Gallery: INHABITAT INTERVIEW: Green Architect & Cradle to Cradle Founde...

William McDonough: My people are really magical. I said, "I want you to go find me the endangered butterflies of Catalonia, and I want them rendered as tile patterns on the floor so each of the floors is a wing of a butterfly from ancient Catalonia We
William McDonough: My people are really magical. I said, "I want you to go find me the endangered butterflies of Catalonia, and I want them rendered as tile patterns on the floor so each of the floors is a wing of a butterfly from ancient Catalonia that’s endangered." We then looked at all of the different colors of the butterfly wings - they’re so beautiful - then we picked the ones that we could create using ecologically safe clay colors made locally. Then we picked all the colors that weren't safe – the toxic ones – and worked with the tile company to get into a program of changing all of those tiles into safe tiles. You get this generative thing that starts with the idea of a butterfly. All of the sudden you’re worrying about green and yellow tiles being safe and the company goes, "Wow, yeah that’s more beautiful -that’s more fun." So they’re going off to improve their product. In the meantime we’re taking the ones we can use that match certain butterflies. Those are the wings we are using, and we see the floor plan with all butterfly wings. They’re so gorgeous. You can’t believe it.

INHABITAT: What inspired you to write ‘Cradle to Cradle‘ (the book) and launch the Cradle to Cradle system?

William McDonough: From an early age, I was fascinated by differing attitudes towards resources. Growing up in Japan and Hong Kong, I was given my first look at complete material cycles, where waste becomes food, and resources like water are limited and precious. This contrasted greatly with the wastefulness I witnessed when my family moved to the United States, and that difference in attitude left a great impression on me. As a young architect, my thinking continued to evolve. I incorporated elements like solar energy into my designs and began to look closely at the sourcing of materials, but Cradle to Cradle really came to fruition when I met Dr. Michael Braungart. Together we developed the Cradle to Cradle philosophy, which we articulated in Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, which came out in 2002.

INHABITAT: Can you explain how the Cradle to Cradle rating system works – both from the perspective of manufacturers and consumers?

William McDonough: Cradle to Cradle products Certification goes beyond the definition of a rating system or a binary pass/fail seal of approval. Cradle to Cradle is a process for managing the total quality of a product and an engine for business innovation, taking into consideration not only environmental impact but also safety, health and social responsibility. The certification is a continuous and rigorous process, and participating companies hope to move their Basic products toward the achievement of Gold, Silver or Platinum. No single company product has yet achieved Platinum.

Certification takes into account five dimensions: materials as nutrients for safe continuous cycling; development of systems to safely close the loop on our biological and technical nutrients; power all operations with 100% renewable energy; regard water as a precious resource; and finally respect for all people and natural systems.

INHABITAT: I was just talking with Paul Murray at Herman Miller about your contribution to their products and it was really extraordinary how closely related their company’s success is with your input. Was this the first company that you’ve worked with on such an intimate level? What helped shift the ethos of the company’s design culture?

William McDonough: We began to work with them when they stopped producing the Eames chairs out of rosewood – an endangered species. Ultimately, you really don’t want to mess with the icon of a company, but Herman Miller had a person working there who was so passionate about these issues that the company as a whole went ahead and changed the specs to walnut and stopped using endangered wood. It was a really nice thing for them to do.

But really what we’re dealing with here is product quality, and as a result a lot of these attributes you see highlighted by companies are various components that are focused on issues such as carbon reduction, and the like – single attributes. You also see a lot of claims to efficiency, which follows the train of thought “we’re less bad because we’ve reduced our badness by 20 percent.” We don’t want to be selling what we’re not. See, if I look at this sign with the word NO you realize that you’re selling what you’re not.

INHABITAT: In your book Cradle to Cradle, you make the point that when we recycled paper – we are giving up the original quality of the paper – we are losing something. Is most recycling just ‘downcycling’? Do we lose quality with every cycle of recycle?

William McDonough: Right, what we want again is product quality, and so with a company like Herman Miller there is an issue of quality. It’s similar to what we are seeing with Construction Specialties here at GreenBuild – it’s about quality products in a fine system. From the market’s perspective you have to start to say things like this because they highlight that there are things to worry about, and that there are people who are genuinely interested and concerned about these things.

