To Design with Intent: An Interview with Bill McDonough

Bill McDonough says we can make and enjoy the things we need without destroying the natural world. This is the task of the next industrial revolution, and McDonough is one of its designers.

Sarah van Gelder: Tell me about yourself. Where did you develop an interest in changing the foundations of design?

Bill McDonough: I spent most of my childhood in Hong Kong. We had four hours of water every fourth day during the dry season. When a cholera epidemic came through, we had people dying on our door step. When my mother went to the money changer to change my father's checks, there would be an old woman there, begging, using a baby, crying, to elicit sympathy. She would have a new baby every two or three weeks. I thought that was normal life.

I spent my summers in the Puget Sound, in a log cabin my grandfather built surrounded by old-growth Douglas fir and cedar. My grand-parents raised oysters, and they saved rubberbands and aluminum foil, and I thought that was ordinary life.

When I became a teenager, we moved to Westport, Connecticut, where 16 year-olds had Porsches. And I realized that we had become consumers with lifestyles instead of people with lives.

I learned that third-graders were being taught to dive under their desks in school drills, and I realized that we were living as if there was no tomorrow. Indeed we were creating the condition whereby there might be no tomorrow. It seemed to me that our culture was essentially partying it up, waiting for Armageddon, and that in a sense we were not only living as if there were no tomorrow, we were designing as if there were no tomorrow.

Sarah: How did this early life experience find expression in your work as an architect?

Bill: While I was still in architecture school, I designed and built the first solar heated house in Ireland. That gives you a sense of my ambition - they don't have much sun in Ireland.

I also had a job with the Irish government photographing indigenous Irish design. It was so exciting, because I had to look for things that were pure expression of culture, that were unique and place specific.

I came to understand that like politics, all sustainability is local, and that we have to honor place, culture, history, and diversity.

In 1984, I was hired by the Environmental Defense Fund to design their national headquarters, which was the first of the so-called green offices in New York. We started asking manufacturers questions about what was in their products, what they were off-gassing. The answers we got were: It' s legal.  It' s proprietary..  Go away.

We started focusing on this question as an issue of quality: How could we consider our designs to be of high quality if they make people sick or destroy the planet?

In 1987, I was hired by members of the Jewish Community in New York to design a memorial to Holocaust victims at Auschwitz.

I went to Poland, to Birkenau and Auschwitz. Birkenau was a mile-wide killing machine. The railheads were designed so that people who got off on one side went straight into the gas chambers and on to the crematoria. And people who got off on the other side went into the slave labor camps and to be used in chemical testing for the cosmetics industry, among others.

I had to confront the notion that human beings would actually design with this intent. Imagine a designer being asked to do this. They were engineering ways to stack human bodies with different body fat content in different layers, so they'd be efficiently burned.

It became very clear and very visceral, very deeply moving, because all of sudden it occurred to me that there is a point at which a designer has to say, I don' t do that!

Sarah: Where do you draw that line? What are you saying you won't do?

Bill: This isn't in any way to demean or be glib about the depth of evil at Birkenau, but I recognized that when you look at the products inside a lot of office buildings and a lot of homes - the glues, chemicals, fabrics, cleaning fluids, pesticides, herbicides - when you look at, for example, the chemical soup that gets generated inside an office building with bad ventilation, you're building gas chambers.

In 1991, I was asked by the government of Hannover, Germany, to write the design principles for the World's Fair for the year 2000. I wrote what became the Hannover Principles with Dr. Michael Braungart, and the city of Hannover issued them at the Earth Summit. The principles insist on the rights of humanity and nature to coexist. They recognize interdependence. They call for accepting responsibility for the consequences of design, for creating safe objects for long-term value, eliminating the concept of waste, relying on natural energy flows, understanding the limitations of design, being humble, seeking constant improvement by the sharing of knowledge, and respecting the relationships between spirit and matter.

The people reviewing the principles tried to remove the one about spirit and matter, but I said No. When we sent this to the indigenous peoples to review, they came back and said there is only one principle: it is that one.

It was number eight at the time, and I said, Why don't we make it number five?

And they said Well, we're trying to get rid of it.

I said Well, let's make it number three. So you see where this is going. Now it's number three.

Sarah: How do you and your associates apply these principles in your work with clients?

Bill: What we're doing is just a beginning. It's what we call the strategy of change. In this strategy, we admit that we don't know what to do. We have to be humble. What we do know is that we can't keep doing what we're doing.

If design is a signal of intent, and we look at what we've done with the first industrial revolution, we would have to ask, did we intend to do this? If we articulated the retroactive design assignment of the First Industrial Revolution, it would be something like this: Could you design a system that pollutes the soil, air, and water; that measures productivity by how few people are working; that measures prosperity by how much natural capital you can dig up, bury, burn, or otherwise destroy; that measures progress by the number of smokestacks and requires thousands of complex regulations to keep you from killing each other too quickly; that destroys bio-diversity and cultural diversity; that produces things that are so highly toxic they require thousands of generations to maintain constant vigil while living in terror?

Is this ethical? It's like asking, Would you design a death camp? Can you do this for me?

Now, we're not asking people to feel guilty. I want them to make good products. I'm not that interested in sustainability, because if sustainability is just the edge between destruction and regeneration then it's a kind of maintenance - it's a demeaned agenda. I'm interested in fecundity - regenerative, powerful stuff. Nature's not efficient, it's effective! You don't look at the cherry tree in the spring and say, Look how many blossoms it takes!” It's not efficient. It's effective, and it's safe. There's nothing dangerous about the blossoms - they return to the Earth. Look at me. I just had a baby girl a week and a half ago. We also have a little boy, four and a half. I have a 100 million sperm in case two get lucky - not very efficient. But effective and fun! So let's celebrate and delight in abundance.

