Cradle to Cradle: An interview with William McDonough

By Andy Kenworthy, James Russell

William McDonough is a leading light in creating not just architecture, but entire systems of non-toxic, no-waste production.

Photovoltaics adorn the roof of 333 Brannan in San Francisco. Photo / Supplied
Photovoltaics adorn the roof of 333 Brannan in San Francisco. Photo / Supplied

When William McDonough thinks, he thinks big.

Why can't every single material we use to build things be designed for a life beyond its original purpose? Why can't it be recycled endlessly into the same or other products - something which he calls the 'technosphere'. Or, if it is organic material, why then aren't we using it to nourish our soils, to be returned to the earth to enrich the 'biosphere'? The end goal is, of course, no waste.

It's called Cradle to Cradle, and it's a recognised certification on a growing number of products the world over. It is one of the most difficult certifications to achieve, taking into account a broad range of criteria all adding up to a net zero deleterious effect on the planet's resources.

"All materials are seen as nutrients, everything is food," says McDonough. "We eliminate the concept of waste. We send materials out with a good sense of where they go next, what is next.

If it's going into an electronic product it is going to come back to be used in electronics so it is designed for disassembly and reuse. If it has lead in the solder, we don't want to hear that it got into the biosphere, where it is a neurotoxin."

The Cradle to Cradle concept also demands that the production process of a product be renewably powered, does not pollute water and is socially fair.

McDonough cites the recycling of plastic bottles into clothing as not going far enough. "It's downcycling - it is destined to end up as landfill, and it has lost the clarity and quality of the original material. Recycling would mean you make it back into another bottle," he says.

"With a Cradle to Cradle approach the products we make are divided into three categories: 'products of consumption', 'products of service', and 'unmarketable products'. Products of consumption, such as cleaning chemicals, shampoos, and packaging materials, should be made of biological nutrients so they create no health risks, pollution or waste throughout their life cycle. Products of service, such as cars, washing machines, and televisions will contain technical nutrients that are wholly and cleanly reclaimed and recycled endlessly. Unmarketable products include things like hazardous waste that cannot be consumed or used in an environmentally sound way: these should be discontinued and substituted."

The NASA Sustainability Base is unlike any other US government building. Photo / Supplied
The NASA Sustainability Base is unlike any other US government building. Photo / Supplied

McDonough's buildings follow these principles. The NASA Sustainability Base is unlike any other US government building. The materials are either recyclable or recycled, or come from rapidly renewable sources. All materials are chosen because they can be reused in either technical or biological cycles and are either inert or beneficial to human health, and the building is designed for disassembly.

The Base generates the power needed to run it (minimised through a range of lighting, heating and cooling initiatives) and consumes 90 per cent less water than a building of similar size - its needs are easily serviced by rainfall. Grey water is dealt with by a forward-osmosis water recycling system capable of purifying it to drinking water (but which is used on the native gardens outside due to local government regulations). NASA is monitoring this system with the hope of using it in space.

Late last year 333 Brannan - a six-storey, 17,000 square-metre building designed by McDonough's firm - opened in San Francisco.

Like the NASA building, photovoltaics adorn the roof, but the difference is that the building is designed as part of an urban micro grid that shares electrical energy, heating and cooling between neighbouring buildings.

The facility has also been designed with transport in mind, accommodating bike racks, an on-site car share program and electric vehicle charging stations.

The Park 20:20 building is considered a "material bank". Photo / Supplied
The Park 20:20 building is considered a "material bank". Photo / Supplied

And in the Netherlands, the Cradle to Cradle-certified Park 20:20 building is considered as a 'material bank'; its design leads to such ease of dismantling at the end of its useful life the usual demolition cost will instead be turned into a source of reusable, or saleable, materials. The building comes complete with a disassembly manual. The manufacturers of the materials used in the building have only leased them for the life of the building.

Where others see problems McDonough sees opportunity: "We have carbon, a material, in the wrong place. A material in the wrong place is often known as a toxin. Lead in your child's bloodstream is a neurotoxin. Lead in a computer that never sees the light of day or leaks into the biosphere is a technical nutrient. Carbon is a blessing - it is the root of life itself. Natural systems take carbon from the atmosphere and put it in soil. That's the design. That's how we get growth. Modern design takes carbon from the soil puts it back into the atmosphere. We have turned carbon into a toxin. This needs to be redesigned."

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