Toward a 21st Century Renaissance (2003)

Education, Design and a Hopeful Human Prospect

By William McDonough


Each year, American colleges and universities hand out design degrees by the thousands. Credentials in hand, a veritable army of young architects and urban planners, engineers and product designers enter the job market and, with a little luck, begin to practice their professions. But what exactly is the “system” within which they are practicing? Have their university educations prepared them to be the designers of the twenty-first century world?

These are not merely academic questions. In a very real way, designers create the human environment; they make the things we use, the places we live and work, our modes of communication and mobility. Simply put, design matters. And at a moment in our history in which the scientific community has issued serious warnings about the negative impacts of our flawed designs—from global warming and water pollution to the loss of biodiversity and natural resources—designers have a critical role to play in the creation of a more just, healthful and sustainable world.

Our colleges and universities, by and large, are not preparing design students for this crucial challenge. While design for sustainability is increasingly being seen as an important element of both foundation and specialized courses, there is still a long way to go. Consider, for example, the recent Metropolis magazine survey of more than 350 deans, department chairs and professors on the relevance of sustainability to design education. Though 67 percent of respondents agreed that sustainability is relevant to their design curricula, only 14 percent said that their schools were developing programs to educate their teachers about sustainable design. When asked how many graduate courses their department offers that include considerations of sustainability, 28 percent said none and 45 percent said they didn’t know.

This, of course, has a profound impact on professional practice: A separate Metropolis survey of practicing design professionals, conducted in 2002, found that a full 70 percent did not feel equipped to do a sustainable design job.

The impact on our world is profound as well. When architects and designers are unable to practice sustainable design, we are missing opportunities to lay the foundation for a hopeful and prosperous future. Instead of designs for buildings and products and manufacturing systems that effectively use energy and resources and generate a wealth of positive environmental, economic and social effects, we get designs that reiterate the “take, make, and waste” sensibility of conventional industry. Instead of safe, healthful materials designed for many life-cycles, we get toxic, cradle-to-grave materials designed for a one-way trip to the landfill or incinerator. In short, conventional design tends to diminish the long-term health of human culture and the natural world on which it depends.

We can do much better than this.

The first step would be to more clearly define sustainability and good design. What is it that we intend to teach young architects when we teach them about sustainable design? Typically, sustainability is used as a descriptive term for a range of cultural responses to the environmental and social impacts of economic growth. It is often defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Sustainable design puts that sensibility into practice. Many approaches to “sustainable” architecture, for example, focus primarily on outlining strategies for building systems that make efficient use of energy and materials. Sustainable land planning and site design emphasizes an environmentally responsive use of vegetation, water, and other natural systems. Yet, while these strategies represent a marked improvement over conventional practice, they most often rely on minimizing human impact on the environment, striving only to be “less bad.”

And “less bad” is not good enough for our young designers. A reductive approach to design may allow architects and manufacturers to use fewer resources, produce less waste and minimize toxic emissions, but it does not change the fundamental design paradigm. As a result, many so-called “sustainable” technologies use energy and materials within a conventional cradle-to-grave system, diluting pollution and slowing the loss of natural resources without addressing the design flaws that create waste and toxic products in the first place.

Thankfully, sustainable design is not limited to simply trying to be more efficient. A new paradigm offers a clear alternative: an ecologically intelligent framework in which the safe, regenerative productivity of nature provides models for wholly positive human designs. Within this framework, called cradle-to-cradle design, every material is designed to provide a wide spectrum of renewable assets. After a useful life as a healthful product, cradle-to-cradle materials (as opposed to conventional materials designed for a one-way trip from cradle-to-grave) either replenish the earth with biodegradable matter or supply high quality technical resources for the next generation of products. When materials and products are created specifically for use within these closed-loop cycles—the flow of biological materials through nature’s cycles and the circulation of industrial materials from producer to customer to producer—businesses can realize both enormous short-term growth and enduring prosperity. As well, we can begin to re-design the very foundations of architecture and industry, creating systems that purify air, land and water; use current solar income and generate no toxic waste; use only safe, healthful, regenerative materials; and whose benefits enhance all life.

