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The McDonough Conversations

Bill McDonough at 70: A look back … and ahead

On the occasion of his 70th birthday, a conversation with the self-described "hyperactive" architect, designer and author William McDonough.

Bill McDonough

DuHun Photography

Architect, designer and author William McDonough is well-known to many in sustainability — as a pioneer in green building; as the erstwhile "green dean" of architecture; as co-author of the seminal 2002 book "Cradle to Cradle"; as a designer of breakthrough buildings and materials; as a deep thinker about how design relates to a healthy and abundant future; and as an enthusiastic framer of the concepts and language that have become part of the sustainability lexicon.

On the occasion of his 70th birthday this month, I caught up with McDonough to discuss his journey and some seminal moments in his life and career, and how they influenced his work. And to take a peek into where he may be headed next.

The conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Joel Makower: Well, Bill, first of all, happy birthday. Are you excited to be 70?

Bill McDonough: Well, it is very exciting. There is so much going on, and I have so many things to do. And I expect to continue to be hyperactive for another 20 years. For me, it is one of those moments to stop and think, and celebrate all my friends and all the wonderful things that I have had a chance to participate in. So, it just feels like a great moment to reflect. And then get back to work.

Makower: Let’s talk a bit about how you got here. I am sure there are some pivotal moments when you think about your journey to today. When you speak, you often start off talking about growing up in Tokyo. Tell me why that feels like such an important part of who you became.

McDonough: My parents were in Japan, both speaking Japanese, because my father was a Japanese language officer for Gen. Douglas MacArthur and my mother was also trained in Japanese by the U.S. Army. They were one of 200 couples sent into Japan after the war to wage peace. My mother was in the first group of American civilian women off the boat. They were sent into the villages everywhere to meet with the Japanese people in villages — no uniforms, no weapons, no paperwork, no marked Jeeps. It felt so natural when I was a child there to be part of this amazing place and to wage peace.

James & Sara McDonough

James and Sara McDonough visit Kōtoku-in, a Buddhist temple in Kamakura, Japan, 1951. All photos courtesy of William McDonough

I will never forget seeing Hiroshima and saying, "Oh, my God. We had a war. What is it about people that they would try and kill each other? How could we invent something so astonishing as a device that can destroy cities in seconds?" And watching my mother do flower arranging and say, "Oh, Mom, that is beautiful." And she says, "Yes, this is the Ma." "What is the Ma?" "The Ma is the space between the flowers."

Makower: I can start to see how some of that connects — the space between the flowers, the idea of waging peace. Where did that take you?

McDonough: Last year, I opened the G20 in two tracks: climate and energy. I did four speeches. What we were looking at was how do we look at carbon in this circular economy? How do we look at carbon itself as an element, which is both an energy source and a material? How do we really start to think about how we manage it by intention? So we created a protocol about that.

I am cataloging various things that are accruing into who I am, and the title of it is, 'Waging Peace Through Commerce by Design.'

I do a little portfolio every six months about what I am working on or what I have done, and I am cataloging various things that are accruing into who I am, and the title of it is, "Waging Peace Through Commerce by Design." Every act can be an act of waging peace. And so, for example, the end of all the sessions for the G20, when the leaders adopted this protocol we had put forward, the message that came with it was, "Let us all put down all sharp instruments now. We are not here to complain about how you are doing something or how you are using the wrong word or this or that. It does not matter. There is only one question: How can I help you?"

That is it. All of us help each other and get this done.

Makower: Your family moved from Tokyo to Hong Kong to Canada and then ultimately to Connecticut, and you attended Dartmouth. I imagine that that was a critical piece of how you got into design and architecture as a profession.

McDonough: Dartmouth was magnificent for me because here I am, I am 18, and my two abiding questions from childhood were "Why do people fight with each other and destroy each other?" and "How can you make something so destructive that you can make a city disappear?" So, I started studying international relations, thinking I could be an ambassador someday. But all of the international relations courses that I could enter were around détente and about mutually assured destruction. That was so depressing that I thought, "I cannot spend my whole life arguing about mutually assured destruction."

Bill McDonough, Dartmouth 1972

At Dartmouth, 1972

I was doing photography and I got to work with Walker Evans — who is, I think, one of the greatest photographers of all time. And I was standing with him one day and I had an 8x10 view camera. He was using an SX-70 Polaroid. And I said, "Mr. Evans, you are the greatest black-and-white photographer of all time. I would be happy to carry your camera around."

He said, "No, no. You do not understand, Bill. You are 21. I am 71. When I was your age, I could lug around 40 pounds of equipment. But then, when the 4x5 Super Graphics came along, I could go to the factories. And then, when the Rolleiflex came around, I could go into the factories. And then when the Leica silent 35mm came along, I could go into the subways in New York. And now look what I can do. [Makes whirring sound.] Here. Portrait of William McDonough by Walker Evans."

