Design, ecology, ethics and the making of things

Modeling nature instead of fighting it can provide people-oriented, economical and sustainable buildings.

by William McDonough


f what we make with our hands is to be sacred and honor the Earth that gives us life, then the things we make must not only rise from the ground, but return to it soil to soil, water to water so everything that is received from the Earth can be given back freely, without causing harm to any living system. This is ecology. This is good design.

If we go back in the history of architecture, we see that architects always are working with two elements, mass and membrane. We have the walls of Jericho mass and we have tents membranes. Ancient peoples practiced the art of building with mass, constructing adobe-walled huts to anticipate the scope and direction of sunshine. They knew how thick a wall needed to be to transfer the heat of the day into the winter night, and how thick it had to be to transfer coolness into the interior in the summer.

We only have to look at the Bedouin tent to find a design that accomplishes six things at once. In the desert, temperatures often exceed 120 degrees. There is no shade, no air movement. The black Bedouin tent, when pitched, creates a deep shade that brings one's sensible temperature down to 95 degrees. The tent has a very coarse weave, which creates a beautifully illuminated interior, having a million light fixtures. Because of the coarse weave and the black surface, the hot air inside rises and is drawn through the membrane. This creates a breeze from outside that drops the sensible temperature further to 90 degrees. When it rains, the fibers swell up and the tent gets tight as a drum. And, of course, you can roll it up and take it with you. The modern tent pales by comparison to this astonishingly elegant construct.

Our modern industrial culture, however, has adopted a design stratagem that essentially says: if brute force or massive amounts of energy do not work, you are not using enough of them. We have made glass buildings that are more about buildings than they are about people. The hope that glass would connect us to the outdoors was completely stultified by sealing buildings. This design creates stress, because people are meant to be connected with the outdoors, not trapped inside.

Le Corbusier said in the early part of this century that a house is "a machine for living in." What has happened is that designers are now creating for the machine and not for people. People talk about solar-heating buildings, even about solar heating cathedrals. But it is not the cathedral that is asking to be heated, it is the people. To solar-heat a cathedral, one should heat people's feet, not the air 120 feet above them.


Materials, energy and life


There are three defining characteristics of design that we can learn from the natural world. The first characteristic is that everything we have to work with is already here - the stones, the clay, the wood, the water, the air. All materials given to us by nature are returned to the Earth without the concept of waste as we understand it. In nature, everything is cycled constantly, with all waste becoming "food" for other living systems.

The second characteristic is that energy supporting this cycle of life comes from outside the system in the form of perpetual solar income. Nature operates on "current income," it does not mine or extract energy from the past, it does not use its capital reserves, and it does not borrow from the future. Natural design employs an extraordinarily economical and efficient system for creating and cycling nutrients, and modern methods of manufacturing pale in comparison.

Finally, the characteristic that sustains this system of metabolism and creation is biodiversity. Preventing living systems from running down and veering into chaos is the miraculously intricate and symbiotic relationship among millions of organisms.

As a designer of buildings and systems, I ask myself how to apply these three characteristics of living systems to my work. How do I employ the concept of "waste equals food," of "current solar income," of "protecting biodiversity" in design?

I grew up in the Far East, and when I came to this country, I was taken aback when I realized that Americans were not people with lives, but consumers with lifestyles. When did America stop having people with lives? On television, we are referred to as consumers, not people. But we are people, with lives, and we must make and design things for people. And if I am a consumer, what can I consume? Food, juice, some toothpaste. But actually, very little that is sold can be consumed. Sooner or later, almost all of it has to be thrown away. I cannot consume a television set or a VCR or a car.

I work closely with Michael Braungart, an ecological chemist from Hamburg, Germany, and we focus on three distinct product types. First, there are "consumables" - products that, when eaten, used, or thrown away, literally turn back into dirt and become food for other living organisms. Consumables should not go into landfills, but on to the ground to restore the soil's life, health and fertility. This means that shampoo bottles should be made of beets that biodegrade in compost piles. Fabrics should safely return to the Earth without persistent toxins, mutagens, carcinogens, bioaccum-ulating substances, heavy metals or endocrine disrupters.

Second are products of service, also known as "durables" such as television sets and cars that provide entertainment or transportation. To eliminate waste, products of service should not be sold, but licensed to the end-user. Customers may use them as long as they wish, even sell the license to someone else, but when the end-user is finished with, say, a television, it goes back to Sony, Zenith, or Philips. It is "food" for their manufacturing systems.

Today, you can dump a TV into the garbage can and walk away. In the process, we deposit persistent toxins throughout the planet. Products of service must continue beyond their initial product life, be owned by their manufacturers and be designed for disassembly, remanufacture and continuous reuse.

