William McDonough, photographed for Eco-Structure Magazine at the National Press Club in Washington DC, 17 February 2011.

William McDonough, photographed for Eco-Structure Magazine at the National Press Club in Washington DC, 17 February 2011.

Credit: Mike Morgan

William McDonough, FAIA, and his firm, William McDonough + Partners in Charlottesville, Va., are recognized names in green architecture. Through a body of work that includes designs for Gap, Herman Miller, and Nike, McDonough and his firm have explored architecture that supports nature, grows over time, and contains a clear intent to incorporate safe materials.

McDonough started practicing in New York in the early 1980s, founded his architectural practice, William McDonough + Partners, in 1994, co-founded McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry in 1995, and served as dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia from 1994 to 1999. Years after graduating from Dartmouth College and Yale University, McDonough still reflects on his first project while at Yale, a solar-heated house built in Ireland in 1976. He recently spoke with ECO-STRUCTURE about encouraging human imagination, and the joy and determination in realizing spaces that connect people with their environments.

Your first project, the solar house in Ireland, seems an unlikely showcase for green architecture. Why start there, and how did you get it to work?

I wondered whether in that climate, where it’s usually about 55 F and wet outside, and where people live at about 58 F inside because that’s what they can get, we could reach some other level of comfort using solar. I said, "I’m not here to achieve creature comfort for someone from Palm Beach [Fla.]; I’m here to honor this place and connect to the sun."

I designed a very simple vertical air collector featuring gravity dampers at the bottom and top. If a little gust of air came across it, the damper would turn. When the sun was shining and the vertical collectors met, they captured low winter sun. When the sun shined, the air would go out the top of the house. Then, if the air dropped in the morning or when it was dark outside, the air would drop to the bottom and shut the damper. No motors, no sound, no electricity.

I learned a lot there: Try everything, consider failure not an option, and have fun—make it part of your life. And making mistakes is not a bad thing. We don’t glide from success to success, we lurch from failure to failure. But in the end you end up with the light bulb.

Experimentation seems to be a thread running through your work.

In 1984 we [the New York firm] completed the first green office, for the Environmental Defense Fund in New York, at a time when architects were starting to consider the impact of materials, not just energy, in our designs—what was in the chair, what was in the light fixture, what was in the paint and the carpets. Only a few people were starting to think about it.

By the early 1990s, we had started work on the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Oberlin College. Then, the primary dialogue coming out of the Rio Earth Summit [the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in 1992] urged a retuning of the engines of commerce and industry to be more efficient. But to me, it seemed inadequate at that moment in time, because being less bad was not being good: Less is a relationship and bad is a human value, not a metric. We wanted to know what it would mean to design in support of nature instead of being antagonistic; What principles would we need to operate under?

At Oberlin, our idea was to make a building that accrues solar energy. In order to be a living thing, you have to grow and have to have cells replacing cells that are dying. And to have growth, you must have some form of income: food and water. Then you need an open system of chemicals operating for the benefit of the organisms and their reproduction. This led to us looking at all the materials planned for the building to ensure that we removed carcinogens, mutagens, and volatile organic compounds. The materials had to be safe.

That sounds like an early iteration of your ideas on combining nature-inspired design with chemistry that led to your 2002 book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things with Michael Braungart.

I have been so fortunate to collaborate with Michael since the early 1990s. Developing the idea of Cradle to Cradle was a wonderful process and a special joy. Now Michael and I are hard at work finishing our second book, which in some ways is even more interesting because it offers us a unique chance to look at the early form of the ideas and the many years of their application. We’ve also been looking at ways that some observers tend to oversimplify and even misunderstand some elements of the Cradle to Cradle protocol. For example, some people believe it’s simply a matter of closing loops. That’s an important concept, but the protocol we’ve developed has five vertebrae: materials as nutrients, reverse logistics, renewable energy, water quality, and social responsibility.

At this moment, we are also seeing Cradle to Cradle expand more quickly. Michael Braungart’s Hamburg-based firm, the Environmental Protection and Encouragement Agency, is running the Cradle to Cradle Festival in Berlin, which celebrates Cradle to Cradle as a cultural change agent that is influencing not just products and processes, but architecture, planning, city design, and more. This concept has implications at all scales, from the molecule to the region. Another big thing happening right now is that Michael and I have gifted the Cradle to Cradle certification protocol to a nonprofit organization, the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, so that we can take this to scale much faster. Previously, our little company consulted with very big companies one at a time. This is inspiring, important, and complex work, but it can only go so fast. We realized that the best way to increase the pace of progress dramatically would be to give the intellectual property to an independent nonprofit. They are gearing up now, and I think the next 18 months will be very exciting.

You often speak of measuring the success in terms that go beyond payback or energy savings to also focus on flexibility, adaptation, and evolution.

It’s part of what makes these places long-lasting and loved. At the same time we were working for Oberlin College, we were designing Herman Miller’s Greenhouse Factory & Offices [completed in 1995] in Holland, Mich., and Gap’s corporate campus [completed in 1997] in San Bruno, Calif. At Herman Miller, we realized all the employees wanted daylight, so everyone shares the same "urban boulevard" from the training rooms and cafés. Productivity of the company doubled when they moved in. It was the same people; all they did was move. For Gap’s 901 Cherry Street offices, we designed one of the first, big, intensive commercial green roofs. In Oberlin, we were creating a technical nutrient-solar-photosynthetic roof to support PV arrays; but our next challenge was to establish a biological nutrient roof at Gap that was covered in native grasses and wildflowers to reduce stormwater on site and dampen noise from a nearby airport.

It seems that many of your firm’s ideas about sustainable design are coming together with Sustainability Base, NASA’s new facility at Moffett Field, Calif., set for completion in May 2011.

One of the things about our practice that has always inspired me is the trajectory of learning that each project represents. Working with NASA has been a special joy because they had lofty aspirations and were not afraid of my aspirations. They wanted the first spaceship for Earth. Why not? I said that it should be a healthy and safe workplace that demonstrated what a positive human footprint could be. Why not? The project is designed to be energy positive, meaning that it will produce more energy than it needs to operate. That’s something that we started working on at Oberlin with David Orr, and that project is consistently producing 13 percent more energy than it uses.

Whether for NASA or Ford or back to the early days of creating Oberlin’s Lewis Center, it seems you have worked consistently to redefine "eco-efficiency."

What we’ve discovered is that, essentially, efficiency is just a tool. It has no value. It’s like a hammer: A hammer doesn’t know if it’s good or bad. It’s a tool. We also found that if you’re simply building efficiently with the old system, which is what we saw in contradistinction to the idea of a living building, then you might be making the wrong things efficient. So we decided to look at people like Peter Drucker, who said it’s a manager’s job to be efficient and do something the right way, but it’s the executive’s job to be effective and do the right thing. Because if you’re doing the wrong thing, and you’re efficient, you’re worse. So the real question, first, is, what is the right thing to do? And that’s why David and I had such fierce resolve: We realized people needed something really special to inspire them into a new design framework.

David R. Macaulay is the author of Integrated Design: Mithun, The Ecological Engineer,and the blog Green ArchiText, greenarchitext.com.

Eco-Structure examined McDonough + Partners’ work at the Adam Joseph Lewis Center in Oberlin, Ohio, in the January/February 2011 Flashback column. To read more lessons learned from that project, as discussed by both William McDonough and David Orr, the Paul Sears distinguished professor of environmental studies and politics at Oberlin College, click here.