Beyond Efficiency (2001)

By William McDonough & Michael Braungart


Among many architects and their corporate clients the pursuit of energy efficiency has become the gold standard of good intentions. As daily reports of vanishing energy supplies and rising energy prices signal the need for a more sustainable use of resources, designing energy-efficient buildings is widely perceived as an enlightened goal.

But is efficiency really a designer’s highest calling? We don’t think so. Rather than trying to minimize the impact of human endeavors, we’ve developed a design protocol called eco-effectiveness that creates positive, beneficial effects on many scales, from the molecule to the region. On the scale of buildings, comparing two with very different design intentions illustrates just one realm in which eco-effective design can generate economic, ecological and social health.

The first building is a big energy saver. It minimizes air income and escape by sealing every possible leak—including the windows, which do not open. It lowers solar income with darkly tinted glass, diminishing the cooling load on the building’s air conditioning system and thus the building’s energy needs. The local power plant, in turn, cuts its consumption of fossil fuels, releases a smaller amount of pollutants and sends the company a reduced power bill. The utility, in fact, honors the building as the most energy-saving in its area, holding it up as a model for environmentally conscious design: If all buildings were designed and built this way, it is proclaimed, businesses could profit by protecting the environment.

The other building is quite different. During the day, light pours in and views of the outdoors are plentiful—one can even open the windows. The cooling system maximizes natural air flows, flushing the building with cool evening air. A layer of native grasses covers the building’s roof, making it more attractive to songbirds while absorbing stormwater runoff. Delicious, affordable food and beverages are available to employees in a cafe open to a sun-filled courtyard.

During construction, certain elements of the second building did cost a little more. For example, windows that open are more expensive than windows that do not. But the night-time cooling strategy cuts down on the need for air-conditioning during the day. Abundant daylight diminishes the need for fluorescent light. Fresh air makes indoor spaces more pleasurable. In fact, the building is as energy efficient as the one specifically designed to be efficient, but that’s just a side effect of connecting the building to natural energy flows.

What were the two design assignments here?

In the first instance, it was to minimize destructive effects: The building lowers the income of solar heat with tinted glass. It diminishes the air conditioning’s cooling load, which in turn cuts the amount of fossil fuel energy required for operation. Less pollutants, less money spent on power, less bad.

In the second instance, the design assignment was to create a building that celebrates a broad range of cultural and natural pleasures—sunlight, nature, delicious food—in order to enhance the lives of the people who work there. Its architects were expressing a hopeful vision of a life-centered community. Their entirely positive intentions yielded a building that, like a tree, had a responsive, fruitful relationship with its surroundings.

A workplace responsive to locale creates extraordinary value. While enriching its surroundings and inhabitants, an intelligently designed building can also boost a company’s productivity. The furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, for example, moved into a new building that provides fresh air, sunlight, and views of the outdoors to all of its employees, and within a year had increased its annual furniture production by $50 million. The company credits the customized design of the factory, an innovative administrative strategy and the simple fact that the building is such a pleasant place to work. In fact, many workers reported their delight at not having to “work in the dark.” The savings from the building’s energy-efficient systems, about $50,000 a year, pale in comparison to the value of the energized workforce.

Clearly, efficiency can buy us some time to design more effective energy systems. Pursued for its own sake, however, it simply closes the windows and dims the lights in an attempt to manage a destructive system. Isn’t it time to embrace a positive, life-centered vision? Isn’t it time we all stopped working in the dark?


Adapted from Cradle to Cradle, a new book by William McDonough and Michael Braungart, forthcoming from North Point Press.


Beyond Efficiency © 2001 William McDonough and Michael Braungart

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