April 22, 2009

Sustainability Expert Explains Role of Design in Environment

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Sustaining the environment can be stylish. In a Call Auditorium packed with people and filled with photos of biota-full building roofs and solar cell-paneled buildings, William A. McDonough made this claim as he was featured yesterday afternoon as the eleventh annual Jill and Ken Iscol Distinguished Environmental Lecture “Cradle to Cradle Design.”
Named by Time Magazine as a “Hero for the Planet” in 1999, McDonough has served as an alumni research professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, consulting professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University and a three-time recipient of the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development — the most prestigious environmental honor awarded in the United States.
“I think it’s a great accomplishment and inspiration for Cornell to have him here. His interaction with many universities is essential for research in architecture and design from an ecological, biological, chemical and entrepreneurial standpoint,” said Prof. Martin Hatch, music.
With a career focused on developing sustainable and ecologically-friendly buildings and structures, McDonough published Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things with Michael Braungart in 2002. The book proposed designs for the future that model the cyclic and regenerative nature of living systems.
“The world needs to be seen as a place where abundance can be celebrated by all of us. Nothing is beyond our limits,” McDonough said, beginning yesterday’s lecture. “The human population will increase, and resources will become strained. This is why we need cradle-to-cradle design now,” he added.
Quoting Thomas Jefferson, McDonough said that the Earth belongs to the living, and so we need to design as if other species cohabitated with us. “Our goal is a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy and just world with clean air, water, soil and power — economically, equitably, ecologically and elegantly enjoyed.”
According to McDonough, sustainability cannot be seen as maintenance because it involves ecology, economy and equity, the three corners of a triangle he used to demonstrate each facet included in cradle-to-cradle design. “Profit, living wages, male and female work in the household, respect and fairness, cancer in the workplace, fairness to the environment, following nature’s laws, eco-effectiveness and eco-efficiency are all various aspects that are integral to this triangular model,” he argued.
Using Albert Einstein’s words, McDonough said that “no problem can be solved by the same consciousness that created it.” These problems include a decrease in ocean pH levels from 8.80 to 8.06 as 48 percent of emitted carbon dioxide has now dissolved in the oceans.
Such problems, McDonough suggested, are due to the way that buildings are designed and products are manufactured in today’s society. “If our goal is to poison wildlife and decrease biodiversity on this planet, then we’re doing a great job,” McDonough said, jokingly. “Is this our plan? Because if not, then it sure is a lot like a de facto plan,” he added.
The primary aim of his architecture is to incorporate products and materials into closed cycles for safe reuse. Efforts to increase safety of products can be seen in the elimination of 7,962 out of the 8,000 harmful chemicals found in textile seating fabric that have been eliminated through McDonough’s cradle-to-cradle design. These seating fabrics will be used on the Airbus380, and “they’re clean enough to eat if you ever crave fiber mid-flight,” he joked.
“We need to design materials that are ‘nutrients,’ design products to be recycled, and design systems to recover and recycle these ‘nutrients,’” McDonough said, referencing his idea of a closed cycle. “There are 4.5 billion pounds of carpet waste each year. Could you imagine putting it in closed cycles for reuse?”
To finish off the lecture, McDonough revealed past, current and future projects for cradle-to-cradle designs. One past project by the Ford River Rouge Center involved removing tons of asphalt from the building roofs and replacing it with soil and plants. Within five days of having the new roof in place, he mentioned, geese were already laying eggs and making a new home.
“With the new roof in place, we helped Ford save $35 billion on day one, alone. These eco-friendly roofs can even produce more energy than they use each year, a sure testament to the generative ability of nature,” he said.
Current projects include Better Place, a plan to reduce Denmark and Israel’s dependence on oil by implanting an electric car system, and the construction of cradle-to-cradle homes alongside actor Brad Pitt in New Orleans areas devastated by Hurricane Katrina four years ago.
“I liked his attitude in that he was trying to inspire, not reprimand people. He gave a vision for the future and allowed people to see his goals with cradle-to-cradle designs,” Daniela Beall ’11 said.
McDonough’s ambitions expand into Asia as well. He suggested that by 2020, China will lose 20 percent of its farmland due to horizontal building expansion caused by population growth. However, McDonough proposed that the replaced farmland can simply be displaced onto the roofs of the newly-built houses, thereby making the region sustainable for future generations.
A standing ovation was received as McDonough concluded his lecture: “How do we love all children of all species for all time? That is the first question we must answer.”