Architects Are Creating 'Killing Machines'

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.


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  • jon

    William McDonough is a gas bag.

  • http://mportlandrealestate.com Portland Real Estate

    Im going to have to read that book. Thats a very good point about the airtight school, sometimes we think we are doing something for the best but it ends up being worse in the long run. It’s called foresight people, give it a shot.

  • Suarez

    he’s just like every other climate whore… he offer’s or provides no solutions, just goes convention to convention collecting an appearance fee. blah blah blah whistle nose.

    • http://www.jetsongreen.com Preston

      What’s your basis for such a statement?

      His quote alone is an identification of a problem, as well as an indicator of the potential solution. What he’s suggesting is that environmentalism should include a discussion of both carbon/energy and the toxicity of materials. This is a solution.

  • http://www.revolutiontavern.com revtav

    Actually William McDonough isn’t “like every other climate whore,” he does offer sensible solutions and has for years. Don’t be like the actual climate whores making ignorant statements without researching themselves.

  • http://twitter.com/elaineishere/ elaine hsieh

    Glad you profiled this topic, Preston. Oftentimes, people are so focused on singular goals like energy efficiency or LEED that they lose sight of how to build in the most effective and sustainable way – something that is sustainable for humans, the environment, and your pocketbook. It is a holistic and integrated design and construction process (and it also should take into account consideration of lifestyle and operations/maintenance, if possible). Sustainable building always requires thinking (not just doing)! Although carbon footprints are important, we must all remember that every cause has an effect (e.g., tight envelope design must require proper ventilation and consideration for material emissions, etc.) After all, “sustainable building” is just another fancy name for smart building. :-)

    • jon

      I would argue that ‘sustainable’ could also be for a life cycle of 250years with a building built of materials that are once sustainable (fly ash/sustainable harvested finishes etc) but one that allows for maximum flexibility for future use.

  • http://www.concoursee.com Concourse E

    Cradle to Cradle is full of solutions… and they are truly sustainable ones. Put down the remote typical ADD American and read it…might learn something.

    And no…there’s no “For Dummies” version or 4 minute YouTube clip summing it up…you’ll have to read it.

    • jon

      I suggest you all read Fast Company’s expose on McDonough. I speak from experience as I was on of his grad students. Lots of blather and promise with no real solution other than buying into his credo for a fee.

      • http://www.jetsongreen.com Preston

        Jon, if you’re going to jump on the Fast Company wagon, you might as well use your full name, right?

        And what’s wrong with making money? Why not make a living from your work and expertise? Do you provide your services, if any, for free?

        • jon

          Preston, what is the point of my full name? Is criticism of Bill unfounded? Do you wish to discredit me? I’ve had direct dealings with Bill while in grad school in the 90s. He was more than happy to discuss his thoughts and wave his hands rather than provide concrete solutions/ways to implement. Not much has changed.

          I have no problem with Bill making money on his system – just don’t sell it as the ‘only’ solution. Your byline of ‘Killing Machines’ is perfect for his fringe mindset…meanwhile, he drives a killing machine (no it isn’t a hybrid). I’m certain that his speech is the same canned ‘Do it for the children’ that I heard over 10years ago.

          Maybe you should contact Oberlin and see how they like their building 10years on and get the scoop. Critical thinking is essential in this new era of green fleecing. I think it is laudable, but as I posted with Roy, to say that C2C is ‘the’ solution is fool hardy. If it was “The Way” then why has it not gained traction? Why hasn’t he sought to have it put into or incorporated in LEED? Why isn’t he advising the USGBC?? Maybe you should ask someone other than Bill about how great his system is.

          By not getting certification, it would be the same as me trumpeting ‘green’ solutions to our design problems and not getting it recognized. After all, that is what LEED is about. Recognition is part of the way we can get these ideas into the collective mindset. Not saying, ‘well, I read LEED, I tryed to do LEED, I came close but I didn’t get it certified but at least I did something’. That is lame. Either you are on board or not. The last comment is in regards to Roy saying, ‘it made me a better person’. Well, yes, but that is circular logic.

          Carry on – clearly I should keep my mouth shut. Maybe we should consult Concourse E and see if ‘Green’ is truly sellable. For the consumer, right or wrong, it comes to cost-benefit analysis unless you are marketing to a demographic that deems it required.

          We can’t even get a standard U.S. building code – the idea of having 3-4 ‘green’ codes is going to be our (architects) undoing. Earthcraft/LEED/C2C and so on. That is why I am ‘pro’ LEED as it is more holistic.

        • http://www.jetsongreen.com Preston

          Jon, we’re certainly open to critical thinking here, but you should understand that we’ve never said C2C is the “only” solution. We’re talking about a singular quote and the merits of the quote. It’s quite interesting, if you think about it. Environmentalism is more complex that a rating system.

          You invoke your relationship with Mr. McDonough as some sort of authority — so I say, you might as well provide your full name. Otherwise, why do we care if you met him or took his class or went to his school. We don’t know you from any other Jon on this planet. State your name, if you’re going to be so critical.

    • jon

      You can ‘read’ Cradle to Cradle all you want. The problem is that McDonough refuses to make his ‘system’ open and only he can certify it. The principles, while laudable, are not able to be ‘certified’ unless you get him to commission the project. Outside of his ‘stamp’ you cannot become Cradle to Cradle.*TM

      • Roy

        So what. C2C was an incredible inspirational book for me – easily top 5 I’ve ever read. I don’t need his ‘certification’ to understand the design principles and apply them in my own way. If I want help and potentially the value of a TM that others recognize, his firm offers it for a fee – that’s how ALL certifications work.

