Ecology, Ethics, and the Making of Things


When architectural historian Vincent Scully gave a eulogy for the great architect Louis Kahn, he described a day when both were crossing Red Square, whereupon Scully excitedly turned to Kahn and said, "Isn’t it wonderful the way the domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral reach up into the sky?" Kahn looked up and down thoughtfully for a moment and said, "Isn’t it beautiful the way they come down to the ground?"

If we understand that design leads to the manifestation of human intention, and if what we make with our hands is to be sacred and honor the earth that gives us life, then the things we make must not only rise from the ground but return to it, soil to soil, water to water, so everything that is received from the earth can be freely given back without causing harm to any living system. This is ecology. This is good design.

We can use certain fundamental laws inherent to the natural world as models and mentors for human designs. Ecology comes from the Greek roots oikos and logos, "household" and "logical discourse." Thus it is appropriate, if not imperative, for architects to discourse about the logic of our earth household. To do so, we must first look at our planet and the very processes by which it manifests life, because therein lie the logical principles with which we must work. And we must also consider economy in the true sense of the word. Using the Greek words oikos and nomos, we speak of natural law and how we measure and manage the relationships within this household, working with the principles our discourse has revealed to us.

There are three defining characteristics that we can learn from natural design. The first is that all materials given to us by nature are constantly returned to the earth without even the concept of waste as we understand it. Everything is cycled constantly with all waste equaling food for other living systems.

The second characteristic is that the one thing allowing nature to continually cycle itself through life is energy, and this energy comes from outside the system in the form of perpetual solar income. Not only does nature operate on "current income," it does not mine or extract energy from the past, it does not use its capital reserves, and it does not borrow from the future.

Finally, the characteristic that sustains this complex and efficient system of metabolism and creation is biodiversity. What prevents living systems from running down and veering into chaos is a miraculously intricate and symbiotic relationship between millions of organisms, no two of which are alike.

As a designer of buildings, things, and systems, I ask myself how to apply these three characteristics of living systems to my work. How do I employ the concept of waste equals food, of current solar income, of protecting biodiversity in design?

MY COLLEAGUE Michael Braungart, an ecological chemist from Hamburg, Germany, has pointed out that we should remove the word "waste" from our vocabulary and start using the word "product" instead, because if waste is going to equal food, it must also be a product. Braungart suggests we think about three distinct product types:

First, there are consumables. We should be producing more of them. These are products that when eaten or used, or thrown away, literally turn back into dirt and therefore are food for other living organisms. Consumables should not be placed in landfills but put on the ground so that they restore the life, health, and fertility of the soil. This means shampoo bottles made of beets that are biodegradable in your compost pile and carpets that break down into CO2 and water.

Second are products of service, also known as durables, such as cars and television sets. They are called products of service because what people want is the service the product provides - food, entertainment, or transportation. To eliminate the concept of waste, products of service would not be sold but licensed to the end-user. Customers may use them as long as they wish, even sell the license to someone else, but when the end-user is finished with, say, a television, it goes back to Sony, Zenith, or Philips. It is "food" for their system, but not for natural systems.

The third type of product is called "unmarketables." Why would anyone produce a product that no one would buy? Welcome to the world of nuclear waste, dioxins, and chromium-tanned leather. We are essentially making products or subcomponents of products that no one should buy or, in many cases, do not realize they are buying.

When we take seriously the idea that the very concept of waste can be eliminated, when we stop trying to be "less bad" by merely limiting the destructive effects of architecture and industry and instead embrace the intention of creating only safe, healthful, restorative things, the purview of design shifts radically.

I remember when we were hired to design the office for an environmental group. The director said at the end of contract negotiations, "By the way, if anybody in our office gets sick from indoor air quality, we’re going to sue you." After wondering if we should even take the job, we decided to go ahead, that it was our job to find the materials that wouldn’t make people sick when placed inside a building. And what we found is that those materials weren’t there. We had to work with manufacturers to find out what was in their products, and we discovered that the entire system of building construction is essentially toxic. We are still working on the materials side.

For a New York men’s clothing store, we arranged for the planting of 1,000 oak trees to replace the two English oaks used to panel the store. We were inspired by a famous story told by Gregory Bateson about New College in Oxford, England. It went something like this. They had a main hall built in the early 1600s with beams 40 feet long and 2 feet thick. A committee was formed to try to find replacement trees because the beams were suffering from dry rot. If you keep in mind that veneer from an English oak can be worth $7 a square foot, the total replacement cost for the oaks was prohibitively expensive. And they didn’t have straight 40-foot English oaks from mature forests with which to replace the beams.

A young faculty member joined the committee and said, "Why don’t we ask the college forester if some of the lands that have been given to Oxford might have enough trees to call upon?" And when they brought in the forester, he said, "We’ve been wondering when you would ask this question. When the present building was constructed 350 years ago, the architects specified that a grove of trees be planted and maintained to replace the beams in the ceiling when they would suffer from dry rot." Bateson’s remark was, "That’s the way to run a culture." Our question and hope is, "Did they replant them?"

We have to recognize that every event and manifestation of nature is "design," that to live within the laws of nature means to express our human intention as an interdependent species, aware and grateful that we are at the mercy of sacred forces larger than ourselves, and that we obey these laws in order to honor the sacred in each other and in all things. We must come to peace with and accept our place in the natural world.

William McDonough, an architect and innovator in sustainable design, is author, with Michael Braungart, of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (North Point Press). This essay is adapted in part from a sermon delivered at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York in 1993. For more on McDonough and his work, visit www.

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