KBB Collective | The Designers' Corner

Oct 12 2010

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Oh, McDonough, where art thou?

We have all been charmed by the Godfather of Green, but has a patina tainted his reputation?

Photo: Courtesy of MBDC

The West Coast Green Conference is one of the highlights of my year. Out of the 40+ conferences I speak at each year, West Coast Green is always my favorite, and many others share my enthusiasm for it.

The combination of attendees, speakers and overall feeling of community there is unmatched. (Full disclosure: I am on the Advisory Board, but am still unsure how they make it so much fun.)

Such high expectations could lead to disappointment, but this year’s show was packed with visionaries and featured the Godfather of Green architecture himself, William McDonough. For those of you living under a rock, McDonough is the first name to come to mind when thinking of green design. He designed the New York headquarters for the Environmental Defense Fund back in 1984 while most of us were in only dreaming about making a difference. In 2002 he co-wrote Cradle to Cradle, which proposes an alternative meme to the “Cradle to Grave” paradigm employed in nearly everything since the Industrial Revolution. In May 2008, Vanity Fair crowned him “a prophet of the sustainability and clean-technology movements.”

His TED Talk is a must-see (I play it for my students every semester) and could be watched a hundred times and still teach you something.

But as incredible and visionary as his ideas appear, the realities of practice have been rough. A November 2008 article in Fast Company Magazine was a brutally honest portrayal of the differences between Man and Legend. Those who know him well (but declined to be named) generally deemed the article as “tough, but accurate.” The profile painted a picture of a jet-setting eco-celebrity whose own inability to relinquish control is squashing the hopes of his most promising projects.

Although he commands high speaking fees, McDonough has been giving a similar variation of his incredible speech for years. Many an eager young disciple has flocked to hear him, only to leave disappointed at hearing the same lecture, complete with the same jokes and same inflections. My own students have expressed their disappointment. They still love the message, but were hoping for some new insights. Ironically, his highly watched TED Talk may have worked against him.


West Coast Green founder Christi Graham and her staff wanted something new. His regular stump speech would not suffice. They proposed he eschew his typical talk for what they called a “three-hour deep dive” into his current thinking on design. To our delight, he accepted. The talk was billed as “McDonough Unplugged” and the keynote hall was packed.

The result was a delightful success. The man on stage was a different Bill from whom most of us know or have seen before. Without the linear narrative of his well-worn slides, a new story emerged that was much more engaging, more accessible and (I dare say) more human.

McDonough began by admitting he was nervous and he had “never done this before.” Don’t underestimate how nerve-racking it must have been. This was not a room full of easily seduced clients or sycophantic developers; this was a room full of his peers, many of whom seemed ready to call him out on the slightest detail. But by the end of the afternoon, people were in tears.

Similar to the (in)famous three-hour monologues by Buckminster Fuller or Bruce Goff, McDonough spoke in a free-form oratory style. (NOTE: Fuller spoke at Darmouth while McDonough was a student there.) At times he sketched ideas on a digital notepad, others he was seated conversation-style with green prefab architect Michelle Kaufmann.

When it came to the current state of the environmental movement, McDonough was surprisingly undiplomatic, dismissing energy efficiency and retrofitting (keep in mind that most of the room was filled with the leading efficiency experts). Instead, he laid out his vision for moving away from being “less bad” and toward being good all of the time. “Just using less carbon is not going to help us. No amount of efficiency will save us,” he explained. “We have to de-carbonize.”


He was vulnerable and humble, with a slight hint of a man who had recently gone through a dark period and emerged with new clarity. He shared his well-known stories and one-liners, but they were now set into context and surrounded in detail. The audience witnessed his thinking, process and bigger vision in an overall message of optimism and hope.

“We need to have more fun than they do…” he said, referring to the environmental movement. “Then they will wonder what we’re doing and they will come.”

After the talk, I was chatting with David Johnson, director of McDonough’s San Francisco office, who said (paraphrasing), “I’m so glad everyone else got to see him like that…”

McDonough admitted his own personal feelings of guilt around working with clients who represent what he called the top 2 billion people on the planet. “Starting today,” he announced, “I’m dedicating my firm to the bottom 2 billion to solve the real problems.”

Everyone in the room fell back in love with him. Bill McDonough once again proved his brilliance by opening up and sharing his humanity with us. I hope he enjoyed it enough to continue.

Eric Corey Freed is an architect and author of four books, including “Green$ense for the Home”.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, October 12th, 2010 at 6:00 AM and is filed under Green. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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