This is the latest in a periodic series of one-on-one interviews with William McDonough (@billmcdonough), renowned designer, architect, author and entrepreneur, looking into his rich, kaleidoscopic professional world. McDonough has been at the forefront of many of sustainability’s most important trends: green buildings, closed-loop systems and Cradle to Cradle design, among others. (You can read the first installment here.)
I’ll be checking in with McDonough periodically to hear what he’s working on and thinking about — an opportunity to get a glimpse into one of sustainability’s most creative and fertile minds.
Joel Makower: Bill, you had an amazing couple of weeks. It began at a meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative, right?
Bill McDonough: Two weeks ago I went up to Rye, N.Y., for the Clinton Global Initiative goal-setting meetings. There are nine tracks for the CGI and one of them is the built environment. There are two counselors on each track, except for built environment and one other, which have three, and I’m one of the built environment advisors. So we had a chance to sit among all the different groups and talk about the goal-setting for the Clinton Global Initiative. It was quite amazing.
Makower: Give me a little context here. I didn’t know CGI had goal-setting sessions.
McDonough: They’re setting the Initiative’s goals for the next year, and taking stock of what has gone on. How are commitments best affected and described? How do we measure progress? What does success look like? Things like that. Because Bill Clinton essentially saw conferences that turned into talk shops and people came and talked and then left, and he didn’t see commitments to action. So that’s what the Clinton Global Initiative’s focus is — that people come together, talk about the important issues of the day, but make commitments to do something about it, publicly, and then are willing to be measured against their commitments.
Makower: What can you tell us about where you, at least, want CGI to go next year?
McDonough: There’s a real focus we’re about to put on healthy building materials, because it’s in a parallel with what’s going on at the U.S. Green Building Council with LEED. So understanding what that means, and how you would integrate it into your business, is an important idea. Also, supply chain — the notion that as we look at the commodities that we’re using to build with, whether it be infrastructure, buildings or objects. It’s going to be important for us to understand them and what we call reuse cycles. We’re talking about getting past the concept of end-of-life, because most of the things we’re dealing with here are not living things. We’re looking at endless reuse for these various commodities so that we can start to have abundance in the world. Endless resourcefulness.
Makower: Is “endless reuse” synonymous with “Cradle to Cradle”?
Makower: And so you’re talking about creating these products for buildings.
McDonough: Yes. The built environment encompasses so many kinds of products. And infrastructure: we talked about the issues of mobility. For example, if all we do is design for cars, then we get a lot of cars clogging the roads. If we start to design around cities for children, which is one of the things I’m working on, it changes everything. When you start designing for the children first, the cars end up coming last. And the parks become the mobility systems.
Makower: So from there, you hopped across the pond to be with Al Gore in London.
McDonough: I was at the Generation Investment Management’s Executive Roundtable on the Future of Manufacturing. Al Gore is Generations’ chairman. They did a really wonderful thing in bringing together manufacturers from Europe and the United States to discuss the implications of new techniques for manufacturing — the Internet of Things, supply chain optimization, tracking systems and 3D printing advances, those kind of things.
Makower: Was it about looking at Generation Investment’s portfolio and where they want to put their money?
McDonough: It had more to do with how to get people’s frame of reference widened to understand the edges of the future so that it’s the context in which we decide how the future might play out. And where we want to focus on things that are propitious rather than potentially destructive. I think it was really self-similar with their mission to invest and do things that are advanced and sustainable. If you look at Al Gore’s new book, The Future, it has an amazingly broad perspective on the future directions of things, and at the same time a very technically robust review of technology as well as humanistic concerns. So it’s really Plato and Aristotle coming together in the natural world, much like Jefferson did with the University of Virginia. And Al Gore was very gracious and allowed me to share the podium with him on the opening night of the CEO summit so that I could speak to the CEOs before I left.
Makower: Then it was back across the Atlantic to New York for the C2C gala.
McDonough: We had the Cradle to Cradle Product Innovation Institute gala in Frank Gehry’s IAC building, which is an amazingly beautiful building. It has a 160-foot-long high-definition video wall along the entire space. We had this beautiful farm-to-table dinner for about 450 people. Michael Braungart was there and people came from all over the world.
