This ‘Green Dean’ Has a Blueprint for Sustainability

William McDonough has designed award-winning buildings for Nike and the Gap – and redesigned environmentalism.

How did the University of Virginia convince architect William McDonough to become the dean of its School of Architecture and to move his firm, William McDonough + Partners, from New York City to Charlottesville, Virginia? “They told me they were looking for the next Thomas Jefferson,” he says. “I was the closest thing they could find.” McDonough adds that he was drawn to a place steeped in the history of the American Revolution.


From his home on the UVA campus, McDonough, 47, world-renowned architect and leader in the field of sustainable design, has been promoting a revolution of his own. He wants to restore the world – by redesigning it.

Dubbed the “green dean” on campus, McDonough has no interest in blaming business. Instead, he’s enlisting business to be part of the solution. “Business is creative,” he says. “The companies that will succeed in the future are those that can innovate sustainable products and services.” His recent projects include the Gap’s corporate headquarters in San Bruno, California; the acclaimed Miller SQA factory in Zeeland, Michigan; and Nike’s European headquarters, in the Netherlands. But McDonough’s vision goes beyond just buildings: “I’m a designer. I design everything – carpets, shoes, fabrics. We’re even designing a sustainable town in Indiana.”

Fast Company asked McDonough to talk about his declaration of environmental interdependence.

You talk about redesigning the world. That’s a big project. Where do you start?

The tendency is to talk about our environmental problems in terms of what I call “eco-efficiency.” We ask, How can I be less bad? That’s an important question, but all it means is that we create clever ways to recycle, reuse, and reduce our poorly designed products.

My partner, Michael Braungart, and I have coined a term: “eco-effectiveness.” Eco-effectiveness means that we start by redefining how we measure progress – that we start measuring our legacy, not our activity. That brings up a whole new set of questions: What if your product is your worst emission? Do you become eco-efficient and devise ways to make it less toxic? Or do you become eco-effective and move beyond superficial adjustments?

It’s simple: If your product is toxic, then stop making it! Don’t just make it less toxic – redesign it. Start thinking about good design rather than just green design.


How do you characterize good design?

In the world of good design, there are two types of products – organic and technical. When you classify products this way, you start to see how to eliminate waste.

An organic nutrient is a product with a completely defined, closed-loop life cycle and is designed to go back to nature safely. A technical nutrient, like a car or a television, can’t return to the Earth. These products need to be designed as “products of service”: You don’t buy a product and then throw it away. You lease it as a service.

How does that work in practice?

I see environmentally intelligent design as being driven by three principles, which I’ve borrowed from nature: Remember that waste equals food. Use current solar income. Respect diversity. I apply these principles to everything I design – from buildings to shoes to plumbing fixtures.

We used these principles in the design of the Miller SQA factory in Michigan. We positioned the building near a field on which we created a series of wetlands. The building’s storm water – in other words, the waste – travels through these wetlands, which process and purify it. By the time the water enters the nearby Black River, it’s clean. Waste equals food.

The second principle is “use current solar income.” We designed the Miller SQA factory with roof monitors, skylights, and sloped glazing, so that the entire building is drenched in light. Any necessary artificial light is controlled by photo sensors that make sure it doesn’t duplicate the natural light. This not only reduces energy consumption – it also saves money.

Where does diversity come into play?

There’s too much homogenized design. People are designing the same building in Reykjavik as they are in Rangoon. They heat one and cool the other, but it’s the same building! I attribute this type of design to a technological arrogance that allows us to build anything anywhere.


Are your principles for designers only?

Not at all. Design is the first signal of human intent. We’re all designers – because we all have intentions. When I’m working with CEOs, I ask them to question how informed their intentions are and then to ask, “How can I create a company that’s completely fair, completely profitable, and completely environmentally intelligent?”

Once you ask this question, all of your products start to flow through that mental filter. We’ve got to stop tyrannizing future generations with our bad design.

You can reach William McDonough on the Web, or by email .