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July 20, 1996

Design, Ecology, Ethics and the Making of Things

[Editor's note; The Harbinger concluded its symposium on Sustainable Development with the last scheduled speaker in the series. The issue remains, however, active and we would like to continue a public dialogue about what "sustainable" means, what solutions are availalbe, and what answers remain to be discovered. The following article, published in the Spring 1996 Earth Island Journal, was adapted by the author and Paul Hawken from "A Centennial Sermon," an address delivered from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City by William McDonough. The author is Dean of School of Architecture at University of Virginia and founder of William McDonough and Partners, Architecture and Planners in Charlottesville, Virginia. Because of the important message, The Harbinger is forgoing brevity and reprinting it in two installments.]

by William McDonough

This morning, I am going to speak about the concept of design itself as the first signal of human intention and will focus on ecology, ethics, and the making of things. I would like to reconsider both our design and our intentions. If we understand that design leads to the manifestation of human intention and if what we make with our hands is to be sacred and honor the earth that gives us life, then the things we make must not only rise from the ground but return to it, soil to soil, water to water, so everything that is received from the earth can be freely given back without causing harm to any living system. This is ecology. This is good design. It is of this we must now speak.

Our culture has adopted a design strategem that essentially says that if brute force or massive amounts of energy don't work, you're not using enough of it. We made glass buildings that are more about buildings than they are about people. The hope that glass would connect us to the outdoors was completely stultified by making the buildings sealed. We have created stress in people because we are meant to be connected with the outdoors, but instead we are trapped. Indoor air quality issues are becoming very serious. People are sensing how horrifying it can be to be trapped indoors, especially with the thousands upon thousands of chemicals that are being used to make things today.

There are certain fundamental laws that are inherent to the natural world that we can use as models and mentors for human design. Ecology comes from the Greek roots Oikos and Logos, "household" and "logical discourge." Thus, it is appropriate, if not imperative, for architects to discourse about the logic of our earth household. To do so, we must first look at our planet and the very processes by which it manifests life, because therein lies the logical principles with which we must work. And we must also consider economy in the true sense of the world, Using the Greek words Oikos and Nomos, we speak of natural law and how we measure and manage the relationships within this household, working with the principles our discourse has revealed to us.

And how do we measure our work under those laws? Does it make sense to measure it by the paper currency that you have in your wallet? Does it make sense to measure it by a grand summation called GNP? For if we do, we find that the foundering and rupture of the Exxon Valdez tanker was a prosperous event because so much money was spent in Prince William Sound during the clean-up. What then are we really measuring? If we have not put natural resources on the asset side of the ledgerm then where are they? Does a forest really become more valuable when it is cut down? Do we really prosper when wild salmon are completely removed from a river?There are three defining characteristics that we can learn from natural design. The first characteristic is that everything we have to work with is already here -- the stones, the clay, the woods, the water, the air. All materials given to us by nature are constantly returned to the earth, without even the concept of waste as we understand it. Everything is cycled constantly with all waste equaling food for other living systems.

The second characteristic is that one thing allowing nature to continually cycle itself through life is energy, and this energy comes from outside the system in the form of perpetual solar income. Not only does nature operates on "current income," it does not mine or extract energy from the past, it does not use its capital reserves and it does not borrow from the future. It is an extraordinarily complex and efficient system for creating and cycling nutrients, so economical that modern methods of manufacturing pale in comparison to the elegance of natural systems of production.

Finally, the characteristic that sustains this complex and efficient system of metabolism and creation is biodiversity. What prevents living systems from running down and veering into chaos is a miraculously intricate and symbiotic relationship between millions of organisms, no two of which are alike.

As a designer of buildings, things, and systems, I ask myself how to apply these three characteristics of living system to my work. How do I employ the concept of waste equals food, of current solar income, of protecting biodiversity in design? Before I can even apply these principles, though, we must understand the role of the designer in human affairs. In thinking about this, I reflect upon a commentary of Emerson's. In 1830's, when his wife died, he went to Europe on a sailboat and returned in a steamship. He remarked on the return voyage that he missed the "Aeolian connection." If we abstract this, he went over on a solar- powered recyclable vehicle operated by craftspersons, working i the open air, practicing ancient arts. He returned in a steel rust bucket, spilling oil on the water and smoke into the sky, operated by people in a black dungeon shoveling coal into the mouth of a boiler. Both ships are objects of design. Both are manifestations of our human intention.

I grew up in the Far East, and when I came to this country, I was taken aback when I realized that we were not people with lives in America, but consumers with lifestyles. I wanted to ask someone: when did America stop having people with lives? On televison, we are referred to as consumers, not people. But we are people, with lives, and we must make and design things for people. And if I am a consumer, what can I consume? Shoe polish, food, juice, some toothpaste.

But actually, very little that is sold to me can acctually be consumed. Sooner or later, almost all of it has to be thrown away. I cannot consume a television set. Or a VCR. Or a car. If I presented you with a television set and covered it up and said, "I have this amazing item. What it will do as a service will astonish you. But before I tell you what it does, let me tell you what it is made of and you can tell me if you want it in your house. It contains 4,060 chemicals, many of which are toxic, two hundred of which out-gas into the room when it is turned on. It also contains 19 grams of toxic methyl mercury, has an explosive glass tube, and I urge you to put it at eye-level with your children and encourage them to play with it." Would you want this in your home?Michael Braungart, an ecological chemist from Hamburg, Germany, has pointed out that we should remove the word "waste" from our vocabulary and start using the word product instead, because if waste is going to equal food, it must also be a product. Braungart suggests we think about three distinct product types: First, there are consumables, and actually we should be producing more of them. These are products that when eaten, used, or thrown away, literally turn back into dirt, and therefore are food for other living organisms. Consumables should not be placed in landfills, but put on the ground so that they restore the life, health, and fertility of the soil. This means shampoos should be in bottles made of beets that are biodegradable in your compost pile. It means carpets that break down into carbon dioxide and water. It means furniture made of lignin, potato peels and technical enzymes that looks just like your manufactured furniture of today except it can be safely returned to the earth. It means that all "consumable" goods should be capable of returning to the soil from whence they came. Second are products of services, also known as durables, such as cars and television sets. They are called products of service because what we want as customers is the service the product provides: food, entertainment, or transportation. To eliminate the concept of waste, products of service would not be sold, but licensed to the end-users. Customers may use them as long as they wish, even sell the license to someone else, but when the end-user is finished with, say, a television, it goes back to Sony, Zenith, or Philips. It is food for their system, but not for naturals systems. Right now, you can go down the street, dump a TV into the garbage can, and walk away. In the process, we deposite persistent toxins throughout the planet. Why do we give people that responsibility and stress? Products of service must continue beyond their initial product life, be owned by their manufacturers, and be designed for disassembly, remanufacture, and continuous re-use.

The third type of product is called "unmarkables." The question is, why would anyone product a product that no one would buy? Welcome to the world of nuclear waste, dioxins, and chromium-tanned leather. We are essentially making products or subcomponents of products that no one should buy, or, in many cases, do not realize they are buying. These products must not only cease to be sold, but those already sold should be stored in warehouses when they are finished until we can figure out a safe and non-toxic way to dispose of them.


The rest of William McDonough's essay will be published in the next issue.

-- July 20, 1996


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