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Designer William McDonough Has Answers To Our Environmental Dilemma


By James Donahue


Sometimes when we start tearing our hair in frustration over humanity’s apparent inability to stop its wasteful rape of the environment for personal profit, we discover that some researchers are working hard to solve these problems and turn it all around.


Such a person is Designer and Architect William McDonough, creator of a design concept called cradle-to-cradle. In a book McDonough co-authored with German chemist Michael Braungart, Cradle-to-Cradle; Remaking the Way We Make Things, he calls for making products of parts that can be completely recycled or will decompose after their life cycle has expired.


McDonough believes this kind of revolutionary design would improve productivity, be good for business, good for the environment, and help save on the Earth’s natural resources.


“I see the conflict between industry and the environment as a design problem,” he said. “Design can eliminate the concept of waste, producing perpetual assets rather than perpetual liabilities.


“We can envision and design, for example, buildings that purify air and water and produce more energy than they use,” McDonough said.


McDonough’s idea is being looked at closely by industry. In fact, the Chinese government has asked him to develop a cradle-to-cradle protocol as a model for building homes across that country. China wants to deliver housing for 400 million people in the next decade. This project has emerged as a design for seven new and entirely green cities for that great nation.


He is redesigning Ford Motor Company’s big River Rouge, Michigan plant and turning it into the state’s eco-poster child. A feature of this 20-year-long project will be the development of the world’s largest “living roof” for reclaiming storm runoff.


McDonough introduced the concept of the “green roof,” having designed and built the first one of its kind in America in the 1970s on a corporate headquarters building. His roof has a meadow on top.


He designed the first solar-heated house while an architecture student at Yale University. That house stands today in Ireland.


Also Herman Milller Inc. has introduced a cradle-to-cradle chair from materials that can be disassembled. Of these materials, 96 percent of them can be reused or recycled. His design for this furniture factory increased that company’s productivity $3 million in the first year and was awarded Business Week’s prize for the best and most productive building for business in America.


In the 1990s, McDonough designed the new Gap headquarters in Northern California. The building is made of glass, stone and concrete, with a roof of native grasses that provide habitat for birds and insects. Everything in this building will biodegrade when the building becomes obsolete, or can be recycled into materials for new buildings.


McDonough is so acclaimed for his ideas Time Magazine labeled him a “Hero for the Planet” in 1999 in a story that said “his utopianism is grounded in a unified philosophy that – in demonstrable and practical ways – is changing the design of the world.”


He also is winner of the Presidential Award fo Sustainable Development in 1996, the National Design Award in 2004, and the Presidential Green chemistry Challenge Award in 2003.


The Duveneck Foundation recently awarded him the “Hidden Villa Humanitarian Award.”


McDonough is the founder of William McDonough & Partners, Architecture and Community Design, which offers ecologically, socially and economically intelligent architecture and planning. He and Braungart are cofounders of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), a company that applies Cradle to Cradle design protocol in the creation of ecologically sustainable materials for the clothing, furniture and even the automobile industries.