        Having said that, I too wish that C2C was more broadly adopted and that a more ‘open source’ approach might be a better approach (even making more money for Bill – see IBMs model), but I try not to waste time bemoaning what others are/aren’t doing and focus on how I can make my small corner of the world better. My own work has improved because of C2C and I thank Bill & Michael for it.

        • jon

          Roy – While that is admirable, many owners, as clearly stated in the Fast Company article, do not want to pay for his C2C stamp. My problem is with the manner in which he presents the issues and then hypocritically does not personally follow them.

          Open source is the key to a broad application of the philosophy. Otherwise you risk being marginalized. That is the success of LEED. Clearly there is blowback in my criticism. I suppose I should hold my tongue and laud him as the “saviour” that he dearly wants to be. Have any of you had DIRECT contact with Bill? I HAVE. Maybe the dissolution of his firm’s talent might provide a poignant indication that proselytizing is only worth what you can build when it comes to construction.

  • Greenie

    Preston, As I said, why is it of import what my name is? Are you going to go to the UVA grad school roster? Why does it matter? Do you require ‘pedigree’ for a dissenting voice. How strange. Do you want names of former employees of McDonough’s? I don’t see the relevance other than some odd ball way to discredit what has been documented over the last 10+years. Try some other architectural forums or better yet, try talking to some of his former employees in Charlottesville. I’m not here for a slander job, I’m simply reporting my experience and 3rd party observation from those that worked for him. Take it for what it is worth…clearly I’ve struck a nerve.

    • http://www.jetsongreen.com Preston

      Hey, don’t get all defense with stuff about you’ve “struck a nerve.” We like critical thinking here, but if you’re going to pull out the i-was-one-of-his-grad-students card, you should use your full name. With the anonymous web, it’s easy to be a hater and say all sorts of nonsense, so what I’m suggesting is simple: if you want anyone to take your comments seriously, use your full name. I think you wouldn’t be so critical if you had to use your full name.

      • jon

        Fine. Jon Davis, Class of ’99, MArch. UVA. Bank it and quit whining about it.

        • jon

          I have no problem about standing behind what I say – I think its hysterical that you think I’m some forum ‘hater’.

  • Brian Turk

    I clicked on this thread out of curiosity. After reading the comments, I felt I must investigate further.

    Before I go further, let me get this out there: I am neither and architech, nor an environmentalist. I am not a fan of William McDonough nor am I someone who dislikes him. I am simply an average guy who is interested in a better tomorrow and I’m not niave enough to think there is only one way to get there.

    I want to give my props to Jon for giving out his full name. While I’m sure he felt there was no need for this – anyone who reads online blogs realizes there are plenty of people who will say anything under the broad umbrella of anonymity. In these types of forums, our names are our credibility. Sad, but true. For me, your comments now carry far more weight than those who may be critical but hide behind anonymity.

    Preston, thanks for trying to run an open and honest forum. I understand your insistence on being open in this thread. I would encourage you to ask the same of others in this thread as well. Transparency on both sides of this discussion is needed for critical thinking to take place.

    My take on William McDonoughis this: He is a man with great vision, but is terrible at implementing it. Preston, you alluded to the fact you disagreed with the Fast Company article in one of your replies to Jon. I read the article and felt it was very well researched and written. The author was with Mr. McDonough and gave him ample time and opportunity to address any issue he wanted. Addressing inconsistencies in the facts simply tells me the author was doing his job. What I took from the article was that companies liked his C2C ideas, but didn’t care for how he wanted to implement them. For me, it seems as though it comes down to 2 items: control and money. If Mr. McDonough wants his ideas to grow to fruition, it doesn’t seem to be in his best interest to choke them out by trying to control every aspect of the C2C movement. I don’t begrudge anyone for wanting to make money, but wouldn’t it be smarter (and easier) to get 10,000 people to pay $100, versus finding one to pay $1,000,000? Rather than threaten to sue people over using the “Cradle 2 Cradle” moniker, how much more positive publicity would you get by simply allowing others to use it, knowing you helped push it into the public mainstream? What is more important to Mr. McDonough – change or fame? I think the choice is his. He can be the movement’s greatest cheerleader, ushering it into the conscious mainstream, or he can ride to fame on its back and risk it not reaching its full potential.

    Either way, the topic is certainly worth the discussion.

    Brian Turk

    • http://www.jetsongreen.com Preston

      Brian, thanks for your comments.

      I want to clarify, I’m not taking point with any of the facts in the Fast Company article. For all I know, they’re true. But I’ve been a Fast Company reader for years, and I just don’t see the point of the article or how it fits with everything else. You read it and then what? What’s the point?

      Is the point to collectively tell McDonough what to do with Cradle to Cradle? Or tell him where it’s appropriate to make money or not? Or tell tell him to open source the whole Cradle to Cradle idea? Or tell the world that some companies had a hard time working with him or his protocol?

      But getting back to THIS article, it’d be nice to discuss the substance of what was said, rather than the substance of the the guy that said it. I guess we’re not going to be able to benefit from the message because Fast Company shot the messenger.

  • Brian Turk

    Point well taken, Preston.

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