WILLIAM MCDONOUGH: Designing for Abundance

Architect and author William McDonough has been recognized by Time magazine as “Hero for the Planet,” and his best-selling 2002 book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things broke ground and became a seminal guide for the sustainability movement. His career is filled with such firsts: While a student at Yale University, he designed and built the very first solar-heated home. The first green office in the US—for the Environmental Defense Fund—was designed in 1985 by McDonough. Along with Professor Dr. Michael Braungart, he co-authored the now-famous The Hannover Principles: Design for Sustainability, commissioned by the City of Hannover (Germany); these were the official design guidelines for the 2000 World’s Fair, and were presented by the city at the 1992 UN Earth Summit. He is the recipient of three US Presidential Awards: Award for Sustainable Development (1996), Green Chemistry Challenge Award (2003), and the National Design Award (2004).

Although his career path began and remains primarily in architecture, McDonough’s work goes far beyond designing buildings—into manufacturing, lifestyles, and even into the very ground itself. His philosophy of self-renewing and contributive structures and processes extends well past “zero impact.”

“Aiming for ‘lower’ or ‘zero’ is not inspirational to me,” McDonough told Calmful Living. “It seems like a subtle shift from the strategy of tragedy that we’ve been pursuing for way too long. I have always believed that a strategy of hope was possible instead. This is why the subtitle of my latest book, The Upcycle, is Beyond Sustainability—Designing for Abundance. Do you want a sustainable life or one filled with joy and abundance?”

Cradle to Cradle

In Cradle to Cradle McDonough and co-author Michael Braungart examine the history of modern production, beginning with the Industrial Revolution. From the Industrial Revolution forward, the modus operandi has been “cradle-to-grave” building, manufacturing and even agriculture.

The cradle-to-cradle model brings about drastic and vital change to these areas. Materials utilized in industrial processes fall into one of two categories: “technical” or “biological” nutrients. Technical nutrients are, by default, not harmful to humans or the environment in any way and can be used continuously without loss of integrity or quality; they never become waste. Biological nutrients are those that, once used, biodegrade back into the soil. They actually provide life and have no negative impact on the natural environment.

A remarkable real-world example of this approach is given in the book. In the early 1990s, McDonough and Braungart were asked to conceive and create a biodegradable upholstery fabric. The Swiss textile mill chosen had one of the cleanest operations in Europe by current environmental standards—yet the trimmings from their manufactured fabric had been defined as “hazardous waste.” McDonough points out the paradox that the trimmings had to be disposed of carefully, while the material itself was completely approved for upholstered use in homes and offices.

McDonough and Braungart set a very high goal for the fabric they created: it could actually be safe enough to eat. Even though obviously no one would eat the fabric, this standard would absolutely guarantee that it would be completely safe against skin or clothing and for anyone breathing the air nearby. It would also mean that the trimmings, instead of being disposed of as hazardous waste, could go to nearby garden clubs and be used as mulch.

Not only did they succeed in the creation of the upholstery fabric, but the manufacturing process itself was radically altered for the better. Workers were able to discard gloves and masks used earlier to protect them from dangerous chemicals. Regulatory paperwork was eliminated. Rooms that had been previously required for storage of hazardous chemicals could now be utilized as additional workspace or even for recreation. And from a business angle, probably the best result was greatly increased financial success.

As a final test, when regulators came to do an inspection, they thought their instruments were broken: the water coming out of the factory was free of even some elements that were in it when it entered the factory. Upon checking their instruments, they found those were functioning just fine. The water coming out was in fact cleaner than the water going in.

A Child Opens His Eyes

How does someone arrive at a world view so different from that commonly held? For McDonough, it began practically from his birth in Tokyo. “I was influenced strongly by experiences I’d had abroad—first in Japan, where I spent my early childhood,” he wrote in Cradle to Cradle. “I recall a sense of land and resources being scarce but also the beauty of traditional Japanese homes, with their paper walls and dripping gardens, their warm futons and steaming baths. I also remember quilted winter garments and farmhouses with thick walls of clay and straw that kept the interior warm in winter and cool in summer. Later, in college, I accompanied a professor of urban design to Jordan to develop housing for the Bedouin who were settling in the Jordan River valley. There I encountered an even greater scarcity of local resources—food, soil, energy, and especially water—but I was again struck by how simple and elegant good design could be, and how suited to locale. The tents of woven goat hair the Bedouin had used as nomads drew hot air up and out, creating not only shade but a breeze in their interiors. When it rained, the fibers swelled, and the structure became tight as a drum.”

When McDonough returned to the US, he found that the only environmental topic considered by designers and architects was energy efficiency. What of all the building materials? What of water use? What of a building’s impact on its surrounding environment? All these factors were taken into account when he founded his firm in 1981 and have been in place and greatly expanded since.

The Upcycle

McDonough’s latest work, The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability—Designing for Abundance, again co-written with Braungart, picks up where Cradle to Cradle left off, incorporating the many lessons learned since that first book. “This book takes Cradle to Cradle to the next level,” he said. “The inspiration was our desire to talk about the evolution of our thinking and to tell some of the stories about how governments, companies and individuals we’ve been working with have been implementing these ideas—as well as to foment new ideas.”

In it, real-world examples of McDonough’s philosophy are demonstrated, along with the corporate key thinking necessary to the creation of the world we all need.

“You know, honestly, while there have been many challenges, it’s the opportunities I like to talk about most,” McDonough said of the changes that occurred after the first book was released. “For instance, many years ago, we started talking with brave and aspirational clients about what a ‘building like a tree’ could be, and we created some buildings with many of those characteristics. Today those aspirations are even greater, and the conceiving and implementing of things like food production on all kinds of buildings—job creation on the roof!—is not only something we can imagine but something we can make happen. It is powerful to see this scaling up.”