In Cradle to Cradle we addressed something that people may not understand when we proposed a form of producer responsibility over their product. The things we don’t talk about is a “life cycle”, so we don’t think that this material is alive. It’s not. We don’t see it as a consumer product because they can’t consume it. I can’t consume a TV, so we would call that a nutrient. We don’t talk about life cycle, we talk about use periods. We don’t talk about take back, we talk about reverse logistics or intelligent materials pooling. If something was removed from a building right, under our protocols, this is a safe thing to remove. That’s stainless steel, and that’s this, and that’s that, and they are defined. So then you go back into a materials pool.

It’s like a Herman Miller chair that ends up in Mexico City fifteen years from now, if somebody throws it out the back and into the dumpster. Well, the scavengers will just come and grab it. It’s worth something. The reason it’s worth something is that’s steel, and that’s aluminum, and that’s polycarbonates, and that polyethylenes. It’s no longer a chair, it’s part of the materials intelligent pool. So the design is that aluminum can come off and go back to aluminum, the steel goes back to steel. They’re not monstrous hybrids that can’t be separated.

INHABITAT: In your work you talk about recycling, which I think a lot of people – including myself – have been confused about, particularly as it compares to upcycling. Looking towards the industry, a lot of products have recycled content, and with the way that recycling is “marketed” so to speak, many people still think 100 percent recycled has got to be the best you can get. What is the distinction between recycling and upcycling?

William McDonough: We coined the term “upcycling”, to explain the idea that using a lot of energy to shred up and melt a material in order to reuse it (recycling), is inferior in most circumstances to simply reusing a material in the state that it is currently in (upcycling), and a good example of this concept would be polyester. You can take a polyester water bottle made at food grade, and the fact is that polyester is probably the highest quality of polyester in the world, right there in that bottle. The bottle will have some contaminants from the catalytic process, which leaves a bit of antimony– that’s not a good thing because it is a catalyst. But putting the contaminants aside, the bottle is a spectacular piece of human-engineered material. If we recycle that polyester into a fleece jacket, there are people who would say “Oh, you’ve upcycled it from a lonely water bottle into a hybrid fleece jacket.”

There are people who would say it’s being upcycled into a jacket, but from a technical perspective that would be downcycling. It would be de-fibered. Chemically it’s way downcycled. That stuff is really contaminated with all sorts of nonsense. So you need to upcycle the PET bottle, but you’ve downcycled it. See, the problem? Contaminated fibers that are on their way to a landfill or maybe whole fibers. That’s not going back to bottles, which is high-end use. So upcycling a PET bottle would be taking that PET bottle and putting it back through recycling as PET and removing the antimony. That’s upcycling.

INHABITAT: Construction Specialties recently achieved Cradle to Cradle Gold Certification due in part to the elimination of PVC and PBTs in their interior wall products – can we talk a little bit about the dangers of PVC’s and PTB’s?

Howard Williams: The interesting thing is that within the USGBC there was a furor over giving a negative credit for using it – if anyone uses PVC, they should lose a couple of points in LEED. As the debate went on, I wrote two letters to the USGBC saying that they either need to have negative credits or that they need to take a clear stand on PVC.

I think there will be a decision, because PVC raises just one facet of a larger issue, but there is the greater picture of persistent bio-accumulatives in toxins. If they had stopped at PVC, they would have stopped short – absolutely short. There needs to be an awareness created that PBTs exist in building materials, and that they can be taken out. And they should be taken out, not only for building and the people in the building, but also for the people who make the stuff. Because with just a piece of PVC pipe, I can handle that all day long – it’s rigid, there is very little going to be coming off of that pipe and it’s not going to off-gas, but if I trace that back into the community where the vinyl chloride monomer is made a whole other set of issues arise. This involves the people that are working in that factory and the people that are living adjacent to that factory. To me this is also a stewardship issue, but the great part is that it reaches beyond the construction site – it touches on health care, education and wanting to make buildings better.

Right now material chemistry, Cradle-to-Cradle Gold Certification, is a differentiator for us. The beauty too is there is a business model for it. It works, you can do this (make better building materials using safer alternatives) and you can make money. There is not one environmentalist or NGO that I’ve yet encountered that says you shouldn’t be making money off of this developing environmentally responsible materials. They want money to be made on this, because they know that it is going to accelerate the change.

