Cradle to Cradle® is a registered trademark of MBDC, LLC.
Cradle to Cradle® is a registered trademark of MBDC, LLC.

Q&A: Architect William McDonough is focused on building a beneficial footprint

By Yazmine Mihojevich, Student Contributor

Architect, designer, and author William McDonough is the founder/co-founder of MBDC, William McDonough + Partners, and McDonough Innovation, as well as the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. 

Can you describe the role of cities in the future of sustainability?

We are an increasingly urban society, and as such, we are best served by understanding cities as living organisms. Human activity has a massive impact on all ecosystems, and therefore cities, as the primary aggregation of human impact, are hugely important. Cities represent a high concentration of not just people but also flows—materials, energy, and water. Because of this, they represent a unique opportunity for designs that will benefit from such concentration.

Many materials that we think of as waste, if aggregated, can be returned to human use. This does not mean “waste to energy” that re-releases carbon to atmosphere. I am describing the concentration of material that can be retained in solid form, and also clean water, safe feedstock materials, packaging, etc., as well as biological materials (such as sewage and effluents). Many are currently considered liabilities but can be converted to assets simply because of their concentration. We can start calling sewage treatment plants Nutrient Management Systems and they will produce fertilizer for farmlands, rather than polluting waterways.

What might the role of the building be in the future? 

I have, for years, talked about buildings like trees and cities like forests, but these are much more than metaphors. We have been designing buildings that harvest the energy they need to operate and collect and cleanse the water they use … as well as grow food, provide jobs, and much more. These buildings are operating now, and as neighborhoods and cities of such buildings take shape, they will continue to demonstrate that we can think about cities as giant nutrient systems, energy systems, mobility systems, and, of course, economic and social systems, as we’ve always understood them.

Buildings in the future can take lessons from buildings in the past. Buildings have always been in relationship to local materials and energy flows. Structures are integrally connected to the patterns of sun, wind, and other conditions of place. In the future, they will have the additional benefits of being able to harvest solar, wind, and other energies.

More and more, the buildings will behave like trees—capturing and transforming energy, water, and air in ways that allow for human use. In the future, buildings will be “materials warehouses,” holding steel, copper, class, and other materials that can be targeted for reuse over time. That idea, of building like a tree, is something I put forth in the 1980s (and began to manifest in the first building of its kind, with David Orr at Oberlin College, in 1992): What if we designed a building like a tree? What if they were aggregators and producers? Of fruit … and energy and clean water?

Can you describe your design philosophy, cradle to cradle?

The language with which I describe good design and good growth has evolved over the years, but the laws of nature, and the principles derived from them, are perpetually productive and enduring.

They underpin The Hannover Principles: Design for Sustainability (1992) and Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (2002). They inspired buildings designed to harvest and share more usable energy than they consume and companies profitably engaged in producing safe, healthful materials designed for continuous cycles of use by industry. They inspired factories powered by the energy of the sun that restore biodiversity and enhance community health, and a growing recognition of global interdependence, manifested in China’s embrace of the circular economy in 2003, and the recent emergence of a circular economy infrastructure in the EU. Now we see in the concept of ecological civilization the integration of social and ecological benefits with conventional economic values and metrics.

The circular economy seeks to perpetuate the benefits of production from one use period to another use period, creating continuous assets through the economy rather than the old take/make/waste cycle. As we put it in the early 1990s, waste equals food. In Cradle to Cradle®, the design framework I developed with Michael Braungart and popularized through our book, Cradle to Cradle, we described two perpetual nutrient cycles—biological and technical. The Cradle to Cradle concept is now being adopted by many operating in the circular economy. I think that if the circular economy had a tagline, I like to say that it might be “putting the re back in resources.”

To learn more register to attend the Winter Quarter Oppenheim Lecture, “Design for the Circular Economy in the Ecological Century” presented by the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability on Wednesday, February 18 at 6:00 p.m. at the Fowler Museum at UCLA.