Visionaries: William McDonough

William McDonough highlights the wastefulness and environmental impacts of modern design and manufacturing and proposes a whole rethink of the process.
Imagine buildings that make oxygen, sequester carbon, distil water, change with the seasons, and are beautiful.

His vision, spelled out in the book Cradle to Cradle, written with chemist Michael Braungart, is a manifesto for ecologically intelligent design and requires nothing less than a paradigm shift.

While many attempts at ‘greening’ design aim only to substitute bad chemicals with less bad chemicals and to fulfil the ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ mantra, McDonough argues such concepts only perpetuate the ‘cradle-to-grave’ manufacturing model in which waste and pollution are considered inevitable. The ‘cradle to cradle’ concept questions why industry must damage the natural world at all. Why stop at cleaner indoor air quality and not aim for homes that clean the air? Why not produce chemicals that make nutrients, not waste?

‘Imagine,’ he writes in Industry and Environment, a UNEP publication, ‘buildings that make oxygen, sequester carbon, fix nitrogen, distil water, provide habitat for… species, accrue solar energy as fuel, build soil, create microclimate, change with the seasons, and are beautiful.'

Good design, for McDonough, anticipates design evolution. ‘Designs today must anticipate change and constantly improve over time,’ he says. Instead of waste, products must have ‘nutrients’, whether biological (t-shirts that go back to the soil) or technical (a chair that can be recycled 200 times).

In making the cradle-to-cradle vision a reality, McDonough, through his Virginia-based architectural firm William McDonough and Partners, has worked on civic, corporate, residential, cultural, institutional, academic projects with some of the world’s leading corporations and institutions.

Design firm MBDC, founded with Braungart in 1995, pioneered a certification process that validates products’ quality, performance and ecological intelligence. It has brought to market certified baby products, building materials, textile products and insulation. While there have been many successes, ecologically intelligent design requires a huge shift in the way we do things, and the concept’s viability – and to a certain extent McDonough’s work – has attracted controversy.

Successful design, he says, is about how ‘a project lives within and connects to its community and ecosystem; how it provides for the health and wellbeing of those who work or live or play there. [It is] based on natural principles: does this place seek to eliminate the concept of waste? Does it rely on renewable energy flows… celebrate diversity?’

Some 80 per cent of a product’s environmental impact is decided at the design stage. The vast majority of designers and manufacturers are not held accountable for the impact of their products. In a culture that privatises profit and socialises risk, McDonough’s vision could go a long way to setting this balance right.

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the way we make things (Vintage, £8.99)


To read more about the other nine visionaries click on thier link below:

Introduction (Society), Ann Pettifor (Finance),

Derek Gow (Conservation), Carolyn Steel (Urban design), 

Peter Lipman (Transport), Polly Higgins (Law),

Jimmie Hepburn (Agriculture), Bill Drayton (Business),

George Marshall (Energy), Duane Elgin (Consumerism).

More from this author