Foreign Policy Blogs

Bill McDonough – Moving from Less Bad to More Good


I was at this year’s Urban Green Expo in New York and vastly enjoyed William McDonough’s keynote presentation.  He is an architect, designer, sustainability expert (from way back), and co-guru of the visionary Cradle to Cradle framework for building and living.

McDonough’s talk had several key themes:

* there are no wastes, only nutrients;
* we are all indigenous – to the planet;
* we need to accelerate the pace of eco-effective design (because the planet is in crisis);
* and we need to move from a mindset of doing less bad to doing more good.

On this last, he said that environmental regulations were a sign of design failure.  If we are spending time and energy chasing bad actors, then we’re not pursuing the creative.  If we say, for instance, that we need to reduce various criteria air pollutants, like carbon monoxide and ozone, to “acceptable” levels then we are not shooting the moon:  seeking ways to eliminate carbon monoxide and ozone.  Not incidentally, these sorts of goals are entirely within reach.  (Think electrification of transportation for instance.)

I love the idea of wastes as nutrients.  Sewage treatment plants, for instance, can provide a continuous stream of organic fertilizer.  Milwaukee’s been doing it for 85 yearsNYC for 20.  There ought to be a federal law mandating it.  In China, nightsoil use is a pervasive and productive practice.  (McDonough told a story of when he was a child in Japan and the “honey wagons” used to come at night to pick up the human waste to transport it to the local farms for use as manure.)  “Methane to Markets” is an international initiative to recover gas from landfills.  Waste-to-energy plants, with virtually total pollution control in place, are transforming some energy markets.  Biochar can utilize several forms of waste to provide a high-grade soil additive, among its other extraordinary properties, including sequestering potentially massive amounts of carbon.

I took a swing at creating a “waste as nutrient” system for New York City a few years back:  Urban Gold.  This was a whole system for the management of NYC’s modest 25,000 tons per day of municipal solid waste.  Almost everything was a feedstock – recyclables, compostable matter, and material that could be pyrolyzed or gasified to produce biochar and biofuel.  At the time, there were more than a few glimmers of interest:  from some well-placed Sanitation Department officials, some folks at the Economic Development Corporation, from a Congressman very interested in infrastructure and transportation, from some environmentalists and from private-sector folks.  I also designed a similar scheme for Bulgaria – just on paper, alas, but I think this sort of approach to MSW management is wholly viable.  (Feel free to check in with me if you think it’s worth pursuing in your neighborhood.)  See also the excellent work of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR).

I first became aware of McDonough over 25 years ago when he designed the headquarters of the Environmental Defense Fund in NYC.  This was a green building breakthrough.  The Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Audubon Society followed suit with their respective headquarters, also in New York.  McDonough, perhaps not incidentally, exhorted the architects, designers, developers, students and others at Urban Green Expo to, as the conference theme stated, “push the envelope” – and he cited the uniqueness and creative possibilities in New York.  As I noted the other day in my previous post on this event, the organizers, the Urban Green Council, have been working very hard to promote the letter and the spirit of sustainable design, to excellent effect.

He told the story of his first solar house, in Ireland, and that he invited a friend, Seamus Heaney, to write a dedication.  Heaney came and, after some time pondering, pronounced of the house:  “This is a fierce commotion.”  McDonough exhorted us to be fierce in design, in our commitment to sustainability, in our defense of children and their future on the planet.

McDonough has had some truly remarkable projects over many years.  One is the Ford truck factory in Dearborn, built on one of the most polluted sites in the world.  To clean up the 1,100 acre footprint, laden with toxics and heavy metals, McDonough stipulated the use of phytoremediation:  using plants to break down contaminants.  This approach is saving Ford billions of dollars.  The facility also has a 10-acre green roof – the largest in the US.  (See the powerpoint on this extraordinary project.)

He has also recently completed NASA’s “Sustainability Base” at its Ames Research Center in California. It is a model for the Obama administration’s executive order mandating zero-net energy consumption for its buildings.


One of the cooler concepts from McDonough’s shop is the design for a building housing biomedical research labs in Barcelona.  Each floor has its distinctive butterfly colors.  Each Saturday, local school children will be invited to the release of thousands of real butterflies from the atrium.  “How many buildings do you know that hatch butterflies?” McDonough asked.

There is much more in McDonough’s work.  His talk was riveting, like the best Shakespeare I’ve seen with the Royal Shakespeare Company or one of the better Grateful Dead shows from the late ’60s.  (Yeah, I’m old.)  The commitment and the fire of Bill McDonough have been a gift to the architectural and design communities, but also to those of us – you included I trust – who have been working to cool the planet with cool approaches like butterflies in the atrium.  Do more good.



Bill Hewitt

Bill Hewitt has been an environmental activist and professional for nearly 25 years. He was deeply involved in the battle to curtail acid rain, and was also a Sierra Club leader in New York City. He spent 11 years in public affairs for the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation, and worked on environmental issues for two NYC mayoral campaigns and a presidential campaign. He is a writer and editor and is the principal of Hewitt Communications. He has an M.S. in international affairs, has taught political science at Pace University, and has graduate and continuing education classes on climate change, sustainability, and energy and the environment at The Center for Global Affairs at NYU. His book, "A Newer World - Politics, Money, Technology, and What’s Really Being Done to Solve the Climate Crisis," will be out from the University Press of New England in December.

Areas of Focus:
the policy, politics, science and economics of environmental protection, sustainability, energy and climate change