Sarah: Great! How do you go about doing that?

Bill:  You start by thinking about what is here and how it works. You've got a planet that's chemistry, and we've got the sun that's physics. And then you put the two together and the next thing you know, you've got this water and rock under solar flux, becoming the single photosynthetic cell. And then all heaven breaks loose, the system accrues solar income on the surface, and we now have incredible diversity and fecundity.

Then we humans come along, with our brilliant design idea, which is guess what? Monoculture. Oh, what a concept! Let's come up with one type of corn and plant that all over. Let's pave the whole planet. Let's regurgitate all of these persistent toxins that have been put down below by other bioremediation, phyto-remediation systems over the millennia that have allowed us to evolve on the surface. And let's spread them around like butter.

So our whole system is designed around monoculture, brute force, less, less, less, less diversity -cultural and biological.

Sarah: I'm wondering about how your design principles jibe with the whole other set of design principles that run commerce, which have to do with maximizing profits and externalizing costs.

Bill: Oh well, they work together beautifully, I mean this kind of design is hugely profitable. Here's an example. Herman Miller hired us to design a factory. We were given a budget of $49 a square foot -not a lot of money. We built a factory that' s fully daylit and has beautiful air, and it's also urbane. People feel like they spent their day working outdoors. All the office and factory workers share the same urban street where everyone drinks coffee. An office worker with a tie might bump into a guy with a ponytail.

What happened? We had the Bechtel National Laboratory measure changes in productivity resulting from one factor - biophilia, or people's love of nature; they figured it's worth at least a one percent productivity improvement. Now that may not sound like much, but when you make $300 million worth of furniture, 1 percent is $3 million. That 1 percent pays for the building; Herman Miller says we gave them the building as a present.

And guess who wins the Business Week prize for the best and most productive building in America for business? Herman Miller.

The next year, we designed the Gap Corporate Campus.  Buildings full of daylight and fresh air.

We gave them 100 percent fresh air in their own breathing zone, under their own control, and 100 percent daylight. The people in this building have five trajectories to the outside from wherever they're sitting. The roof is a giant undulating meadow. So a bird flying overhead would recognize habitat. It would go, Oh, I evolved for this. Right. There's my food. There's my people.

We used raised floors so we could move cool nighttime air across the slabs of the building to cool it down. So we reduced the mechanical equipment by over half and reduced the energy use dramatically.

Turns out, Pacific Gas and Electric says it's the second most energy efficient building in their territory.

Sarah: Let me ask you a little bit about some of the clients you've worked with - the Gap, Nike, Wal-Mart. They've all in various ways had some impacts in the world that a lot of people find problematic: Nike's labor practices; the Gap's owners who are clear-cutting forests; Wal-Mart's impacts on downtowns across the United States. You've been very clear about the high standards you are setting for materials and the conditions of the people in the particular buildings, but how do you see the companies in terms of their overall impacts?

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Bill: That's a really important question. When I first started working with Wal-Mart, I got attacked by the environmental world; people were saying How could you work with the enemy?

And I felt like Henry Thoreau in jail. Emerson came to see him and said, What are you doing in there, Henry? And Thoreau replied, I don't know, Ralph. What are you doing out there?

I mean, if we don't work together, we're not going to solve this thing. We all have to engage on every level and everywhere we can. Let's create as many models as we can to at least point out, like Kenneth Boulding said, that it exists; therefore, it is possible.

Do I like clear cuts? Nope. Do I think Nike is being serious about their intentions? Absolutely. I'm astonished and delighted by Nike. Nietzche said, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. These people have responded to criticism in the most astonishingly responsible ways from what I've seen. They're fantastic. And we're going to have a shoe next year with biodegradable soles and recyclable uppers. We leave behind safe molecules for worms.

Sarah: I've seen some of Nike's presentations, and there is no question in my mind that many people there are sincere. Nonetheless, there are the labor questions and the underlying message of Nike advertising - that you cannot have self-esteem, or you cannot belong, without buying an item that is unaffordable to a lot of people.

Bill: I think that will be transforming too. We've started talking about the shoe we want to work on, the world shoes that are made locally and deliver performance using local materials at very low cost.

Sarah: If you could take your dream design assignment, what would it be?

Bill: In a way I think we just got it. We've just been asked by Bill Ford, the new chairman of the board of Ford Motor Company, to help reconceive the River Rouge Plant. This is the home of the first assembly line - Henry Ford's original integrated manufacturing facility. Bill Ford has asked us to help him convert it from an icon of the first industrial revolution to the icon of the next industrial revolution.

Sarah: Let me ask you about the challenge you've put out: "How do we love all the children of all species for all time?" How did you come to see that as our next design assignment?

Bill: It is the fundamental manifestation of our creative gift that we have children, physically, and that we then intellectually, culturally, and spiritually pass something of value on to them. And the greatest value we can pass on to a child is love. Birkenau is a manifestation of hate. Well, how many people are actually making things as a manifestation of love? If there's a message inherent in something as prosaic as a shoe or a building, it's that you can have these things and not destroy the world. You can enjoy them and leave something here that has a value for a very long time. We don't have to have this disjuncture in our world, and we don't have to have this guilt. So a simple design assignment would be to talk about everything we do as a manifestation of love.

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