At the gala, the institute announced $250,000 in prizes that had been put up by the Dutch Postcode Lottery for Cradle to Cradle innovations in the built environment. We got to watch the winners get up and take their credits for doing amazing things. They included Ecovative’s mushroom root building insulation, ECOR’s natural fiber building panels and Biomason’s room-temperature brick, which won the grand prize.
Makower: Are all the winners early-stage companies?
McDonough: They’re new products that are Cradle to Cradle in their characteristics, even if they haven’t achieved certification yet because they’ve just been invented, but they’re based on Cradle to Cradle thinking. It’s kind of sweet when the innovators get up on stage and receive their awards and say, “You know I read the book Cradle to Cradle, and then I went and did this. Thank you.” That’s a delightful moment for people like me and Michael to see inspiration turn into real things.
Makower: And then up to Connecticut.
McDonough: I had dinner with my family in New York, and then I went to Greenwich to look at a new house project.
Makower: Tell me about how you choose the houses you design.
McDonough: I basically design one house a year. My part of that is really to conceive buildings that are practical, effective and beautiful within the context of renewably powered and safe materials. I do it because I like to sketch. It’s just something I can do. It would be like if you’re a guitarist: Why wouldn’t you want to play music your whole life? Just because I did a lot more drawing when I was younger and a full-time architect doesn’t mean I want to put down all my pencils now that I do so many other things.
Makower: The next stop on our tour is Orlando.
McDonough: It was the largest conference for healthcare design. We launched my new carpet collection for Patcraft, part of Shaw Industries. It’s called the Butterfly Effect. I proposed it to Patcraft and they got excited about it and then we made it a benefit for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Two percent of the sales will go to cancer research.
Makower: What is it about the carpet that’s different?
McDonough: Mechanically, on the face fibers, they’re structurally such that you don’t need a lot of chemical treatments for stain resistance. It’s much simpler. So it’s a new technology where we don’t have to add more chemicals to the surface to get a very high-performance carpet — very good for healthcare or schools or offices where you want something robust and easy to maintain. We use the same backing that we developed for the Shaw carpets — Ecoworx — which is a thermoplastic polyolefin.
Makower: How does it work?
When you shred the carpet, the light stuff, which is nylon, goes up, the heavy stuff, which is the backing, goes down. You re-polymerize the face fiber and you re-melt the backing. It’s basically a carpet that can be reused. This is a perpetual asset for the carpet industry, because after whatever number of years, when you want to change it, they’ll pick it up, they’ll bring it back, and the carpet industry is really interesting because it actually is one of the only ones that is closed-loop.
Makower: So in the middle of all this was Greenbuild, where I saw you a couple times. How do you look at Greenbuild these days in terms of your own personal involvement? Do you get to spend time there looking around?
McDonough: I have my people go there to get educated and share whatever our experience has been. It’s a marvelous chance for us to be with our cadre. I prefer to have more time there. This year was especially exciting, because USGBC adopted Cradle to Cradle Certified products in LEED, officially. We used to get innovation points for being new and special. Now, we’re baked in because there are material health points, which is very exciting for us.
The other big thing is Jones Lang LaSalle, which advises on over 2 billion square feet of real estate around the world. They announced at Greenbuild that they are advising thier clients to prefer Cradle to Cradle Certified products. First, when they look at materials and systems, because most decisions are made on cost, performance and aesthetics: Can I afford it? Does it work? Do I like it? To that, we’re adding, Is it healthy and ecologically intelligent? It’s very smart in the real estate sector, because typically these materials don’t cost more and have a higher quality.
Makower: So, in a two-week period, you’re strategizing on the future of buildings and cities and systems, looking at the future of manufacturing, considering the present and future of Cradle to Cradle, designing a healthy home and launching a C2C carpet. It’s amazing and a little breathtaking — and a little bit all over the place.
McDonough: Yes, but it’s all of a piece — and it’s all on the same planet. That’s the part that’s so interesting to me. I’m basically a designer, and I speak of the future in the present tense. That’s my job. My job is to make the world better. That’s what designers do. That’s what all this is to me: Can I help make the world better by imagining the future in the present tense in ways that love all the children, of all species, for all time? And make it a future that we would delight in, not be frightened of.
Photo by Goodwin Ogbuehi for GreenBiz Group. Cradle to Cradle is a registered trademark of MBDC. Cradle to Cradle Certification is a multi-attribute certification program administered through the nonprofit Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute through a license from MBDC.