The night his firm was honored with the General Services Administration's 2010 Presidential Award for its NASA Sustainability project, William McDonough gave a presentation to a small audience for the Townhall Foundation at Laguna Art Museum.
McDonough and his partner chemist Michael Braungart are co-authors of the 2002 book "From Cradle to Cradle," about a new industrial revolution free of waste where goods generate ecological, social and economic value.
McDonough said he models his design work on a "cradle-to-cradle" cycle from the molecule to the building. Rather than seeing materials as a waste problem, as happens in a "cradle-to-grave" system, all material in his designs are part of a closed loop of nutrients that are part of the cycle of nature. As such, nature becomes a model, a mentor for the design process, where everything becomes something else and there is no waste.
He used a cherry tree as reference. The tree, in his words, "makes thousands of blossoms just so another tree might germinate, take root and grow." Everything in this cycle is useful, every blossom becomes a nutrient, every particle contributes to an ecosystem where "waste equals food," a phrase repeated during the night.
The image of the cherry tree represents a symbolic example of efficiency. "Can anyone interpret this otherwise?," he asked. "Would anyone see cherry blossoms on the ground and think, how inefficient and wasteful this is?"
Humans on the other hand have been following a "cradle-to-grave" process, producing things that sooner or later are going to be discarded, and end in incinerators or landfills. Clearly not a very efficient model. The contraposition is clear: Unlike in nature, humans' waste is not food. This also symbolizes the failure of eco-efficient design to reshape products to be "less bad."
In his world, "design is the first of the human intentions," so he asked the audience, "What are our intentions? Destruction? If our strategy is tragedy we are doing great. But if the goal is not to destroy the world, what is?"
The failure of this model has a more personal meaning for McDonough, to turn this around and have instead a world of abundance and good design. He suggested designing for the 9 billion people we have in our planet today a "delightful diverse, safe, healthy world."
For McDonough, it is no longer possible to continue on this path, and he proposes a different approach: "eco-effectiveness." This new "eco-effectiveness" begins as a critique of the "eco-efficiency model" he interprets as a well-intended concept that unfortunately is not a strategy for success. In his view, eco-efficiency doesn't go deep enough and works within the same system that created the problem in the first place — a reminder of Albert Einstein's comment that "we can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."
The "eco-effectiveness system" can manufacture new products that, after their useful life, become nutrients for something new. The products designed as nutrients within a closed looped cycle he names "technical metabolism."
As an example, a fabric design by MBDC has been selected to be used on the Airbus. In this design, he and his partner, analyzed thousands of chemicals used in the textile industry, with the goal of producing a non-toxic material. As a result, they reduced the composition of this fabric down to 38 chemicals that produces a material he assures is safe enough to eat.
The "eco-effectiveness" approach is an attempt to build a different world. He proposes a true transformation of the production process in which design goes beyond the concept of efficiencies, where products create value rather than deplete the world.
These ideas are gathered and applied on his buildings, too. Buildings he sees as trees, as living organisms able to harvest the energy of the sun and sequester carbon to make oxygen. He imagines gardens recovering nutrients from circulating water, fresh air and plants. A roof covered in soil and sedum to absorb rain, with birds nesting and feeding in the building's footprint. All ideas delivered by his firm on the roof built for the Gap in San Bruno, Calif. The result is nothing less than a practical solution full of poetry.
McDonough has nicely grasped the celebration of the tree, using it not just as one model but many, and to celebrate diversity. Yet this road, from the design perspective, helps the erosion of the "one-size-fits-all solution," and once again celebrates diversity. As De Gaulle was quoted as saying, "How can anyone govern a nation that has 246 different kinds of cheese?" McDonough asks, "What if all become one? We want the cheese and we want to celebrate diversity, too."
Perhaps most important, he concluded, is to give our children a story of hope.
After the program, I talked with Doug Wilson, one of the founders of the Townhall Foundation, who was full of optimism and commitment to create a one-day event of creative thinking next year, something we all look forward to. But for now I thank Doug and the team that made possible this exceptional night for Laguna.
GUSTAVO GRAD is a Laguna Beach resident and certified sustainable building advisor. He can be reached at email@example.com.