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August 13, 1996

Design, Ecology, Ethics and the Making of Things

[Editor's note: William McDonough'e essay continues from the last issue.]

by William McDonough

I will describe a few projects and how the issues of ecology and ethics are implicit in design directions. I remember when we were hired to design the office for an environmental group. The director said at the end of contract negotiations, "By the way, if anybody in our office gets sick from indoor air quality, we're going to sue you." After wondering if we should even take the job, we decided to go ahead, that it was our job to find the materials that wouldn't make people sick when placed inside a building. And what we found is that those materials weren't there. We had to work with manufacturers to find out what was in their products, and we discovered that the entire system of building construction is essentially toxic. We are still working on the materials side.

For a New York men's clothing store, we arranged for the planting of 1,000 oak trees to replace the two English oaks used to panel the store. We were inspired by a famous story told by Gregory Bateson about New College in Oxford, England. It went something like this. They had a main hall built in the early 1600's with beams forty feet long and two feet thick. A committee was formed to try to find replacement trees because the beams were suffering from dry rot. If you keep in mind that a veneer from an English oak can be worth seven dollars a square foot, the total replacement cost for the oaks was prohibitively expensive. And they didn't have straight forty foot English oaks from mature forests with which to replace the beams. A young faculty member joined the committee and said, "Why don't we ask the College Forester if some of the lands that have been given to Oxford might have enough trees to call upon?" And when they brought in the forester he said, "We've been wondering when you would ask this question. When the present building was constructed 350 years ago, the architects specified that a grove of trees be planted and maintained to replace the beams in the ceiling when they would suffer from dry rot. Bateson's remark was, "That's the way to run a culture." Our question and hope is, "Did they replant them?"

For Warsaw, Poland, we responded to a design competition for a high-rise building. When the client chose our design as the winner after seeing the model we said, "We're not finished yet. We have to tell you about the building. The base is made from concrete and includes tiny bits of rubble from World War II. It looks like limestone, but the rubble's there for visceral reasons." And he said, "I understand, a phoenix rising. "And we said the skin is recycled aluminum, and he said, "That's O.K, that's fine." And we said, "The floor heights are thirteen feet clear so that we can convert the building into housing in the future, when its utility as an office building is no longer. In this way, the building is given a chance to have a long, useful life." And he said, "That's O.K." And we told him that we would have opening windows and that no one would be further than twenty-five feet from a window, and he said that was O.K, too, And finally, we said, "By the way, you have to plant ten square miles of forest to offset the building's effect on climate change. We had calculated the energy costs to build the structure, and the energy cost to run and maintain it, and it worked out that 6,400 acres of new forest would be needed to offset the effects on climate change from the energy requirements. And he said he would get back to us. He called back two days later and said, "You still win. I checked out what it would cost to plant ten square miles of trees in Poland and it turns out it's equivalent to a small part of our advertising budget."

The architects representing a major retail chain called us a year ago and said, "Will you help us build a store in Lawrence, Kansas?" I said that I didn't know if we could work with them. I explained my thoughts on consumers with lifestyles, and we needed to be in the position to discuss their stores' impact on small towns. Click. Three days later we were called back and were told, "We have a question for you that is coming from the top. Are you willing to discuss the fact that people with lives have the right to buy the finest-quality products, even under your own terms, at the lowest possible price?" We said, "Yes." "Then we can talk about the impact on small towns."

We worked with them on the store in Kansas. We converted the building from steel construction, which uses 300, 000 BTUs per square foot, to wood construction, which uses 40, 000 BTUs, thereby saving thousands of gallons of oil just in the fabrication of the building. We used only wood that came from resources that were protecting biodiversity. In our research we found that the forests of James Madison and Zachary Taylor in Virginia had been put into sustainable forestry and the wood for the beams came from there and other forests managed this way. We also arranged for no CFCs to be used in the store's construction and systems, and initiated significant research and a major new industry in daylighting. We have yet to cull our concerns about the bigger questions of products, their distribution and the chain's impact on small towns, with the exception that this store is designed to be converted into housing when its utility as a retail outlet has expired.

For the City of Frankfurt, we are designing a day-care center that can be operated by the children. It contains a greenhouse roof that has multiple functions: it illuminates, heats both air and water, cools, ventilates, and shelters from the rain. One problem we were having during the design process was the engineers wanted to completely automate the building, like a machine. The engineers asked, "What happens if the children forget to close the shade and they get too hot?" We told them the children would open a window. "What if they don't open a window?" the engineers wanted to know. And we told them that in that case the children would probably close the shade. And they wanted to know what would happen if the children didn't close the shade. And finally we told them the children would open windows and close shades when they were hot because children are not dead but alive. Recognizing the importance for children to look at the day in the morning and see what the sun is going to do that day and interact with it, we enlisted the help of teachers of Frankfurt to get this one across because the teachers had told us the most important things was to find something for the children to do. Now the children have ten minutes of activity in the morning and ten minutes of activity when they leave the building, opening and closing the system, and both the children and teachers love the idea. Because of the solar hot-water collectors, we asked that a public laundry be added to the program so that parents could wash clothes while awaiting their children in school. Because of advances in glazing, we are able to create a day- care center that requires no fossil fuels for operating the heating or cooling. Fifty years from now, when fossil fuels will be scarce, there will be hot water for the community, a social center, and the building will have paid back the energy "borrowed" for its construction.

We must face the fact that what we are seeing across the world today is war, a war against life itself. Our present systems of design have created a world that grows far beyond the capacity of the environment to sustain life into the future. The industrial idiom of design, failing to honor the principles of nature, can only violate them, producing waste and harm, regardless of purported intention. if we destroy more forests, burn more garbage, drift-net more fish, burn more coal, bleach more paper, destroy more topsoil, poison more insects, build over more habitats, dam more rivers, produce more toxic and radioactive waste, we are creating a vast industrial machine, not for living in, but for dying in. It is a war, to be sure, a war that only a few more generations can surely survive.

We have to recognize that every event and manifestation of nature is "design," that to live within the laws of nature means to express our human Intention as an interdependent species, aware and grateful that we are at the mercy of sacred forces larger than ourselves, and that we obey these laws in order to honor the sacred in each other and in all things. We must come to peace with and accept our place in the natural world.


William McDonough is Dean of School of Architecture at University of Virginia and founder of William McDonough and Partners, Architecture and Planners in Charlottesville, Virginia.

-- August 13, 1996


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