This positive agenda can redefine design education. Rather than teaching student architects and designers how to do reduce the impact of their work or meet today’s environmental standards, we might inspire them with an altogether different design assignment: Design industrial and architectural systems for the 21st century that

  • introduce no hazardous materials into the air, water and soil
  • measure prosperity by how much we enhance the positive effects of the human footprint
  • measure productivity by how many people are gainfully and meaningfully employed
  • measure progress by how many buildings have no smokestacks or dangerous effluents
  • do not require regulations whose purpose is to stop us from killing ourselves too quickly
  • produce nothing that will require future generations to maintain constant vigilance
  • generate more energy than they consume
  • make every building a life-support system
  • celebrate the abundance of biological and cultural diversity and renewable energy

Students engaging this revolutionary design assignment need to be supported in the classroom. In the 1970s, when green architecture began to emerge in response to the energy crisis, most design students interested in creating solar powered buildings found themselves working with faculty who didn’t understand—and didn’t want to understand—the principles of ecologically intelligent design. In fact, one of my professors at Yale, an architect well known for his sophisticated modernist designs, went as far as to say that “solar energy had nothing to do with architecture.”

Vitruvius would have disagreed. The Roman master’s encyclopedic treatise on architecture, hugely influential in ancient times and again in the Renaissance, contained whole chapters on the profound significance of the sun’s movement in relation to the location of rooms, the size of apertures, thermal mass, and so on. A building insensitive to the movement of the sun would have left Vitruvius aghast.

But not the modernists. Indeed, my professor’s rebuttal suggests just how far the modernist project had divorced architecture from place and from the past. Following Le Corbusier, the modernist ideal was “one single building for all nations and climates.” The house was to be “a machine for living in.” No need to understand local energy flows in that paradigm; just add fossil fuels. Style, too, was fiercely ideological, defined by the Bauhaus maxim “less is more.” Energetically applied, the “less is more” lens had a clarifying effect on architectural theory and practice, but as it calcified into academic rhetoric, its effect in the classroom was ultimately chilling.

And so architecture students, their ideas dismissed by their teachers, often graduated and began to practice ecological design without a suitable aesthetic foundation. The results were less than handsome. Architects who designed solar powered buildings typically delivered machines for living in with solar collectors on the roof. They were crude and utilitarian and they did not really change the basic modernist paradigm. Same materials, same generally insensitive relation to place and history, same ecological illiteracy.

The architecture critic Nicholas Pevsner wrote “a bicycle shed is a building; a cathedral is architecture.” The new solar buildings in the 70s were seen as bicycle sheds, and in fact they were. This cast a shadow over ecological design for years, which meant that our universities were not blessed with a new generation of faculty capable of helping students pursue aesthetically rich designs that also expressed ecological intelligence.

That has begun to change. It is worth noting that even though only 14 percent of the design educators responding to the Metropolis survey said that their schools were developing sustainable design curricula for instructors, 67 percent did see the relevance of sustainability to design education. Even ten years ago that number would have been considerably smaller.

Moreover, the work of prominent architects is now demonstrating that ecological design and aesthetic excellence create a wonderful synergy. Consider Norman Foster’s designs for the Reichstag and the Commerzbank Tower in Germany and London’s new city hall, all of which combine a formally rich design sensibility with a keen sensitivity to the larger ecological context of architecture. As the New York Times has reported, Foster is “mining the expressive potential of low-energy construction” to create buildings “as elegant as any in the world.”

In the Commerzbank Tower, Foster created a 60-story atrium down the center of the building and built multi-story sky gardens, replacing air conditioning with natural ventilation. The Reichstag’s domed assembly hall is also naturally ventilated and its three-story shade follows the revolution of the sun. The spherical shape of London’s city hall reduces solar gain, so the building is kept cool using far less energy. As described in the Times, it should put to rest any lingering notion that an ecologically intelligent building is destined to be a bicycle shed:

“In the gorgeous Assembly chamber, an oculus of unusually transparent water-white glass (regular glass has a slightly greenish tint) opens the chamber northward through a diagonal fretwork of tubular steel supports to a splendid vista of the Tower of London and London Bridge. The room is bathed in light as limpid and serene as a Vermeer painting (this is also is also part of the low energy scheme: the Assembly need only switch on the lights for nighttime and televised events.)”

Now, when a student expresses interest in ecological design, not only is there no reasonable argument for dismissing her enthusiasm, there are inspiring examples in the world she can emulate.

