Spotlight: William McDonough

Spotlight: William McDonough

Sometimes referred to as “the leading environmental architect of our time,” in his roles as architect, designer, author, educator and social leader, William McDonough (born 20 February 1951) has provided a renewed look at the things that we make and their impact on both our bodies and the world. Through his Cradle to Cradle philosophy, McDonough’s buildings are designed to function for a predetermined lifespan, after which they can be broken down into their various parts whose core elements can be used anew to solve a different design problem.


Upon finishing his architectural education at Dartmouth and Yale, McDonough opened his own firm, now called William McDonough + Partners, in 1981 in New York City. Sustainability became a theme early in his career, with projects including the design of a solar house in Ireland, and in 1985, the commission for the first “green office” in New York for the Environmental Defense Fund. The EDF brief called for strict air quality requirements, prompting McDonough to begin his lifelong investigation into healthy materials. McDonough’s design set in motion the trend of green building in the United States and lead to the formation of the US Green Building Council.


The subsequent decade saw further variations on sustainable design, with projects ranging from Herman Miller’s “Greenhouse” Factory and Offices (1995); the Corporate Campus for Gap, Inc. (1997); Nike’s European Headquarters (1999); and the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin College (2001) as well as McDonough’s first treatise on sustainable design, The Hannover Principles: Design for Sustainability in 1992. In 1994, McDonough moved his practice to Charlottesville, Virginia after being named Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia.


In 2002, McDonough co-authored Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. The manifesto proposed to upend the traditional adage of “reduce, reuse, recycle,” calling instead for materials to be “upcycled” at the end of their initial useful life span. To design products able to be upcycled, materials should be composed of what McDonough refers to as “technical” and “biological nutrients.” Technical nutrients consist of materials that can be reused in a closed-loop industrial system, while biological nutrients refer to materials that can break down to reenter the environment. Cradle to Cradle was quickly disseminated throughout design circles, and has since inspired the non-profit Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, which empowers and rewards innovation in the practice of sustainable, circular-economy design.

Since that breakthrough, McDonough has continued to focus on environmentally and socially-conscious design, helping to establish criteria for the environmental mission of Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation in their bid to provide architect-designed homes for victims of Hurricane Katrina. McDonough himself contributed designs for a sustainable duplex in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward known as the “flow house.”

Recent projects of McDonough’s have included ICEhouse (2016), a transportable “wonderframe” that uses any available materials to create shelter; Method Manufacturing Facility (2014), a new factory for sustainable products on a Chicago brownfield site; and the NASA Sustainability Base (2011), a “living laboratory” for the space program that outperforms LEED platinum standards. McDonough is also the subject of Stanford University’s first “living archive,” where nearly all of the architect’s daily moments are recorded in an effort to change the way we as humans remember and record our daily lives.

Through his successes, McDonough has changed the discourse on architecture’s relationship to the environment, a relationship he believes is only sustainable through a symbiotic attitude: “What I’m trying to look at is how do we make humans supportive of the natural world, the way the natural world is supportive of us.”