And I remember thinking, "Oh, my goodness." And he said, "What I am trying to teach you is that every 10 years, put down your tools." So, if I was still walking around with an 8x10 view camera, I would only have one life. And so, every 10 years, stop, reflect and take the new tools.

Makower: So, what was the path from there to sustainable design?

McDonough: I was at Yale, and we had the energy crisis in 1973. I decided to build a solar-heated house. And I decided to go back to my ancestors' place to do it, which would be Ireland, so I could understand the ancients; I could understand what it is like to be humble in a place, and then what it would be like to build a solar-powered house in Ireland.

So, I just started building an experimental house there by hand. And I worked on that during the whole time I was at Yale and a year after. I got to think about these things deeply because I lived it. I was freezing, and I had no money. And building was hard, and I did not know what I was doing.

I graduated from Yale and came back to New York. I worked at a big firm and did a lot of competitions, and it was really fun and we were really good. Then, when I started my own firm, my first client had a ranch in Utah, so I got to go out there and work around Zion National Park designing 13,000 acres. It was pretty fabulous — bridges and buildings.


At the opening of his architecture firm in New York, 1981

Then I got hired by the Environmental Defense Fund to do their national headquarters in New York. It became known as the first green office in New York City, which we did in 1984. We were looking at the lighting for the right kind of colors. We looked at the carpets — we wanted to get all the toxins out of the carpet glues. It was the beginning of the green office and the green building movement.

There were a bunch of us in the States, and we slowly coalesced into a Committee on the Environment within the American Institute of Architects. One of my contractors started the U.S. Green Building Council after building a project for me in Washington. That was David Gottfried. And it just kept going.

Makower: What was it about green architecture that made you realize you needed to be doing this for the rest of your career?

McDonough: To me it was just obvious. This is how we can be. It literally felt natural. Why would we not want to save healthy things? Why would we want to destroy the world at all? Why would we do that? Why would we do it to each other?

We are waging peace. We are not here to poison you with carpets. We are not here to make your day miserable because the light frequencies are sending you into strange sleeping patterns. We are here to make your life better, not worse. So, it just seemed natural. It just seemed obvious and normal to me.

Makower: At some point you realized that buildings were only part of it. The materials themselves — not just building materials but materials in general — were another big opportunity that needed to be addressed. How did you get to that particular pivot?

McDonough: I had two things occur simultaneously in 1989. One is that I won a competition in Germany for a daycare center and my proposal was called a low-entropy building. In other words, a building that is organized instead of chaotic. I designed a daycare center that was solar-powered. It had a laundry for the parents so they could wait for the kids. Purified water. It grew food. It had shutters and skylights operated by children so they could let the sun in, keep the sun out, put them to bed at night, that kind of thing. And I just thought a building as an organism operated by children would be so much fun.

Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart

With Michael Braungart, 2013

While they were having that conversation I was looking at the children and they were eating the building and the furniture. They had their mouths on everything. Chew, chew, chew. I was thinking, "What are they eating?" I realized I had to get together with an ecotoxicologist and find out what all this stuff we were using was made out of, down to the molecule. That is what ultimately led me to Michael Braungart, because Michael had been the head of Greenpeace Chemistry, worrying about exactly that kind of thing.

The other thing that happened, I won a competition in Warsaw for a skyscraper right before the change of government; I had designed a building. The developer said, "You win." And I said, "Just one thing. You have to plant 10 square miles of trees to go with the building," because I calculated how much carbon would be released from the coal to build the building and how much would be needed to operate it. It was about five square miles of trees’ worth of oxygen production or carbon sequestration required to set up one building. And so, I said, "That is part of the building. The 10 square miles of trees go with it."

McDonough-Warsaw Tower

With a model of the Warsaw Tower, 1980s

They priced it, and it was $150,000.00. Amazing. In Poland. That 10 square miles of tree planting was one-tenth of the advertising budget. It was such a strange thing to tell the developer to do that it ended up on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. And they said, "We will plant a forest to satisfy an architect who loves clean air."

Makower: Talk a little bit about the Hannover Principles. First of all, what they are, for people who do not know or remember them, and how those came to be.

McDonough: I was in Hannover, working there with Michael. Hannover had just won the World's Fair for 2000, and they wanted to do sustainability as the theme. They asked me to write the design principles for that World's Fair based on our work in sustainability.

We wrote them from New York. Nine design principles. I still use them. And then, later that year, in June 1992, the German government decided to give the Hannover Principles as a gift to the Earth Summit.

Makower: What has happened with them since? Are they still referred to? Have they propagated in any way?

McDonough: I see them referred to all the time. We did not make any big program out of it or anything. They are just there. And you can find them, and people render them and make posters out of them and call and ask me to explain them.

