In 1996, he became the only individual to receive the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development, the nation’s highest environmental honor. McDonough has been recognized as a “Hero for the Planet” by Time (2/22/99). Until 1999, he was dean of the school of architecture at the University of Virginia, where he lived in a home designed by Thomas Jefferson and pondered his “strategy of change; strategy of hope.”
At the 2003 TFM Show, McDonough’s general session keynote presentation received a standing ovation from a ballroom packed with facility and real estate professionals from around the country. His words made members of the audience laugh, gasp, and even think-which is exactly why McDonough continues to write, speak, and produce such an impressive body of work. After the presentation, he sat down with TFM Editor Heidi Schwartz for a thought provoking interview.
TFM: What is your background?
WM: I was born in Tokyo but grew up in Hong Kong, where I was surrounded by experiences that encouraged me to make the world a better place. I saw simple, practical, and beautiful things that fit perfectly in their environment.
As I got older, I learned that we must grow, but we must also have some regard for the consequences. I developed this desire to be hopeful and delightful, not always tragic.
TFM: How did you get involved in the field of architecture?
WM: When I returned to the U.S. to attend graduate school, I observed explosive growth-often at the expense of natural surroundings. While growth is necessary, this drastic approach seemed to separate man from nature. I started asking questions like, ‘How could we, as a race, become native to this place?’
In school, I rapidly became interested in the visual arts and photography. I got very excited about the idea of working with light, but also, I really enjoyed working with people. Architecture is probably the most public of the arts.
TFM: What professional accomplishment has made you most proud?
WM: The Hannover Principles were a revelation for me. The notion that somebody would ask me to create a reference they would write down was eye opening. Up until then, I felt like we [McDonough and his partner, Michael Braungart] were in the shadow. That really brought it out and gave it life.
It’s especially exciting that something 10 years old still holds up. The Principles are actually about to be reissued in a new edition. We did something right.
TFM: While the Hannover Principles have held up through time, so many things in the workplace have changed. What do you feel has been the most significant change?
WM: Our use of raised floors on a large scale is a real serious idea. We’ve had thousands of architects come through our buildings to witness our use of raised flooring. We’re seeing raised flooring as the standard in Silicon Valley. It allows us to use nighttime air, so everybody has fresh air. It’s a marvelous thing.
TFM: Has the economic slowdown presented any impact on the growth of green concepts?
WM: If anything, the green movement is burgeoning now. The economic slowdown simply means our work has a larger piece of the market.
When the economy slows down, people actually have time to think. A climate like this is actually to our benefit because potential clients stop and have to be very practical, not sloppy. They don’t have the resources to keep up the pace of the past.
Nowadays, business leaders have to be smarter, and they have to be more aware of operating costs. What we do, which is so conservative and so cost effective, becomes even more attractive.
TFM: What role does the end user play in your design process?
WM: We try and make things easy for people, so facility managers are very much a part of the decision making process. We also put our buildings through the commissioning process as part of the design.
While we’re designing the building, we work with the people who will be operating it. Then the commissioning is conducted, so we can be sure everything is operating as planned and that everybody knows how to maintain it.
For example, at the Rouge [Ford's $2 billion project to rebuild manufacturing plants on the Rouge River in Dearborn, MI], we eliminated all of the ductwork. We found a way to heat and cool large buildings while saving 70% of the energy and getting rid of all the ductwork. There are only nine roof penetrations instead of 247. (That was the original proposal from the mechanical engineers.)
We were able to modify the original specs by pointing out that the facility staff didn’t want to maintain roof openings, motors, and the other things that require lubrication, create noise, demand abatement, and depend on the weather.
So, we were able to get that off the shoulders of the facilities department. Meanwhile, the workers got fresh air.
It’s a very elegant, cost-effective system that saves millions of dollars. We accomplish things like this by designing with the people who are going to run and maintain the actual systems.
TFM: How are facility managers accommodating green consciousness into their workplace attitudes and strategies?
WM: Most people in management are either leaders or followers. If they are leaders, then they will recognize the culture is asking for this kind of design. In fact, some people are even presuming they’re getting healthy, safe, cost-effective environments.
On the other hand, executives recognize the value proposition and ask their staff members to take up the cause. CEOs who understand productivity know the largest single expense is personnel. Anything they can do to make the personnel more valuable (by gaining productivity) has huge paybacks. A 1% increase in performance on the part of someone in the workplace can be worth $1,000 a year.
We see performance in our buildings going anywhere from 4% to 16% higher in terms of productivity, because these people like staying in the office! They like staying for lunch. There were 16 people who left Herman Miller for higher wages. [McDonough designed a manufacturing facility for the company in 1995.] No matter how you look at it, 16 fully trained employees is a major investment.
These people had never worked in a factory room-a regular one. They had no idea that some people would be willing to work in the dark and come home in the dark. They just couldn’t do it. They returned within two weeks.
When the boss said, ‘Why did you come back?’ They said, ‘We couldn’t work in the dark.’ To have them return is a valuable proposition.
Now facility managers are going to have to adopt this ideology as well, because more of our buildings are out there. Those who sit still and merely sustain the status quo are going to feel pressure.
We get many calls from people who say, ‘My boss told me he wants a building like the ones you design. Can we do what you do?’
TFM: For those facility professionals who have embraced green design principles, how do they deal with various forms of apprehension and resistance?
WM: Clearly, the first thing people think is that green costs more. Even when it does cost more initially, very simple mathematics can be used to create a cost/benefit analysis-just as one that should be used for any business decision.
If something costs more, but it pays back in six months, then it just needs to be added in with other financial considerations. Then, calculate what the ROI needs to be in order to make that kind of financial decision feasible.
Most of what we do falls within the astonishing category. But we can’t achieve the savings if we worked with close minded people.
When we started dealing with the Ford project, the person in charge walked into the room and said, ‘I’m not here to talk to any ego architect about any ego architecture. So what’s this I hear about a green roof?’
This guy eventually turned out to be the hero of the project! He was an active aggressive. Active aggressives are much more useful. They allow us to engage questions with vigor. And then once they get excited about a concept, they become very active supporters. They understand, and they know how to think.
TFM: How can facility professionals do more to incorporate green awareness into their strategic plans?
WM: People who can think big thoughts and execute details are really exciting to work with. They are “timefully mindful.”
Unfortunately, we come across so many people who are “timefully mindless.” They’re in a real hurry, but they don’t want to think. These people just don’t want to do anything different, and they certainly don’t want to apply any creativity. This is the biggest impediment to green strategic thinking.
TFM: What are some of the greatest challenges you face as a champion of “green” practices?
WM: What is green is really a critical question. We see far too much green washing and misinformation. We also find many very vague definitions of what green is. When a manufacturer boasts, ‘I’ve got recycled content,’ it may mean that something toxic is being recycled.
As we see industry standards evolve, we find that consensus based standards have to, by necessity, accept some of the bad apples because they’re part of the organization. We can’t unbake a cake, but we can reuse an ice cube and make it back into water. This is the kind of process that can be repeated over and over again without degrading the materials or compromising the environment.
When we end up with watered down conditions, is that good for the world? It’s a very serious question that needs to be asked. We must concentrate on a positive goal if we want to co-exist peacefully with nature.