but we need to work the supply side. Being "less bad" is not "being good" and just "reducing your carbon" is undefined. Now you're not saying what you are, you're saying what you're not. That's a strange commercial proposition if you think about it. I feel like that's a great challenge for designers, because everything now is all about being "zero emissions" and "zero waste."
Interview with Bill McDonough - Photo 5 of 6 - The exterior of the NASA Ames center.

The exterior of the NASA Ames center.

I look at it and say, I want to be 100% renewably powered, I don't want to be "zero carbon." Zero carbon means I'm dead! Zero carbon means I don't exist. I am carbon. I can't walk around being zero carbon because I'd be air. I see Cradle-to-Cradle certified as a design intention tool. So we look at a product and we go out into the future and say, what if this was made from totally safe chemistry? We eliminate the concept of waste, not "zero waste." See, zero waste says you're honoring that waste exists. We think it doesn't even exist. Everything is food for somebody else.For example you mentioned a moment ago one of those "living buildings" you wanted to design and you're about to finish one of them, the NASA Sustainability Base, which is a place where the space program can bring its work down to earth, as you could say.
Interview with Bill McDonough - Photo 6 of 6 - The Ferrer center in Barcelona, designed by McDonough Partners.

The Ferrer center in Barcelona, designed by McDonough Partners.

It was a wonderful thing. We got to know NASA because they're very curious about design and advanced materials, clearly. They asked us if we would participate in the design of the Mars station for the future. Our response was let's build a space station on Earth first, because we haven't really done that yet. They said what a great idea, we need a research center, and it's actually already underway. And I said why don't we have our first meeting in the Johnson Space Center in Houston, and let's do it in the room where we first heard the words "Houston, we have a problem." So that's where we started the project with NASA. We had the rocket scientists. It was fun. We said okay, how would we design this? Let's pretend we're standing here naked at NASA Ames. There's the energy source, it's a thermonuclear reactor, it's 93 million miles away, and it's wireless. We know exactly what to do with it, it goes up in the east and goes down in the west. So we're not going to build a nuclear plant. Next, where do we get cooling? It's in the ground. Geothermal, got it. Where do we get the air? There's nice air here, sometimes it's humid, sometimes there's pollen, sometimes there's dust—so, the building breathes. And where do we get water? It comes from the sky and comes from the ground. How do we purify it? Oh, well, we do that in space. Great, let's plan for that. So we'll do what we can do now and we'll plan for what we can do in the future. So the building is meant to be constantly improved over time. The building itself is a research facility. It's like a building like a tree.

Another building you're working on is also acting like a tree, a new health research center in Barcelona is actually hosting nature in its interiors.Well, actually that was a bit of serendipity the way design works. You have to leave yourself open to the joys of creativity. So we're working away and we have a 15-story atrium which is really our air system, and a delightful thing for the scientists who go from wing to wing. But I came back from a trip and I was sitting in the design studio and I was staring at the floors and we were trying to figure out how to put the tile into these two triangles around the glass atrium. And we were trying to figure out the tile in a way that was cost-effective. And I started looking at it for awhile and said, let's just get rid of the walls and then put the tile down first so we can create a really beautiful pattern on the floor and the walls could just intersect at whatever angle. Then we don't have to fret cutting lots of tile, that will cost a lot of money, not worth it. And let's make sure the tiles are safe and non-toxic and eliminate those that aren't. As I kept working through this idea I was looking at my plan and I'm looking at a middle and two triangular wings, they're literally wings. I said the building plan is a butterfly, so our floorplan should be the color tile laid in patterns that represent the ancient butterflies that are going extinct in Catalonia. Then I thought, we could also have these glass chrysalis hatcheries throughout the atrium, so we could make an arrangement with the zoo to be a place where we hatch. And every week we can hatch thousands of butterflies. And the children can come and release them on the weekends as a celebration of Barcelona. And the building could restore biodiversity. See, wouldn't it be great if a building was creative? Wouldn't that be fun? This is a building to love. It's not green building, it's not an eco-efficient building. It's a celebration of our abundance, not our limits.

You mentioned this again, this idea of "more good" instead of "less bad" that you'll be speaking about at Dwell on Design. Can you give us a preview of what "more good" looks like?I think it's a wide-eyed, humble celebration of possibilities. It's about the idea that we can design in our cultures beyond the notion of currency. If we look at money, currency is a fluid thing. And yet, what we're talking about is transformation into values-based design. In that context we express our values which are to grow capital, and the capital is currency with potential. And it's really about having things for future generations, not just using everything up. Once you get the difference between currency and capital, your mind can change and you don't cut down the tree to burn it for fuel and cause carbon, you look at the tree and celebrate it for its fruit and leave the rest for future generations.