Cradle to Cradle Certified Method Products

INHABITAT: Where do you see Cradle to Cradle headed? Ten years ago Herman Miller started developing their entire line as a Cradle to Cradle concept, and now they’re selling some of the best chairs in the world at fair price points. Ten years from now, how many of these booths do you see using this vernacular as a standard?

William McDonough: I think you would be quite surprised. We’re just at the beginning of something, even though we’ve been at it a long time, and it’s taken us a long time. We’ve integrated all of the different ideas that we’ve come up with and made it understandable in a robust and usable database. Ultimately we have positioned Cradle to Cradle for the public good through a not-for-profit institute. We’ll have it be reviewed by scientists and we’ll have Cradle to Cradle conferences every year for the institutes we expect to spring up all over the world. I recently signed a MOU or Memorandum of Understanding with the Israeli Standards Institute, and they are looking at Cradle to Cradle as a standard for Israel. So if you want to sell something in Israel, you’ll want to be Cradle to Cradle certified.

Howard Williams: Ten years from now, this may still be GreenBuild because it’s going to be the original name, but no one is going to be talking about green. The reality is that it’s going to be either good design or bad design. It’s not going to be green. Bad design will be broader than the visual, it’s going to be more than “It broke three weeks after I bought it.”

William McDonough: You know that’s a good way to put it because we see design as the first signal of intention. We have realized that we’re just designing from the top of the pyramid. If we want to design for everybody, we’ve got to be cost-effective and all of that. We can’t just single out attributes and certifications so that you’re not off gassing — while you’ve got a green stamp for all you know it could be all cancer. I mean what is that? It’s not okay — it’s not green, you’re still black. You know, you haven’t changed anything. All you have done is stir it up.

Virginia Beach House

INHABITAT: Is it true that sustainability not an adequate word? Are we looking for that next terminology or is sustainability still viable?

William McDonough: Sure, I think it’s a nice word because so many people can use it. But, nobody knows how to define it. That’s part of the issue, and that’s why we never use it. But, from our perspective, we’re not putting it down, we’re just saying it’s insufficient. For example, if I say what’s your relationship to your wife? Do you say just say sustainable? Don’t you want more than that? Don’t you want creativity and fun and all these things?

If we just sustain what we are doing now, then we’re all dead. This is carbon based silliness, a lot of this stuff, I mean we can’t sustain it. Even if you reduce your carbon, we’re still in trouble. We don’t have an energy problem – what a lot of people don’t realize is that we have a materials problem. The carbon in the air is in the wrong place, it belongs in the soil. You need a defined system and sustainability is not that.

NASA Sustainability Center, Moffett Field, California

INHABITAT: In the Book Cradle to Cradle you mentioned ever so briefly the concept of delight, celebration and fun — can you talk a little bit about the quality designs, the delight of design, and how people engage with a product through design?

William McDonough: I really think the thing that I find most exciting for me as a designer is that once you get away from all the meat and potatoes stuff of safety, health and whatever – there is the creative side. For example, I’m designing a building in Barcelona, it’s a laboratory tower, and we are working on materials. We’ve got the paint and the tiles made with the right stuff, but there are these two triangular floorplates that are laboratories for pharmaceuticals. It has a 15 story glass atrium that the scientists walk through. They’re afforded a view of Barcelona – at the north side are all these plants growing on it, and at the south side it is all shading.

The floor plan is in big triangles, and I came back from a trip and people in my office are saying, “Bill, I have trouble laying out all the tile with the walls because they’re radial and the outside is curved. You have to cut every tile to get these patterns. They won’t line up.” In response I say “Look, let’s save some money and have some fun.” I proposed taking the floor plan and starting with the tiles, just tiling the whole floor, then putting the walls up. That way you can remove the walls and you afford yourself the ability to change the building into apartments.

