Heroes of Sustainability: Michael Braungart

Michael Braungart. Photo by Enith Stenhuys.

“Think about this — today the indoors air quality in most buildings is very poor, yet the insulation techniques keep improving, so by not looking at the big picture we’re effectively trapping ourselves in polluted air. My conclusion is that if you do something wrong, don’t make it perfect, otherwise you’re just making something that’s perfectly wrong.”
— Michael Braungart

Michael Braungart is driven by two big questions: How can mankind really integrate itself into life on earth? How can people be not just less harmful, but rather useful?

Throughout his career, the German chemist has strived to answer these questions, and in the process, has come up with some revolutionary ideas — including ones that have certainly raised a few eyebrows.

In design magazine Abitare, he wrote: “But I can tell you, sustainability is boring. It is just the minimum. Like when you were asked: ‘How is your relationship with your girlfriend?’ What do you say? Sustainable? I’d say: ‘I am so sorry for you.’ Design is the complete opposite of sustainability. We would still live on trees if we were sustainable. Sustainability just keeps the same things over and over again. Instead we should celebrate being human beings and our creativity, which is far more important than sustainability.”

A Real Shift
Elevating design to something that’s more than just the bare minimum is something he delves deeper into in the book he co-wrote with American architect William McDonough, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. The Cradle the Cradle philosophy is all about looking at the design of something from the beginning to end of its life span, eliminating the concept of “waste,” as everything can be reused perpetually. Instead of minimization, Braungart envisions a design world of optimization.

“Most of the time products that are labeled carbon neutral absolutely are not,” he said at EcoBuild 2010 in London. “We have to stop thinking we can protect the environment by destroying less. Carbon neutral is only achievable through nonexistence, hence it’s not something to aspire to — what we need to aim for is carbon positive, like trees. And that calls for a real shift.”

Spreading the Word
In Braungart’s earlier days, he was a Greenpeace activist who once lived in a tree as a form of protest. He went on to lead the formation of the Chemistry Section of Greenpeace International, and in 1987, he founded the EPEA Umweltforschung in Hamburg, which works with clients around the world to institute Cradle to Cradle principles. He is a professor of process engineering at the University of Applied Sciences in Suderburg and the scientific manager of the Hamburg Environmental Institute, a nonprofit research center that ranks the quality of environmentally sound products in the chemical industry. He is also co-founder of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), a global sustainability consulting and product certification firm based in Virginia.

Although Braungart’s involved in a variety of activities, they all have one overarching goal: to promote the idea that we can do more than just reduce our negative environmental impact — we can make a better one.

For more information about Braungart, visit www.braungart.com/index_EN.html.


Heroes of Sustainability: William McDonough

“I can’t imagine something being beautiful at this point in history if it’s destroying the planet or causing children to get sick. How can anything be beautiful if it’s not ecologically intelligent at this point?” –William McDonough

When William McDonough co-wrote Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things a decade ago, it revolutionized the way we think about design. Part of that was because of the book itself — instead of being printed on paper from trees, the words were pressed onto plastic resins and inorganic fillers that feel like paper (yet are waterproof) and can easily be recycled.

The physical manifestation of the book is but one example of the cradle-to-cradle design espoused by McDonough and co-author Michael Braungart, a German chemist. The concept calls for designers to think about what happens at the end of a product’s life just as much as they think about the beginning.

By using design principles that mesh with nature — harnessing the sun’s energy and making use of nutrient cycling, for example — buildings, products, and systems can become more than just a bear on the environment, but a tool for positive change.

Innovative Design
As an architect, McDonough has created buildings for corporations such as Nike and the Gap that have changed the way people think about green design and function. With his firm William McDonough + Partners, McDonough made history at the Ford River Rouge Complex in Dearborn, Mich., covering the roof with 10 acres of sedum, a low-growing groundcover that retains and cleanses rainwater as well as moderates the internal temperature of the building. The Sustainability Base as part of NASA’s Ames Research Center is another feat of engineering, with solar panels, ample use of daylighting, and systems designed to eventually use only renewable energy and maintain water in closed loops.

Ford River Rouge Complex. Photo courtesy of William McDonough + Partners.

According to the William McDonough + Partners website: “The foundational principles we bring to each project derive from our vision of the future: a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy and just world — with clean air, soil, water and power — economically, equitably, ecologically, and elegantly enjoyed.”

McDonough is also co-founder of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC), a global sustainability consulting and product certification firm that helps clients go beyond reducing a negative footprint and instead leave a “positive footprint.” The Cradle to Cradle framework for creation they’ve developed takes five dimensions into account: using materials as nutrients for safe continuous cycling; developing systems to safely close the loop on biological and technical nutrients; powering all operations with 100 percent renewable energy; regarding water as a precious resource; and respecting all people and natural systems.

Future Generations
The idea that buildings can be more than just “less bad” and instead do good is one that’s greatly impacted green builders’ thought processes, and led to a slew of honors for McDonough, including “Hero for the Planet” from Time magazine and the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development.

“If we look at money, currency is a fluid thing. And yet, what we’re talking about is transformation into values-based design,” McDonough said in an interview with Dwell. “In that context we express our values which are to grow capital, and the capital is currency with potential. And it’s really about having things for future generations, not just using everything up. Once you get the difference between currency and capital, your mind can change and you don’t cut down the tree to burn it for fuel and cause carbon, you look at the tree and celebrate it for its fruit and leave the rest for future generations.”

For more information about McDonough, visit www.mcdonough.com.