As a building contractor and journalist interested in sustainability, I routinely speak with people operating in areas of green building and other eco-friendly endeavors, and a couple of years ago, the name William McDonough began popping up among my colleagues. It was a name I hadn’t run across in my own research, and it came connected to claims that struck me as so wild they seemed almost like science fiction. Last year, I heard that McDonough would be speaking at the Institute of Ecosystem Studies, an ecological think tank in Millbrook, New York. I have to admit that the things I’d heard about him were so fantastical, they had kept me from investigating the man and his work any further. Nevertheless, I went to listen.
McDonough appeared in his signature black clothes and bow tie, to deliver a Zen-cool, often poetic slide presentation from a laptop. It’s easy to see why people fall for the guy. He has a fabulous command of the language and is a convincing and charismatic speaker. He cuts through mental clutter with disarmingly simple and grounded logic.
McDonough is widely considered one of the pioneers of green architecture. He’s a world-renowned architect and designer who’s won three US presidential awards: the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development (1996), the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award (2003), and the National Design Award (2004). Time magazine once named him a “Hero for the Planet.” He was born in Japan in 1951, and lived in Hong Kong before getting degrees from Dartmouth and the Yale School of Architecture, after which he opened an architecture office in New York City. In the 1980s, when global warming was little more than the obscure nightmare of a handful of climatologists, McDonough designed a solar-heated house in Ireland and a green office complex for the Environmental Defense Fund.
In 1994, he moved his firm, William McDonough + Partners, to Charlottesville, Virginia, and assumed the post as dean of architecture at the University of Virginia. The Washington Post reported that on campus McDonough was known as the “Green Dean,” and promoted “zero pollution and total recycling.” McDonough left UVA in 1999, to serve his expanding vision of building construction and design in the private sector. His work with sustainability has led him in diverse directions. He’s worked with Rohner, a Swiss textile firm, to find nontoxic ways of colorizing and manufacturing fabrics, and with Nike to remove hazardous materials in their footwear.
At Oberlin College, in Ohio, his building for the environmental studies department is powered by solar and geothermal energy, and is designed to generate more energy than it uses. In 2002, he placed a 450,000-square-foot “living roof” of grasses and plants on top of Ford’s River Rouge truck plant in Dearborn, Michigan. The roof captures and neutralizes runoff from the plant, reportedly saving the carmaker some $35 million in environmental costs.
McDonough is what you might call a design epistemologist, a philosopher of the values we reveal about ourselves through the things we create. Speaking to a group of product designers, he once held up a rubber duckie bath toy, recited a litany of the toxic effects of the chemicals used in its manufacture, and asked pointedly, “What kind of society would make something like this to put in the mouths of children?” In Millbrook, his talk wove a tapestry of poetry, architecture, design, psychology, philosophy, ecology, geography, and politics into a comprehensive—and plausible—vision of the future.
After his hour-long presentation, I introduced myself to McDonough, told him about my own work as a green builder, and asked if there were any possibility of interviewing him for publication. After a congenial acknowledgment of my credentials, he gazed deeply into my eyes and said, “Well, probably not. It’s right down to the minute for me now. Can you understand that?” Some time later I attempted to schedule a brief phone interview, and was told by his in-house public relations assistant that his time was prescheduled for four months.
Why is McDonough so busy? As he puts it, “I am involved in the design of furniture, wall coverings, textiles, solar collectors, cars, buildings, [and] cities.” Since 1995, he has collaborated with German chemist Michael Braungart, an environmentalist and founder of the Chemistry Section of Greenpeace International. Together, Braungart and McDonough have created a materials design firm, McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), to, as they state on their website, “promote and shape the next Industrial Revolution.” MBDC has a client base made up of some of the leading corporations of the industrialized world, including—in addition to Ford, Nike, and Rohner Textil—BP (British Petroleum), BASF, and Volvo. The Chinese government hired McDonough to establish an eco-friendly municipal plan for the city of Liuzhou that will remake it into a high-density, 5,400-acre urban center with easy access to parks, clean water, and mass transit.