Deep Dive with William McDonough: Less Bad, More Good!

West Coast Green 2010

Last week I was in San Francisco for the annual West Coast Green conference, a heavy-hitting green building trade show with presentations from notable industry professionals and an expo featuring the latest in green building materials and products. For 2.5 days I threw myself into seminars and talks on everything from net zero energy homes to how oil has negatively affected our built environment. But the highlight of the whole weekend was undoubtedly the very first presentation I heard: a 3-hour (yes, 3 hours!) deep dive from Cradle-to-Cradle founder and design visionary William McDonough.

Fascinating, inspiring, and illuminating, Mr. McDonough reaffirmed so much of what I believe about design and green living: good (and therefore, green) design should support a human experience and all the richness that entails—abundance, diversity, beauty, and health.

For those of you unfamiliar with William McDonough: Mr. McDonough is the founding partner of William McDonough + Partners in Charlottesville and founding principal of design consulting firm MBDC and its Cradle to Cradle design principles. His book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, is a manifesto calling for the transformation of human industry through ecologically intelligent design. McDonough is also co-founder of Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, a non-profit organization helping the State of California create the world's first sustainable economy and fostering a new generation of sustainable products worldwide. The Institute aims to focus on how industry can become "less bad" by providing a resource for those who aspire to do "more good."

3 hours is a long time for a talk, you might be thinking. Yes, and it's even more a testament to William McDonough that I was completely engaged the whole time. The deep dive went back into his past work and stories, as well as his visions for the future. Here are a few takeaways:

  • Born in Japan in 1951, McDonough's parents were government employees sent to Japan to "wage peace" after the war. His childhood in Japan, the Philippines, and the ancient forests where his grandparents lived in the Puget Sound taught him that "things have their own light and to revel in the pleasures of these things" and that "there are sacred relationships we have to adhere to and celebrate," whether it's the Japanese joinery he looked at every night he fell asleep, or the way that those cultures lived with the cycle of natures, always careful, always respectful.
  • In college at Dartmouth he almost studied photography, and was most inspired by artists who exemplified a "deep humanism" and "celebrated the humanity and respect [their subjects] deserved."
  • The first solar home he designed was in Ireland, and at the home's christening, Irish poet Seamus Heaney declared "This is a fierce commotion!"
  • Meeting and working with his co-author on Cradle to Cradle, Michael Braungart, brought together science and design, or "truth and intention." In his view, we need to move beyond sustainable. It's not about maintenance, it's about creation! Efficiency has no value; it's just a tool. It's important, but it shouldn't be the first priority.
  • There are two spheres, the biosphere and the technisphere, and right now we're suffering from an undefined system. Technical components and chemicals are leaching into the biosphere and causing irreparable damage. But just like biological nutrients, the components that make up our products and materials should be viewed as a sort of "technical metabolism." As long as these components are kept within the technical sphere (reused, recycled) and out of the biosphere, then it's okay. For example, cadmium in and of itself isn't bad. If it's found in a battery in a child's toy that's easily accessible, then it IS bad. If it's found in a solar collector on a roof with a 30-year guarantee that the company takes back, deconstructs, and uses again, then it's good. Biosphere vs. technisphere. Keep them separate! This is the essence of Cradle to Cradle design: all products go back to the biosphere or the technisphere.

Memorable Quotes:

  • "Most architects and designers work at the top of the chain. Our job is to design for the children."
  • "How do we love all the children of all the species for all time?"
  • "Be effective first; do the right thing, then be efficient!"
  • "If it's possible, then it exists. That is the job of design revolutionaries."

Erin Feher of the California Home & Design Resource said it well when she wrote that the common thread running through McDonough's whole talk was the fact that "he is truly impressed with the capacity of human beings."

His full-circle knowledge of the economics that move politicians and CEOs to action is what separates his brand of world-changing from what has come before. But it’s his sincere faith in his fellow man that is so catching, and is the thing that will stay with me long after the cost savings of switching to solar has faded into fuzziness... In the words of William McDonough, "Wow, isn’t that something?"

Read More: For more on William McDonough, make sure to check out this interview he gave before his talk at West Coast Green.