The third type of product is called "unmarketables." Welcome to the world of nuclear waste, dioxins and chromium-tanned leather. Unmarketables are products or sub-components of products that no one wants and, in many cases, people do not even realize they are buying. These products must cease to be sold, and those already sold should be stored until we can figure out a safe and nontoxic way to dispose of them.

I remember when my firm was hired to design the office for an environmental group. The director said during contract negotiations, "We are worried about people getting sick from indoor air quality." We decided that it was our job to find materials that would not make people sick when placed inside a building. What we found was that those materials were not available. We had to work with manufacturers to find out what was in their products and we discovered that the entire system of building construction is essentially toxic. We still are working to develop new materials that address indoor air-quality concerns.

For a New York men's clothing store, we arranged to plant 1,000 oak trees to replace the two English oaks used to panel the store. We were inspired by a famous story told by Gregory Bateson about New College in Oxford, England. It went something like this: The college had a main hall built in the early 1600s with beams 40-feet long and two-feet thick. A committee was formed to try to find replacement trees because the beams were suffering from dry rot. If you keep in mind that a veneer from an English oak can be worth seven dollars a square foot, the total replacement costs for the oaks were prohibitively expensive.

A young faculty member suggested, "Why don't we ask the College Forester if some of the lands that had been given to Oxford might have enough trees to call upon?" And when they brought in the forester, he said, "We've been wondering when you would ask this question. When the present building was constructed 350 years ago, the architects specified that a grove of trees be planted and maintained to replace the beams in the ceiling when they would suffer from dry rot." Bateson's remark was, "That's the way to run a culture." Our question and hope is, "Did they replant them?"

In Frankfurt, Germany, we created a day-care center designed to be operated by the children. It contains a greenhouse roof that has multiple functions: it illuminates, heats both air and water, cools, ventilates and shelters from the rain - just like a Bedouin tent. During the design process, the engineers wanted to completely automate the building, like a machine. The engineers asked, "What happens if the children forget to close the shades and they get too hot?" We told them the children would open a window. "What if they don't open a window?" We told them that, in that case, the children probably would close the shade. "What happens if the children don't close the shade?" We finally told them that the children would open windows and close shades whenever necessary, because children are not dead, but alive.

The children would now have ten minutes of activity in the morning and ten minutes of activity in the afternoon, opening and closing the windows and shades. Both the children and teachers love the idea. Because the design included solar hot-water collectors, we added a public laundry so that parents could wash clothes while waiting for their children. Because of advances in glazing, the day-care center design requires no fossil fuels for heating or cooling. Fifty years from now, when fossil fuels are scarce, there will be hot water for the community and social center, and the building will have paid back the energy "borrowed" for construction.


The ethics of design


As we become aware of the ethical implications of design, not only with respect to buildings, but in every aspect of human endeavor, they reflect changes in the historical concept of who or what has rights.

When you study the history of rights, you begin with the Magna Carta, which was about the rights of white, English, noble males. With the Declaration of Independence, rights were expanded to all landowning white males. Nearly a century later, we moved to the emancipation of slaves, and during the beginnings of this century, to suffrage, giving women the right to vote.

The pace picks up with the Civil Rights Act in 1964, and then in 1973, the Endangered Species Act. For the first time, the rights of other species and organisms to exist were recognized. We essentially have "declared" that Homo sapiens are part of the web of life. If Thomas Jefferson were with us today, he would most likely be calling for "Declarations of Interdependence" that recognize that our ability to pursue wealth, health and happiness is dependent on other forms of life, that the rights of one species are linked to the rights of others and none should suffer remote tyranny.

We must face the fact that what we see across the world today is war, a war against life itself. Our present systems of design have created a world that grows far beyond the environment's capacity to sustain life into the future. The industrial idiom of design, failing to honor the principles of nature, can only violate them, producing waste and harm. If we destroy more forests, burn more garbage, drift-net more fish, burn more coal, bleach more paper, destroy more topsoil, poison more insects, build over more habitats, dam more rivers, produce more toxic and radioactive waste, we are creating a vast industrial machine, not for living in, but for dying in. It is a war that only a few more generations can survive.

We must recognize that every event and manifestation of nature is "design." Living within the laws of nature means expressing our human intention as an interdependent species - aware and grateful that we are at the mercy of sacred forces larger than ourselves, and obeying these laws in order to honor the sacred in each other and in all things. We must come to peace with and accept our place in the natural world.

The author is the founder of William McDonough and Partners, Architects & Planners, in Charlottesville, Virginia. A founding member of the American Institute of Architects, Committee on the Environment, he advises the President's Council on Sustainable Development and is dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia. This article, adapted by McDonough and his friend and collaborator Paul Hawken, was based on the "Centennial Sermon" that McDonough delivered from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, February, 1993