My people are really magical. I said, “I want you to go find me the endangered butterflies of Catalonia, and I want them rendered as tile patterns on the floor so each of the floors is a wing of a butterfly from ancient Catalonia that’s endangered.” We then looked at all of the different colors of the butterfly wings – they’re so beautiful – then we picked the ones that we could create using ecologically safe clay colors made locally. Then we picked all the colors that weren’t safe – the toxic ones – and worked with the tile company to get into a program of changing all of those tiles into safe tiles. You get this generative thing that starts with the idea of a butterfly.

All of the sudden you’re worrying about green and yellow tiles being safe and the company goes, “Wow, yeah that’s more beautiful -that’s more fun.” So they’re going off to improve their product. In the meantime we’re taking the ones we can use that match certain butterflies. Those are the wings we are using, and we see the floor plan with all butterfly wings. They’re so gorgeous. You can’t believe it.

INHABITAT: And it resulted from a problem, which is interesting.

William McDonough: A problem which you were solving in a delightfully cheap way. But here is the magical part – I then decided with the client, that we’d take the 15-story atrium – where we were looking for planting ideas and how to make it nice – it’s going to be a butterfly habitat. Now we’re making a deal with the zoo that this is where we’ll hatch the chrysalis of the butterflies and we’re going to load the whole atrium with butterflies hatching. Every week on a Saturday we’ll open up the doors downstairs, the children of Barcelona will come, we’ll open the top of the atrium and we will send thousands of butterflies into the Barcelona environment. So you’re pumping biodiversity back into the environment by design, and now that’s delight.

+ William McDonough

+ Cradle to Cradle


or your inhabitat account below


  1. frankorazio July 31, 2014 at 4:17 pm

    Great read- clearly explains upcycling and what it means to look at the actual life cycle of materials.

  2. William McDonough Chair... July 11, 2014 at 3:16 pm

    […] The Cradle to Cradle® design framework that William McDonough co-developed is an underpinning philosophy of the circular economy and the new Council. At the Forum in Davos in January, McDonough led the first CEO workshop around sustainability—focused on Cradle and Cradle, the upcycle, and the circular economy. McDonough was chosen to lead the Meta-Council on the Circular Economy due to his decades of design innovation and thought leadership dedicated to developing safe and healthy products, architecture, and communities. In addition, his ability to effectively communicate Cradle to Cradle principles makes him an ideal leader for rendering visible the beneficial opportunities of the circular economy. McDonough will enable business innovators to design a better world ‘for all children of all species for all time,’ as he says.” […]

  3. Paul Johnson June 30, 2014 at 1:41 pm

    Ideas like Cradle to Cradle are what will help create a more sustainable future for our children

  4. Debbie Belson June 10, 2014 at 9:32 am

    A compelling interview about improving the way things are made

  5. Brendan Raines May 19, 2014 at 3:10 pm

    Waste is a product of bad design, according to Cradle to Cradle. Most often we’ve seen designers try to increase profits and reduce costs, by exemplifying waste as pollution. A change is needed in our approach to product design and waste management- creating products with a reusable life cycle.

  6. Bill Killough May 7, 2014 at 4:11 pm

    this article stresses the importance of what happens to products after it completes its primary use

  7. Soo Young Lee April 16, 2014 at 11:43 am

    The concept of cradle-to-cradle seems like the perfect solution and Mcdonough’s speechs are so inspiring. But I still can’t let go of the fact that Mcdonough is using c2c certifications as a money making tool. I found great inspiration in his words and I really hope it isn’t true but it sort of explains why so few products are certified with c2c. His project in china was an absolute design failure as well. From an architect’s point of view it was merely an idealistic diagram not an actual plan. I’m kinda sad that such a beautiful idea doesn’t work in reality.

  8. Sal January 29, 2014 at 9:27 am

    McDonough recently spoke at the World Economic Forum. He hosted a special session: “Beyond Sustainability: From Limits to Growth”

  9. Karen Oswald January 15, 2014 at 12:35 pm

    Cradle to Cradle challenges manufacturers to think about the future of the planet- being able to utilize materials part of continuous reuse cycles

  10. Cathy Lang December 27, 2013 at 10:04 am

    He makes a good point: even if we reduce our current carbon footprint, its not enough. We still have a materials problem

  11. Bill Levine November 25, 2013 at 12:24 pm

    Great breakdown of Cradle to Cradle certification. Looking forward to seeing what company product will be the first to achieve Platinum certification.