This is a salutary change in the general atmosphere of design education, but it is not enough to power a true transformation. The creativity unleashed by our new design assignment—which is really a lifetime design assignment—can be sustained in the classroom when the classroom itself embodies the same values. As the educator David Orr has pointed out, architecture always serves a pedagogical function; the design of buildings teaches and reinforces how we use resources, how we relate to nature and what our culture values. It is absurd, he believes, to teach young people about the world, especially young people interested in intelligently re-designing the world, in buildings that devour fossil fuels, have no relation to their surroundings, are generally uncomfortable and uninspiring, and express ignorance of how nature works.

To address the shortcomings of the contemporary classroom, Orr worked with William McDonough + Partners to design an educational facility, The Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies, that teaches ecological intelligence rather than ecological illiteracy. The result: a building that restores the local landscape, accrues solar income, filters water, creates habitat for living things and, as Orr writes, offers students “the kind of education that prepares people for lives and livelihoods suited to a planet with a biosphere that operates by the laws of ecology and thermodynamics.”

Drawing the majority of its power from solar energy, the Lewis Center already has exceedingly low energy demands, and with the addition of more solar panels on site it may one day produce more energy than it needs to operate. Its other sustainable design features include geothermal wells for heating and cooling; daylighting and fresh air delivery throughout; an extended botanical garden that recovers nutrients from circulating water on-site; and a landscape that offers social gathering spaces, instructional gardens and orchards, and a newly planted grove of native trees, which has begun the process of re-establishing the habitat of the building’s northern Ohio location.

The building and its classrooms have become the center of a learning community. The comfortable, sunlit classrooms and public gathering areas encourage mingling, communication and reflection. Inside and out, the building provides opportunities for learning how nature and human industry can work together, the foundation of ecological literacy.

Perhaps the most moving lesson the building imparts is that the human presence in the landscape can be regenerative. Not simply benign or less bad, but positive, vital and good. This is not a rhetorical lesson. At Oberlin, habits of mind grow out of daily interactions with wind, water, soil and trees as well as the workings of experimental building and energy systems; they become the skills and knowledge that inform intelligent design.

Learning such as this can be integrated into the curricula of many disciplines. Chemists aware of the concerns of sustainability can master the skills necessary to assess the environmental health and safety of industrial and architectural materials. “Green” engineers, who are employed throughout the sustainable design process, can garner the technical know-how to develop an array of sustainable systems, from solar collection technology to chemical recycling processes that allow the re-use of valuable materials. MBA’s that understand the value of design for the triple top line—the creation of ecological, economic and social value through cradle-to-cradle product development—will generate extraordinary value for shareholders. As our educational institutions recognize this new kind of literacy they would provide a great benefit to students with revamped curricula that reflect the interdisciplinary values of a sustainable world.

When young professionals schooled in good sustainable design begin to practice they can change the nature of “the possible.” Ten years ago, if a young architect walked into a firm and said, “I think we can build a green roof,” he would have met considerable resistance—there wasn’t a single green roof in North America. Now, however, thousands of architects have seen the multiple successful examples that have not only met budget and time restrictions but have created a new way of thinking about the relationship between building and landscape. At Ford Motor Company’s new River Rouge manufacturing facility, for example, a ten-acre green roof that effectively filters stormwater runoff was built with first cost savings of $10 million. When a young architect suggests a green roof today, his superiors know that some of the smartest firms are creating successful, cost-effective projects.

Imagine a 21st century world in which our colleges and universities prepare students for lives and livelihoods that re-imagine the possible. The very purpose and nature of learning would evolve from what is largely a celebration of human intelligence towards a new sensibility that seeks to replace dominion over nature with a more fulfilling relationship between humanity and the natural world. This movement away from simple stewardship, and toward a sense of kinship with life—what the biologist E. O. Wilson calls biophilia—is a source of creativity and deep learning. If this century is to be known for prosperity, beauty, and the restoration of our world, understanding our kinship with nature needs to become one of the foundations of cultural life. Architecture and design, with their profound ability to create new relationships between people and their world, is uniquely positioned to engender such a change. Our educational institutions, inasmuch as they support and nurture this new literacy, can be home to the flowering of a 21st century renaissance.


Toward a 21st Century Renaissance © 2003 William McDonough

The Chronicle of Higher Education