'Hero of the Planet' Engineer Puts 'Green' Mark on Building Design

William McDonough is trying to change the way the world works. McDonough calls "cradle to grave" the Industrial Revolution model of extracting natural resources for products destined for the landfill.

William McDonough is trying to change the way the world works.

McDonough calls "cradle to grave" the Industrial Revolution model of extracting natural resources for products destined for the landfill.

Instead, he wants the world to work "cradle to cradle" in a new manufacturing pattern in which products, like natural systems, constantly recycle themselves.

McDonough is turning the high-flown ideal into reality. He has overseen the design of everything from biodegradable carpets to green buildings and from Nike shoe recipes to, now, whole cities in China.

The winner of the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development and one of Time magazine's "Heroes for the Planet," McDonough will speak Tuesday in the World Affairs Council of Oregon's International Speaker Series.


Expect a packed hall.

"No question, McDonough is the father of the modern green building movement," says Jerry Yudelson, a partner with Interface Engineering and chairman of Greenbuild, a convention that brought more than 7,000 builders and manufacturers to Portland last month. "He's been incredibly important in getting a broader audience to understand a whole new way of making and using materials in the environment."

With a powerful knack for self-promotion, McDonough has leapt from one high-profile project to another since establishing his architecture practice in 1977. Today, he is tantamount to architect and homewares designer Michael Graves in the realm of sustainability -- a brand himself -- designing not only buildings but also products and processes.

His current design projects run the gamut from new facilities for the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., the country's largest school for Protestant ministers, to a replacement material for brick, which has been outlawed for its effects on the environment in 174 jurisdictions in China.

McDonough is even working on a cure for Type 2 diabetes, creating a "design protocol" for a $44 million grant to the University of Michigan.

"Researchers are looking for grants," he says. "We're looking for solutions. They aren't necessarily cross-fertilizing. It's the same process you use to figure out what is a church for 70 denominations?"

McDonough is working on seven "templates" for new towns for the China Housing Industry Association, the organization he says is charged with delivering housing for 400 million people in the next 12 years.

Rejecting what he calls the architectural paradigm of "form follows function," McDonough is striving for "form follows evolution." The waterways will be parks that will purify water. The roofs, topped by either grass or photovoltaics, will be "photosynthetic," making either oxygen or energy.

"The sewage treatment plants will be sold," he says, "as fertilizer and methane fuel factories."

Much of McDonough's work is high-concept, sometimes featuring wrinkles resulting from translations of theory into practice. A McDonough building for Oberlin College that was supposed to produce more energy than it used has required more than $200,000 in retrofits. And John Scofield, an Oberlin physics professor, says it is still performing only 10 percent more efficiently than a conventional building.

"These things are experimental and full of the joy of discovery," McDonough counters. "It was design strategy. You can't get there until you figure out what you need. The building is so nice, the use of it doubled. So now we're putting solar collectors over the parking lot."

Once described by architecture critic Jane Holtz Kay as "silver-tongued," McDonough is well-known for his slogan-steeped lectures. PowerPoint slides flash phrases such as "waste = food" and "regulation is the signal of design failure," often stamped with the logos of McDonough's two design firms.

"One of my mentors used to say, 'You can either do things or get credit for them, but not both," " quips Yudelson, the Greenbuild chairman.

Yudelson bought eight tickets for clients to attend McDonough's lecture.

"In terms of capturing the public's imagination for green building, he stands alone," Yudelson says. "For that reason alone, he deserves the accolades he gets."

Source: Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News