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Building Better

William McDonough

      . . . architect and designer, founding principal of William McDonough + Partners and McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, setting new standards for design quality, environmental sensitivity and functional effectiveness, internationally. Mr. McDonough helped launch the "green buildings" movement and leads what he christened "The Next Industrial Revolution." He is professor of architecture and business administration at the University of Virginia, and a former Dean. He was lead architect for the award-winning Lewis Environmental Studies Center at Oberlin College. Mr. McDonough received the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development and is a Time magazine Hero of the Planet.


How much time do you spend in buildings -- offices, factories, schools, homes, shopping centers and stores? Those buildings -- our habitats -- fascinate William McDonough, internationally acclaimed architect, designer, teacher and philosopher. Mr. McDonough is among those leading us all into what he christened "The Next Industrial Revolution." It's a dramatically new system of industry based on ecosystem thinking.

Mr. McDonough is working with clients who lead some of the world's most prestigious corporations and institutions -- The Gap, Herman Miller, Nike, Palm, and The Ford Motor Company -- heavy hitters doing a trillion dollars worth of business, annually, worldwide. What Mr. McDonough calls eco-effectiveness starts at the level of molecules and the idea scales all the way up through products, buildings, cities and regions beyond architecture to the entire basis of modern industry.

To accomplish his ambition -- re-engaging the world of productive human commerce with the world of productive nature -- Mr. McDonough and his colleagues have created a far-reaching "fractal ecology of thought, related to the design of the future of the making of things." He places his faith in commerce because he believes that is where sovereignty now lies, confident that commerce is honest and quick.

Mr. McDonough never looses track of solid business principles. Being highly profitable gets and holds a client's attention. Take architecture as an example. The direct costs of Mr. McDonough's daylight, fresh air and bird song drenched buildings are about $46/square foot. A bare metal shed costs $34/square foot. Even so, he's adamant that when a CEO is performing the executive function properly -- focusing on strategic issues, recruitment and retention, keeping employees happy and productive -- the cost of a building is "chump change."

How does William McDonough makes his ideas tangible? Imagine a building as sophisticated as a tree: able to make oxygen, sequester carbon, fix nitrogen, distill water, accrue solar energy as fuel, make complex sugars into food, build soil, change with the seasons, create microclimates and self-replicate. That was Mr. McDonough's goal as lead architect of what The New York Times describes as the most remarkable of a new generation of university and college buildings -- the Lewis Environmental Studies Center at Oberlin College.

Often, Mr. McDonough says, he's accused of engaging in fierce common sense. Yes, he's had a revelation, he assures us, but it's an obvious one known to ancient designers. They lived in their spaces, had to understand them, couldn't subvert, evade or control them. So they had to connect.

Our manifest destiny is no longer where we're going, Mr. McDonough believes. It is understanding and celebrating where we are, in the presence of other species. He challenges us to ask: What is our story? For William McDonough, the story is all about design -- and hope. After all, as he's quick to point out, we are all native peoples.

[This Program was recorded September 16, 2000, in Oberlin, Ohio, US.]

Conversation 1


William McDonough assures Paula Gordon and Bill Russell that we are in the midst of a transformation in our sense of place. Our manifest destiny, Mr. McDonough says, is to understand where we are, not where weâre going. He elaborates. He equates trees to buildings, taking us back to our common ancestor, and enlists our imagination in thinking about habitat.

Conversation 1 RealAudio8:17

Conversation 2


Ancient designers were connected to natural systems, Mr. McDonough reminds us. He reviews the brutish effects of the first industrial revolution. He explains how he and his associates open up the design process, using the Lewis Center as his example. Mindful that this work is not easy, Mr. McDonough applauds the required generosity of spirit, support and David Orr's unwavering leadership. State of the shelf technology is compared to state of the art. Mr. McDonough cites Palm, Nike, IBM and Ford Motor Company as examples of how practical he and his associates are. He cites the "Next Industrial Revolution" article he wrote with Michael Braungart, sharing personal concerns.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:56

Conversation 3


Ecologies of ecologies are examined, along with fierce common sense. Mr. McDonough delights in advances among his clients. He reiterates the common sense nature of this design revolution, using examples. He elaborates on "a fractal ecology of thought, related to the design of the future of the making of things." He explains why meadow larks are a metric. Real costs are examined and connected to the idea of an ecology of design. Mr. McDonough gives actual cost comparisons of the kind of ãsolid businessä he is helping companies do. He welcomes competition.

Conversation 1 RealAudio11:23

Conversation 4


Mr. McDonough talks about the life-support systems he and his colleagues design and gives further examples of "living" rooms for students, office and factory workers. He gives a detailed and compelling financial and strategic analysis of the effects of buildings like the Lewis Center. He links past solar designed architectural failures to the excitement of present and future revolutionary changes. He applauds fierce leaders with whom he has worked, explaining why it is crucial that he work only with the CEO or Board Chair of a client organization. Mr. McDonough explains how everyone, with all their individual differences, is drawn into projects.

Conversation 1 RealAudio10:31

Conversation 5

Commerce, Mr. McDonough believes, is now the primary instrument of change, sovereignty having shifted. He describes why commerce can be quick and effective. He shows how designing processes can make regulation unnecessary. Honest communication, analytic tools and creativity are all put to use in designing new materials, he says, with examples from the shop floor to the Board room. Mr. McDonough explains the sense in which his work is ecumenical, and recalls the origin of the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development he heads. He explains why exclusivity must often give way to fairness.

Conversation 1 RealAudio9:40

Conversation 6

Efficiency and effectiveness should not be confused, Mr. McDonough urges us, explaining his newly coined term, "eco-effectiveness." He elaborates. He urges us to choose what to grow: children rather than sprawl; intense value rather than depreciation; health instead of sickness. He asks us what our story is and recalls his own "aha" moment.

Conversation 1 RealAudio4:24



It was an enormous pleasure to meet Bill McDonough at the dedication of the building for which he was the lead architect, the Joseph Adam Lewis Environmental Center at Oberlin College. Everyone involved in getting to that day can take personal pride in the accomplishment.

The Office of College Relations helped us greatly in making possible the series of programs we recorded over the course of that celebratory weekend. We particularly thank Vice President Al Moran, his able assistant Darla Warren and the incomparable Marci Janas.

Related Links:

William McDonough was lead architect for the new award-winning Adam Joseph Lewis Environmental Center at Oberlin College, which The New York Times calls the most remarkable of a new generation of university and college buildings. You can visit it in Oberlin, Ohio, or at Oberlin's website.

Learn more about the role William McDonough and his associates are playing in "The Next Industrial Revolution"
at his website.

David Orr is the spirit and force behind the creation of the Lewis Environmental Center.

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