Young Billy McDonough, long before he cowrote Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things with Michael Braungart or won a National Design Award, or generally presided as one of the big thinkers around sustainable design, learned how energy worked with his body. As a boy growing up in Japan, he lived in an uninsulated paper house and during the cold winters, his family ate in padded kimonos with their feet dangling through a cutout in the floor. The same brazier that kept their food warm radiated its heat under the table to their feet. Finally, right before bedtime, each member of the family would get into a cauldron-like bathtub heated directly by a fire. "You would get as red as a lobster, pop yourself out, and run to your futon in your pajamas and dive in," he recalls. "Now you’re superheated surrounded by insulation. You lie on your back and your mom tells you a story and you fall asleep and you’re warm all night."
This was not how Americans in the late 1950s tended to manage the seasons. At the time, we were participating in the greatest run-up in energy usage in the history of the world, much of it driven by the increase in the climate control of buildings. With energy in all forms cheap and abundant, builders and buyers replaced "good design" with more fossil fuels. Life wasn’t necessarily easier, but they made it feel that way.
Perhaps McDonough’s early years help explain why his work over nearly three decades has catapulted him to the forefront of the discussion around green architecture. Reducing the amount of energy a building uses requires its architect to understand its energy flows, the way the manmade interacts with the natural, how the sun’s heat and light produce an environment. McDonough’s thorough grasp of thermodynamics isn’t just school learning. He knows it in his bones.
Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor for the Atlantic and author or Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology (Da Capo Press, 2011).