Bill McDonough says simple things that carry deep implications for the way builders and manufacturers create products and build homes. And the way he phrased them in Los Angeles Sept. 29 left participants at Hanley Wood's HIVE Conference thinking differently about their work.

For instance:

  • "Why would you design something that wasn't healthy?"
  • "We shouldn't use the word 'sustainable.' If I were to ask 'What is your relationship to your spouse?', would you say 'It's sustainable?'"
  • "When did we get the right to pollute?"
  • "If you say 'I'm going to reduce my badness by 20% by 2020, what are you really doing? ... why don't we articulate what it is we DO want. Let's get 100% fabulous."
  • "We're not that smart. It tool us thousands of years to put wheels on our luggage."

McDonough is an architect who has become one of the nation's leading advocates of cradle-to-cradle design. A principle idea behind that is to create products out of non-harmful materials that, once they are no longer needed, can be reconstituted into other products. It also extends to designing buildings that can serve multiple purposes, such as an office building that can later on become a hotel and then an apartment complex.

The former dean of the architecture school at the University of Virginia noted that the university's founder, Thomas Jefferson, believed the world should belong to the living, and thus we shouldn't create products or structures today in ways that would harm future generations. That requires viewing products and structures in terms of the service they perform and then making sure that service gets accomplished in a gentle way,

"What we want from the TV is the use of it," he said. "We don't want 4,600 chemicals. We want pictures."

McDonough suggested designers should seek to design in ways that bring multiple benefits, much as a tree brings a dozen benefits to nature: It emits oxygen, sequesters carbon dioxide, creates fuel, provides habitat, etc. He cited the recycling of carpets as being such a multiple winner; after all, because of that recyclability, "you're essentially storing your raw materials [for making future carpets] on your customers' floors."