William McDonough on Greenbiz: On joy and cereal boxes

By Joel Makower
Published November 14, 2013

This is the first in a periodic series of one-on-one interviews with William McDonough, the renowned designer, architect and entrepreneur, looking into his rich, kaleidoscopic professional world. McDonough has been at the forefront of many of sustainability’s most important trends: green buildings, closed-loop systems and Cradle to Cradle design, among others.

I’ll be checking in with McDonough periodically to hear what he’s working on and thinking about — an opportunity to get a glimpse into one of sustainability’s most creative and fertile minds.

Joel Makower: Bill, what is your professional world like these days? How do you divide up your time in terms of architecture, design, writing, speaking, entrepreneurism and everything else?

William McDonough: I travel about a third of the time. And when I’m in my office in Charlottesville, I am designing buildings. I have my studio there and in San Francisco, and I do the special projects that I choose to do. There aren’t very many, and they’re very special. I’m doing everything from the space station to giant factories in India to a private home for someone very special to me. I’m also doing a fabulous project in Los Angeles for the docks there, on the future of the oceans, which I find very important.

Then, I work with entrepreneurs — new companies that have technologies within our Cradle to Cradle framework. They involve everything from women’s health to various renewable energy protocols to urban agriculture to lighting and hospitality design. That’s probably a third of my day.

And then I prepare for “North Star” workshops for major corporations. I work with chief sustainability officers and CEOs to help set their North Star — actually set the targets for these enterprises.

And I spend some time every day drawing as a means of communicating with my own instinct on curious objects. Right now my curious objects, other than buildings, are packaging. I’m very focused on packaging in part because of the work I’m doing in collaboration with Waste Management. But I’ve also worked with Recology, and I want to work with all the reverse-logistics providers because it’s like Thoreau said: “What’s the good of a house if you don’t have a good planet to put it on?” What’s the good of a beautifully recyclable object, either to the biosphere or technosphere in Cradle to Cradle terms, if we don’t have a way to get it there for its next use?

Makower: So, with all of those delicious opportunities in front of you, how do you think about what you take on? Are there some criteria you use to decide what rises to the top?

Read the full William McDonough interview on Greenbiz.com