His status since the publication of Cradle to Cradle is reflected in the new book’s foreword—written by President Bill Clinton. The two first met during Clinton’s administration when McDonough was invited by Clinton to present ideas for greening the White House, and Clinton has remained an ardent supporter.

Into the Ground

A considerable focus in The Upcycle is given to the importance of changing our agriculture. McDonough likens our biosphere to an organic battery, storing potential power for society’s use, and our soil to an earth battery. Just as a battery can be recharged, so can the soil that grows our food. When this is not allowed to happen—which is the way of resource-depleting industrial agriculture—all we are doing is draining the battery. He discusses in detail methods actually in use today that strengthen and “charge” the soil, methods that cause crops to be healthy and nutritious. These techniques all replace the chemicals and mined-mineral inputs that, like industrial agriculture, are quickly using up the few resources we have left.

“As we write in the book, rebuilding soil is critical right now,” McDonough pointed out. “This is as important to our future as converting to renewable energy. Soil is disappearing faster than we can restore it. The sooner we recharge our soil battery, the better.

“This is directly related to a rethink that Michael and I have been promoting (and it’s in the book’s ‘What’s Next’ section): we don’t have an energy problem; we have a problem of materials being in the wrong place. For example, carbon is in the wrong place. Carbon is perfect and crucial to life, but we want it earthbound, not in the atmosphere. Rather than demonizing carbon, let’s just get it back where it belongs.”

Real-World Demonstrations

McDonough indicated two projects that particularly exemplify his philosophy. “NASA’s Sustainability Base, at the Ames Research Center in California, is something I’m proud of,” he said. “We collaborated with NASA to create what they call their first space station on Earth, and it’s a test bed for NASA technologies. This building is a demonstration of what ‘continuous improvement’ really means at the building scale.”

The NASA Sustainability Base is designed to maximize daylight and fresh-air flow, and it utilizes the sun’s arc as well as site-specific wind patterns. Nearly all power is generated on-site. To the extent possible, the base is designed with cradle-to-cradle materials that will revert to either nature or manufacturing at the end of their life cycles.

“We’re also working with a manufacturer in India on some factory facilities that will involve food production and distribution,” said McDonough. “I’m extremely excited about these as a model for the future. I am particularly excited about the jobs angle: they will be employing people on the roof as well as inside, and that kind of effectiveness is something that many communities can benefit from.”

Many of McDonough’s designs utilize roof farms as a way for office buildings to “pay it forward” to their surrounding environment.

“But there’s more that we can do,” McDonough continued. “Here’s an example of upcycling that I like to point to: What if we reimagined the potential of the land around our railroad tracks or federal highways, already secure as public rights of way, as host to renewable power systems? I like to call this ‘upcycling Amtrak.’ Upcycling the quality of our designs—seeking continuous improvement instead of simply recycling obsolete ideas and destructive technology—renews twentieth-century industry with twenty-first-century innovation.

“The available area is significant—Amtrak alone has more than 14,000 miles of rights of way—and this real estate, bathed in sunshine and wind, is already industrially zoned territory. Both railways and highways typically have fences; these vertical surfaces are perfect hosts for solar collectors. Because of mass production, such collectors are now cost effective at this scale. (Just ask Walmart, the country’s largest user of solar collectors, which is committed to becoming 100 percent renewably powered.) Let’s go to that scale with velocity.

“Ambitious? Yes. There will surely be numerous technical matters to address. But all the technology needed to build renewable power systems and smart grids on public rights of way already exists or is in the works; it simply needs to be applied to a coherently designed system. It’s terrestrial technology, not rocket science.”


In an article entitled “Beyond Efficiency,” McDonough and Braungart provide the stark comparison between the energy-efficient standard and the protocol they have evolved called eco-efficiency. They describe an energy-efficient building designed with minimal air intake and with darkly tinted glass minimizing sunlight. The lower load on the power grid earns this building recognition for the most energy saving in the area.

McDonough and his team would design quite a different building. “During the day, light pours in and views of the outdoors are plentiful—one can even open the windows,” they write. “The cooling system maximizes natural air flows, flushing the building with cool evening air. A layer of native grasses covers the building’s roof, making it more attractive to songbirds while absorbing storm-water runoff. Delicious, affordable food and beverages are available to employees in a café open to a sun-filled courtyard.”

The actual result of such a building—created for a client—was astounding. “The furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, for example, moved into a new building that provides fresh air, sunlight, and views of the outdoors to all of its employees, and within a year had increased its annual furniture production by $50 million. The company credits the customized design of the factory, an innovative administrative strategy, and the simple fact that the building is such a pleasant place to work. Indeed, many workers reported their delight at not having to ‘work in the dark.’ The savings from the building’s energy-efficient systems, about $50,000 a year, pale in comparison to the value of the energized workforce.”

From Each of Us

McDonough pointed out that there are ways that each one of us can contribute to a cradle-to-cradle environment. “It’s actually just a basic mind shift,” he concluded. “Instead of thinking about only efficiency, think of efficiency as a step toward effectiveness. Suddenly you will look at everything differently.

“Another thing I like to remind people: Get specific about your locality. You will arrive at more ingeniously indigenous solutions if you let the locality guide you. Some solutions can have global benefits and applications, but it’s important for all of us to start where we are.

“It’s urgent that we change the way we live, and it will take all of us. That’s the point. I remind my colleagues, clients and children that we can do this together. What other choice will inspire a parent, a designer, a CEO . . . a human?”


The Upcycle and Cradle to Cradle are available at the Calmful Living bookstore.

More on William McDonough and his work can be found at