Makower: The '90s was in many ways a golden decade for you. You became dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia. You designed a building-like-a-tree structure at Oberlin. You designed a building for Herman Miller. You designed Nike's European headquarters. You got a Presidential award, I think from Bill Clinton. Then, all of a sudden you seemed to be all about China. What happened?

McDonough: Well, President Clinton, after they had a visit by Zhu Rongji in the White House —I think it was around '98 — it was the first Chinese leader to visit the U.S. since the revolution, and they wanted to exchange gifts. And they had to be careful when exchanging gifts, obviously. So, they decided the exchange would be sustainable development. Let us share information about that. Because the politicians did not know what it was.

So, we created the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development, based out of Portland. They looked for a U.S. chair, and they proposed governors and they proposed senators, and the Chinese kept saying, "No. No. No. We are looking for a long-term relationship. Four years is not enough."

McDonough in China

With Madame Deng Nan, 1999

So, finally they decided "What about Bill?" because I had won that award at the White House for sustainable development and I am an academic to them, which they respect. And I know a lot of commercial people because all my clients are CEOs and chairs, essentially. And so they said, "You can represent the U.S." And so I did. For 10 years I was the U.S. chair, with Madame Deng Nan, Deng Xiaoping's daughter, in China.

Makower: What did you learn?

McDonough: When we set up the circular economy, the first version for the 12th five-year plan, which came along later, it was interpreted really as "Please recycle." It had no depth.

The second five-year plan, the 13th, became "Implement the circular economy." So, we started putting guidelines in it. We had "Cradle to Cradle" translated into Chinese by a poet. In China, it was called "The Design of the Circular Economy." But it is hard to make these kinds of changes. It is really hard.

What we were doing was creating a de facto standard of good behavior. But we were not required to by law. We were just doing it. That is the part I really learned, is that you start with inspiration, then you move to creative work, and then you start to execute against it. And once you have executed it and it can stand on its own two feet, well then it is a reference point for people, so it can actually become a standard. The government was not involved in any of this. We just did it.

A lot of the things we were working on way back then are now becoming regulations. And I am seeing really good regulation in China over the quality of packaging based on our biological and technical nutrient conversations with them. It is coming to pass.

And even watching the Chinese put up the green fence on our recycling, they said, "We are just going to have to say no to all of this because they are sending us the worst of it." Those kinds of things were people paying attention to issues of human health and dignity and trade and quality. It is slow but worthwhile.


With Susan Sarandon and Meryl Streep at the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute gala, 2012

Makower: A lot of people, when they think of Bill McDonough, immediately go to "Cradle to Cradle." Even more so than the Hannover principles, that feels like your legacy. How do you feel about where that has gone?

McDonough: I am just so happy that it is meant so much to so many people. I mean, it is the core of the circular economy. I was able to chair the circular economy at the World Economic Forum and we used that as the basis. I have been able to share it with lots of people. Ellen MacArthur has adopted biological, technical, restorative, regenerative. And "product as a service," I thought, was a really important idea we put forward that has been taken up pretty vigorously.

When we first did it, people were saying we were communists because we did not believe in ownership. And we were saying, "Well, what you want from a washing machine is clean clothing, not the ownership of metals, rubber and glass." So, there is a whole way to think about these things. And modern society has caught up with that, of course. Philips still owns the indium and the gallium and the rare earths and the aluminum from its products. That is the stuff of their business and they still have it on their books. How exciting. Those elements of "Cradle to Cradle" have been widely adopted and in all kinds of forums and programs. So I am really pleased about that.

The key thing, though, is that it is really about ecological health down to the molecule. So, even though it became the basis for the circular economy, which we are happy about, at the same time we say "safe and circular." Safe, then circular. Because a lot of people are saying, "Circular everything." Well, some of it is toxic and if you have a circular economy, that is bad instead of good.

Makower: Where do you see the biggest untapped opportunity for the circular economy?

McDonough: I think the largest untapped opportunity is the way we design for the circular economy. We still have people saying, "I am designing for end-of-life," and that term is actually referencing a scientific protocol known as life-cycle assessment or life-cycle analysis, but it is still a human projection. The idea that these inanimate objects have a life is a bit odd when you think about it. They are not biological items. They are metals and plastics or whatever.

We like to say, 'Do not say end-of-life because it scares children.'

We like to say, "Do not say end-of-life because it scares children." We know that you are referring to sourcing and disposition, which is a good thing. But let us not say to the children, "We are designing for end-of-life." So, we say "design for end-of-use." And once you say "design for end-of-use" it makes you stop. Then you say, "Well, what is the next use?" because that is the obvious next question. So, then you design for next use.

