written by:
illustrated by:
March 22, 2012
Originally published in Light & Energy

Architect, systems designer, Cradle to Cradle founder, and sustainability guru William McDonough talks entropy, Walker Evans, paper houses, and “buildings like trees” with science writer Alexis Madrigal.

bill mcdonough illustration graphic

Young Billy McDonough, long before he cowrote Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things with Michael Braungart or won a National Design Award, or generally presided as one of the big thinkers around sustainable design, learned how energy worked with his body. As a boy growing up in Japan, he lived in an uninsulated paper house and during the cold winters, his family ate in padded kimonos with their feet dangling through a cutout in the floor. The same brazier that kept their food warm radiated its heat under the table to their feet. Finally, right before bedtime, each member of the family would get into a cauldron-like bathtub heated directly by a fire. “You would get as red as a lobster, pop yourself out, and run to your futon in your pajamas and dive in,” he recalls. “Now you’re superheated surrounded by insulation. You lie on your back and your mom tells you a story and you fall asleep and you’re warm all night.”

This was not how Americans in the late 1950s tended to manage the seasons. At the time, we were participating in the greatest run-up in energy usage in the history of the world, much of it driven by the increase in the climate control of buildings. With energy in all forms cheap and abundant, builders and buyers replaced “good design” with more fossil fuels. Life wasn’t necessarily easier, but they made it feel that way.

Perhaps McDonough’s early years help explain why his work over nearly three decades has catapulted him to the forefront of the discussion around green architecture. Reducing the amount of energy a building uses requires its architect to understand its energy flows, the way the manmade interacts with the natural, how the sun’s heat and light produce an environment. McDonough’s thorough grasp of thermodynamics isn’t just school learning. He knows it in his bones.

Can you describe your earliest interactions with light and energy?
Having been born in Japan, I lived in a paper house as a baby. The house was whatever the ambient temperature was. There was no way to heat or cool a paper house. But you can have the light. We always had light.
So energy and light were in tension.
Even today when you see “energy-efficient” houses, you’ll see very little glass. If you’re looking at energy conservation, you can’t have a modern glass house unless you have very heavy glass that has metal coatings that selectively engage with the light. My firm is looking at low-cost and low-operating-cost housing, and if you do, you adjust it to the minimal need for natural light.
You studied photography at Yale with Walker Evans. He must have taught you much about light, but what about architecture?
I learned many great things from him. At one time, he was in the hospital. I printed one of my photographs and brought it to him. He looked at it for half an hour and said, “Most people think photography is about the capturing of reflected light. The real key, both physical and metaphysical, is you take a picture of the light in the air. You’re dealing with the atmosphere.”
Have you found a place in your work for that kind of holism?
In the early ’70s, I went to Jordan to work with King Hussein to help build permanent homes for Bedouins. The Bedouins could no longer be nomads, really, because they couldn’t access Saudi Arabia and Iraq. So they had to get housed because they couldn’t move around with their camels and goats. And it was there, living in a Bedouin tent, that I had this astonishing revelation. We’re walking around in khakis and sleeping in white tents. And the Bedouins are walking around in black with lots of layers on and living in black tents. What’re they doing in black? Isn’t white supposed to be cooler? I couldn’t understand it until I lived in it.
What did you learn?
The western tent heats up like an oven. It’s 120 degrees, there is no air movement; you’re in an oven. Then, go to a Bedouin tent. You’re in this deep shade and the sense of temperature is different. I went around with a thermometer. It goes from 120 degrees outside to 95 degrees in the tent. That’s quite tolerable in a dry place.

When you lift the flaps in the Bedouin tent, it causes massive conductive currents, because the surface is black. The weave is coarse and heavy because that’s much easier to roll up. The tiny openings in the fabric are ventilation and light fixtures. The sun sparkles through these tiny apertures. It’s like having a million MR-16s [halogen lightbulbs] up there. Beautiful, sparkly, bright sunlight.

I cataloged how many things a Bedouin tent did at once: 16. The factory that makes the tent (the goats) follows you around and makes little kids that are so cute. If you have more than one goat, we call that capital. A herd is capital. It’s currency with potential.

The other reason the tents are black is that the goats’ wool is black. They give you flesh, cooking oil, tents, playmates. They are entertaining and use solar energy in forms we can’t: eating weeds. The symbiosis and all these natural flows were just amazing. And all I was doing was sitting in a tent.
Goats are an excellent piece of living technology. But how did you end up relating that to the practice of making buildings?
When I was still at Dartmouth, I decided to take a physics class because I wanted to understand Hiroshima and the atomic bomb. The professor told me that I needed to know the special theory of relativity and he handed me this fat book. I’m staring at this paper with millions of formulas. I thought, I can’t do this. But I kept staring at the formula, E = mc2, and I also kept staring at the fire that I had going. I don’t know that I ever figured out anything, but I came to understand entropy.
I’m not sure I’ve grasped entropy, but I’ve had it described to me as the thermodynamic concept that the universe tends toward disorder.
It’s the log! There is a dispersed form of energy, solar energy, which is entropic on the part of the sun. Then we have this dispersed collector, the tree, the leaves and the disaggregated minerals, the soil, and we have this flux of the water in the hydro cycle. And guess what happens next? We get life itself. Life accrues in negative entropy.

And I thought, if I ever become an architect, I’m going to design buildings like trees and they are going to be negatively entropic. I’m not going to make buildings that spew carbon back into the atmosphere.
How then do you make a building that operates as living system?
In 1989, I won a design competition for a daycare center in Frankfurt, Germany. My proposal was for a building operated by children. I imagined them waking up the building in the morning, tending vegetable gardens on the roof, and opening and closing windows and shutters as temperatures and prevailing winds suggested. I envisioned a geothermal system acting like roots. The fundamental proposition was a building like a tree. This was the first time I began using that term—“a building like a tree.”

I wanted this daycare center to be operable by children; I felt that they would understand where it was: They would become native to its place. They would instinctively understand that the building belonged right there in that latitude and culture. Unfortunately, nation-wide economic defunding of daycare facilities meant that the building was never realized. I mention this because thinking about energy and light really brings me back to my early work and the fundamental elements that inspired it. It all comes back to the sun.
The practice of green architecture has exploded since you first started designing buildings. Is this ever-expanding field taking all the right turns?
Everyone is saying, “I’m going to be zero carbon.” That’s silly. You’ve just told me what you’re not. If I get a jar of peanut butter and it says chlorine-free, it’s like, what?! We’re telling people what we’re not. We need to define what we want to be.

The design of life is accruing carbon from the atmosphere and putting it into biota. It’s the greening of the earth, literally. Carbon is our friend and carbon is a material. We don’t have an energy problem. We have a material problem. We have carbon in the wrong place. We have a carbon location crisis.
What’s next for you?
I learned something else from Walker Evans, who was 69 when I met him. At that time, he was using a 670, a Polaroid, a new camera at the time. I said, “Mr. Evans, I can’t understand. You’re the most respected large-format photographer and you’re walking around with a 670.” He goes, “Here’s why.” And he took a picture and handed it to me. “Bill,” he told me, “you’re 20, you need to learn that every ten years, you put down your tools and pick up new ones; otherwise, you only have one life.” I am at the point where I’m putting down my tools. I’m designing products, designing huge systems, and consulting with countries. Why would I wander around at the age of 70 carrying a big 8-by-10?

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