William McDonough

William McDonough* has always been a beacon and true voice of environmental leadership, despite what a recent magazine article may be trying to say.  Case in point, just last week he warned of a lop-sided focus on carbon during his keynote speech at the ParkCity conference in London (organized by Cabe and Natural England).  If you've ever listened to Mr. McDonough, you know his speeches are captivating — there's always a lot worth remembering — but in this most recent keynote, one particular sound bite has been making the internet rounds.  He likened buildings to "killing machines:"

I'm amazed there's so much focus on carbon, yet [architects are still] using toxic materials … It's a nightmare — you're effectively delivering a killing machine.  We have to put as much focus on materials as on energy.

In essence, by not considering the toxicity of materials used in buildings, or stated differently, by prioritizing carbon and energy goals to the detriment of indoor air and environmental quality, buildings will end up harming their occupants.  The point, I believe, is quite interesting: You've found a way to reduce the carbon impact of a building only to harm people in another way!

While the UK Green Building Council cautioned that the importance of cutting carbon could not be underestimated, David Strong, chief executive of Inbuilt, a sustainability consultancy, and former managing director of BRE Environment, said:

It’s great someone as high profile as Bill McDonough has raised this issue, but this is about more than about just carbon and materials … Buildings can be zero-carbon but fraught with other problems.  It’s the law of unintended consequences — if the air quality in a school is so bad, because it’s so airtight, that all the kids are falling asleep, that’s not a sustainable outcome.

We see this all the time with green building.  Over emphasis on energy efficiency.  Or green materials.  Or green technology add-ons.  Or not effectively minimizing water use.  Or not prioritizing indoor air quality.  With some of these decisions, the choices can be quite difficult, but these are the problems worth solving.  

*William McDonough is the co-author of a wildly popular book known as Cradle to Cradle.  He's also been called Hero for the Planet by Time Magazine (1999 & 2007) and received a Presidential Award for Sustainable Development.  You can watch an excellent video of him speaking at Bioneers in 2000 or read more about him

[=] Architects are creating toxic 'killing machines' by BD.

Photo credit: Stephen Vose for Discover Magazine.