Spotlight: William McDonough

Spotlight: William McDonough

Sometimes referred to as “the leading environmental architect of our time,” in his roles as architect, designer, author, educator and social leader, William McDonough (born 20 February 1951) has provided a renewed look at the things that we make and their impact on both our bodies and the world. Through his Cradle to Cradle philosophy, McDonough’s buildings are designed to function for a predetermined lifespan, after which they can be broken down into their various parts whose core elements can be used anew to solve a different design problem.

© Marta Chierego – World Economic Forum

Upon finishing his architectural education at Dartmouth and Yale, McDonough opened his own firm, now called William McDonough + Partners, in 1981 in New York City. Sustainability became a theme early in his career, with projects including the design of a solar house in Ireland, and in 1985, the commission for the first “green office” in New York for the Environmental Defense Fund. The EDF brief called for strict air quality requirements, prompting McDonough to begin his lifelong investigation into healthy materials. McDonough’s design set in motion the trend of green building in the United States and lead to the formation of the US Green Building Council.

American University School of International Service. Image © Prakash Patel/William McDonough + Partners

The subsequent decade saw further variations on sustainable design, with projects ranging from Herman Miller’s “Greenhouse” Factory and Offices (1995); the Corporate Campus for Gap, Inc. (1997); Nike’s European Headquarters (1999); and the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies at Oberlin College (2001) as well as McDonough’s first treatise on sustainable design, The Hannover Principles: Design for Sustainability in 1992. In 1994, McDonough moved his practice to Charlottesville, Virginia after being named Dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia.

ICEhouse. Image © Bertrand Radelow

In 2002, McDonough co-authored Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. The manifesto proposed to upend the traditional adage of “reduce, reuse, recycle,” calling instead for materials to be “upcycled” at the end of their initial useful life span. To design products able to be upcycled, materials should be composed of what McDonough refers to as “technical” and “biological nutrients.” Technical nutrients consist of materials that can be reused in a closed-loop industrial system, while biological nutrients refer to materials that can break down to reenter the environment. Cradle to Cradle was quickly disseminated throughout design circles, and has since inspired the non-profit Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute, which empowers and rewards innovation in the practice of sustainable, circular-economy design.

Diagram, NASA Sustainability Base. Image Courtesy of William McDonough + Partners

Since that breakthrough, McDonough has continued to focus on environmentally and socially-conscious design, helping to establish criteria for the environmental mission of Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation in their bid to provide architect-designed homes for victims of Hurricane Katrina. McDonough himself contributed designs for a sustainable duplex in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward known as the “flow house.”

Recent projects of McDonough’s have included ICEhouse (2016), a transportable “wonderframe” that uses any available materials to create shelter; Method Manufacturing Facility (2014), a new factory for sustainable products on a Chicago brownfield site; and the NASA Sustainability Base (2011), a “living laboratory” for the space program that outperforms LEED platinum standards. McDonough is also the subject of Stanford University's first "living archive," where nearly all of the architect’s daily moments are recorded in an effort to change the way we as humans remember and record our daily lives.

American University School of International Service. Image © Prakash Patel/William McDonough + Partners

Through his successes, McDonough has changed the discourse on architecture’s relationship to the environment, a relationship he believes is only sustainable through a symbiotic attitude: “What I’m trying to look at is how do we make humans supportive of the natural world, the way the natural world is supportive of us.”

See all of William McDonough projects featured on Archdaily via the thumbnails below, and further coverage below those:

Spotlight: William McDonough - More Images+ 7

William McDonough on Sustainability: "Carbon Is Not the Enemy"

Metropolis editor in chief Susan Szenasy sits down with William McDonough-the designer, author, and developer of Cradle to Cradle design-to understand why we must begin to employ a new language regarding carbon and sustainable design.

Archiculture Interviews: Bill McDonough

William McDonough to be Stanford University's First Living Archive

Constructing the Curriculum: William McDonough's Cradle to Cradle Building to Inspire the Next Generation

About this author
Cite: Patrick Lynch. "Spotlight: William McDonough" 20 Feb 2020. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

NASA Sustainability Base. Image Courtesy of William McDonough + Partners


You've started following your first account!

Did you know?

You'll now receive updates based on what you follow! Personalize your stream and start following your favorite authors, offices and users.