So, when you asked, "What is the next big opportunity?" it is design. It is design for next use in the circular economy. But safe and circular. That is somewhere we are working right now, with all kinds of tools — AI, blockchain, what we call material passports and buildings as material banks — we coined terms for all this. These things are all being held for future generations in trust and made available to them.

Makower: One of the things that you have started talking about in the last couple of years is carbon — circular carbon and various types of carbon, and that not all carbon is equal. Why is carbon the next interesting place for you?

McDonough: I have been involved with renewables forever, but I did not get into the carbon per se issue because there were so many people involved who were so articulate and so engaged and knowledgeable. But all of a sudden one day it occurred to me that carbon had become the enemy. And for a person who works with materials, this is really sad. Demonizing carbon? We are carbon.

This is not a good message for the children. "Carbon is the enemy." "Bad carbon." So, it is because we worry about the climate and we worry about combustion and we say carbon is a problem and "Carbon-negative is a positive." It is confusing. This is like saying "less bad," as we pointed out a long time ago. "Less" is a numerical relationship. "Bad" is a human value.

So what I am trying to do is bring values to value. So, the values are "good" and "bad," "right" and "wrong," "moral/immoral," "ethical/unethical." Plato, and then Aristotle, his student, talked about what he called practical wisdom. Aristotle was looking for truth in science and numbers. Smart. Plato is looking for truth in meaning. Wise.

So, I prefer wise buildings to smart buildings because we can go beyond statistical significance into a natural intelligence.

The idea of looking at carbon and saying it is bad — carbon is an innocent element, a magnificent thing because it is a core of life. I thought, what if we redefine our way of dealing with it and what if we had new language for carbon that does not demonize it?

I wrote a paper in Nature, and it has had a wonderful effect. I am delighted that the terms get used. And it basically said we have living carbon, which we can celebrate and we should in every which way we can. The sun shines on the Earth. The carbon obviously becomes photosynthetically engaged and off to the races and we have living things. Biomass. Beautiful.

And then we have durable carbon, which is carbon sitting still in a mountain or it might be a beam in a building for a thousand years. And that is what I call the technosphere. A wood beam can be in the technosphere because it is an object of human intention and use, and it is durable. That would include plastics that are recyclable. So, it is durable and it is in our technical system.

I thought we needed a new language for carbon. Fugitive carbon, no. Durable carbon, careful. Living carbon, celebrate.

And then there is the third kind of carbon, which is fugitive. So, let us just call it for what is. Fugitive carbon at this point in history is a toxin because a toxin in the United States is defined by dose and duration. And so, what is the dose, what is the duration? The dose in the atmosphere is way overloaded and the duration is way too long. We have turned carbon into a toxin for the atmosphere.

That is why I thought we needed a new language for carbon. Fugitive carbon, no. Durable carbon, careful. Living carbon, celebrate.

Makower: It strikes me that as a design guy, as a visual thinker, that you care a lot about words and language. "Less bad" is not the same as "good.” Carbon is not the enemy. And so many other things — not to mention words and phrases you have either coined or popularized. What is it about language that you see as so critical when so much of the world is a design problem?

McDonough: The great thing about being a human is that we get to communicate with each other. And we use words. So if we can embed meaning and spirit and accuracy into our language, we can start to get clarity. So, I just see the obvious, like when I first said "waste equals food." That is the clearest way I could say it. And "Carbon is not the enemy." "What? Oh." And so on.

I just love the language. I found out that my writings are being used in a famous English university in a course on rhetoric in the English department. When I asked the professor, "Why are you using my writing?" he said, "You have a weird way of discovering the obvious. And you read your stuff and you go 'Wait a minute' at the end of it. 'That was obvious.' And then you realize it was not obvious at all before you read it. Which means you made your argument. Which is rhetoric. That is why we do it."

I like that. We all search for words that have meaning and it becomes obvious upon reflection.

Makower: You talk a lot about the children. That seems to be a passion, maybe even an obsession for you. Of course, you have kids of your own. But what else is that about? I mean, obviously, we want to make the best world for future generations. Why have children become such a part of your approach?


Teaching a group of sixth graders about systems design, 2011

McDonough: I always start designing with a question: "How do we love all the children of all species for all time?" I think that is a really important question because it puts us in the context of something we all share everywhere as living things. And having traveled a lot as a child — my mother called me when I was 40 and said, "I just went through your box of all your report cards. Did you know you went to 19 different schools before college in lots of countries?" — I think I got the chance to see a lot of people and say, "I wonder how I can help them."

I mean, when we had cholera in Hong Kong and all the refugees came, we all went out with our water buckets. And during the dry season, we only had four hours of water every fourth day but we would all stand in line together and we would all help each other. And we would make visits to the refugees to bring them things and try and help them.

That is the way it was. We are here to help each other. It needs to be understood by the children — that it is honest, that it is pure at its core. That is why I am interested.

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