  12. JessJanes April 28, 2011 at 10:59 pm

    In 2007 I heard William McDonough speak and was very inspired. Since then, I look at everything as a raw material that has value. All of the used glass that isn’t being recycled and the cardboard being exported, are materials we need to keep in the circle.

  13. Glass is Green April 26, 2011 at 8:13 am

    Very informative and inspiring interview on Cradle to Cradle, we are delighted with his valuable points on green architecture or green design movement…thanks for sharing…go green

  14. gordo April 21, 2011 at 3:01 pm

    Just heard William McDonough speak at FORTUNE Green conference in Laguna Beach, CA. I was impressed with his focus on everybody’s right to clean air and water, and how this figures into his overall philosophy. He worries about how those in underprivileged areas of Africa and other third world countries will have access to the basic resources of life. He provides a conscience for corporations that might otherwise not worry about these issues.

  15. lazyreader April 14, 2011 at 8:10 am

    While acknowledging McDonough’s contributions to ‘green”, McDonough has been overly protective of his certification process, and in some instances has not inspired cooperation with other individuals and businesses the way he set out. McDonough’s Huangbaiyu, China project has not been inhabited due to design flaws. Conflicts between Feng Shui crap and passive solar design. Appending garages although no villagers can afford cars, failing to provide space for grazing livestock which is vital in China, and building the houses out of potentially unsafe compressed coal dust to make brick despite his teething statements he made about bricks. His famous Nike’s shoe project was never realized, due to his unwillingness to share cradle-to-cradle specifications with suppliers despite promoting it. Just how reliable are C2C-certified products and in regards to quality. Are they really compostable, or indefinitely recyclable. recycling conditions are much more complicated than what is defined and marketed by the C2C certification. In addition to this recycling issue, the fact that transportation criteria are not part of the certification’s demand is also a reason of criticism. Everything we do requires energy. From production step or resource-transformation step to finished products to transportation to home use to disposal. That needs a certain amount of energy (Newton’s second law). Cradle to cradle approach does not consider this energy requirement nor where or how the energy is created to do so.

  16. Holcim Awards December 27, 2010 at 4:45 pm

    He is an inspiring individual and a leader in the sustainable movement.

  17. Tres Altman December 23, 2010 at 9:13 am

    One of the most pertinent thinkers of our time. As we move into a more sustainable future, his contributions will be considered foundational. Thanks for your blog, and for this interview…

  18. aarondesatnik December 22, 2010 at 11:25 pm

    Nice piece. I think you ought to do deeper investigation before saying “the most rigorous product standards.” They’re actually challenged across the building industry for the lack of transparency. There are independent standards such as Green Seal, Eco Logo and GREENGUARD that are both more transparent and recognized for their rigor.

  19. eribons December 22, 2010 at 12:53 pm

    Thank you for this insightful interview. I am always inspired by your web blog. I am an interior designer with most of my clients in LA. They are(and have been for many years) interested in Green design. It is imperative that we continue to “shift” our ways of design, industry and consumption to these newer ideas. Thank you to the people who are passionate and are at the helm of this movement.
    Now, can how we make it affordable to EVERYONE??

  20. Mike Chino December 22, 2010 at 12:06 pm

    Great interview Andrew! Bill McDonough is one of the most prominent figures in the green movement and is a fantastic inspiration to us all!

  21. Kestrel Jenkins December 22, 2010 at 12:05 pm

    Such a great piece — and so inspiring to hear directly from the brains behind Cradle to Cradle.

  22. Yuka Yoneda December 22, 2010 at 12:04 pm

    Excellent interview – Andrew, you interviewed a green design superstar!

  23. Jill Fehrenbacher December 22, 2010 at 12:01 pm

    This is such an interesting interview – thank you Andrew and Bill McDonough for making the time to put this together!

  24. Diane Pham December 22, 2010 at 11:41 am

    A great interview. It’s amazing to see the range of impact that the Cradle to Cradle system has had – from architecture, to construction all the way down to consumer goods. Brilliant minds and brilliant ideas!

get the free Inhabitat newsletter

Submit this form
popular today
all time
most commented
more popular stories >
more popular stories >
more popular stories >
Federated Media Publishing - Home