Building for a Better World and Making People Smile

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In 2004, American architect and sustainability pioneer William McDonough met the Dutch developer Coert Zachariasse of Delta Development. Together, they brought forth Park 20|20, the first Cradle to Cradle®-inspired development in the world, located outside of Amsterdam. Cradle to Cradle posits that mankind can have a positive, restorative, beneficial impact on the environment—that we can strive for something better than just reaching “zero.” Newsweek asked McDonough and Zachariasse to discuss the Park 20/20 project, and why it might be seen as a model for similar environmental design all over the world.

Coert Zachariasse (CZ): Bill, as a designer, why is a Cradle to Cradle vision important to you?

William McDonough (WM): Design is the first signal of human intention. This concept makes us ask questions: Are we intentionally designing buildings, products, and systems that put billions of pounds of hazardous material in the soil, the air, and the water every year? Why would anybody do that on purpose? And yet, that’s what we have. Would we intentionally use forms of energy that have the potential to cause immense destruction to planetary systems and economies? Would we do things that aren’t fair to people?

Instead of looking at a world of limits, and simply asking the question of modern commerce—How much can we get for as little as we give?—we propose a shift in thinking toward a world of abundance and generosity. Then, instead, we can ask a different question: How much can we give for all that we get?

We have to design what’s next into what’s now.

We have known since we saw that image of the Earth photographed by NASA from space back in 1968 that we inhabit a finite planet. The concept of throwing things “away” has, in effect, itself gone away. There is no such thing as “away” anymore. I was in my college years at that time, and as I began my architecture career in the late 1970s, I was already—and still—thinking about that condition. Developing the Cradle to Cradle framework for design and the protocol for the certification program grew out of my design work and thinking in the 1980s and 1990s, including developing The Hannover Principles in 1992. Those still hold, and they come from putting values first. So, what do we value? How do we love all the children of all species for all time? For me, that is the first question of design.

When I met Coert, he was a prominent real estate developer in the Netherlands. He told me about how my architecture had inspired him, as well as the book Cradle to Cradle, which I wrote with Dr. Michael Braungart. He said, “I have good intentions. Could we integrate those into real estate projects?” Yes, of course, I told him.

CZ: Bill’s right. I immediately connected with his idea that values and principles have to be the starting point. Our first principle is to put the person’s well-being at the center of the project. The building industry has really changed in the last several decades to the point where square footage seems to drive everything. But Bill’s vision inspired me to think differently. Park 20|20 became the opportunity to bring this all together and, as Bill would say, “render it visible.”

WM: Coert immediately understood the idea of continuous improvement and how we are seeking to create “more good,” not do “less bad.” He saw how he could do this at the building and development scale—and maybe change the world a bit, too.

CZ: Many people point to the successes of the development, and we are proud of the buildings that are complete and how delightful their occupants find them. But we recognize that we are at the beginning of a journey.

Part of the journey is showing business as an engine for change. The real estate and financial crisis has been going on since virtually the start of the project, and even in that context, Park 20|20 has been wildly successful—bringing in rents more than 80 percent above market average. We’ve done about 40 percent better than we anticipated, and I believe it’s because we’ve approached things from an ambitious vision of what the world should be like.

WM: Coert is integrating something special here. When we sit down to do a master plan for a large real estate development, we like to think big. What about buildings that restore biodiversity? Why not set the goal at 100 percent renewable power? Or even more, and share the excess energy with other buildings. Coert is showing that you can think that way and thrive in a challenging market. That is the strongest signal of all that this agenda has value.

CZ: Here’s an example: Using Cradle to Cradle thinking, what if our buildings could be conceived of as material banks? Conventional processes leave us with liabilities and demolition costs, whereas we see opportunities for buildings to have positive value at the end of their current use cycle. This also makes them easier to finance and they have lower depreciation. They are also more flexible and adaptable during their use cycle. That is the real value proposition that we have added. This is a game-changer in our industry.

Not only that, we are seeing increases in productivity that have tremendous value for the users. At a typical office building at Park 20|20 there is a multiplier of about 20 to 25 times the cost of the building itself in terms of labor. If we can show that our building would lead to one percent less sick leave because of its healthy interior, designed with human well-being at the forefront, that building could be up to 25 percent more expensive than a conventional facility.

WM: I’m proud that the building industry has been leading the movement. The U.S. Green Building Council has been at this for years; their LEED building rating system transformed the market dramatically. There is a tremendous community of goodwill and of people trying to help each other design for what’s next. I first felt this while I was a graduate student at Yale, and I designed and built the first solar house in Ireland. I got help from NASA at the time.

Park 20|20 is preeminent in the world as an office development full of materials that all have these amazing stories about the future of prosperity built into what’s there now. It’s a positive version of planned obsolescence. Things can be returned to the supply chain, re-optimized, and jobs are created. Why can’t a business have a higher purpose and make money? I believe that it’s only the engine of commerce that is strong and big enough to lead the way to these positive futures.

CZ: I’ve been a developer for more than 20 years. It’s system that is essentially based on mistrust and misuse of power. Margins are whittled down to virtually nothing during this race to the bottom to secure the contract. So we set out to work with contractors and manufacturers to integrate the supply chain with our values and principles in mind. This has really set people free from the traditional tendering and procurement process, and it’s been such a big part of the vibe both within our company Delta, but also within the supply chain, and we’ve been actually having a lot of fun along the way. It’s creating a positive vibe and atmosphere around the project which leads in the end to a passion and a much better product. The fact that we’ve done this and made money with it has made a significant impact in the Dutch building industry and beyond. One of the most exciting things, as the development comes together, is that the Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS) at Arizona State University (ASU) is helping us study the results.

WM: I’m on the board of the Global Institute of Sustainability that Coert mentions. Arizona State University’s work around supply chains is large scale and quite phenomenal, and we are delighted that they are now in collaboration with Delta to study the metrics at Park 20|20.

CZ: They are helping us to ask what things make buildings more healthy and more productive.

WM: Getting the data is critical. As engineers might say, “In God we trust, all others bring data.” That’s the gift Coert has given the marketplace and it’s really beautiful that ASU’s GIOS, which could’ve gone anywhere in the world to do this, chose him and his project.

CZ: And as we can now show that these buildings are more productive, we are strengthening the business case for quality. We are talking about a great economic multiplier for the tenants of the buildings: These companies spend far more on people than facilities. And once we can demonstrate those productivity benefits with scientific research, we move into a realm of continuous learning, evaluating, and improvement of these environments for people … and greater and greater value for the companies that employ them.

WM: What Coert is doing goes beyond creating an amazing workplace community: He is sending a signal to the industry and the public about how we value quality and beauty.

When Coert talks about quality, he is using that term in a very inclusive, holistic way. He has always been supportive of asking: “How can we make it more beautiful? How can we make it more healthy? How can we make it more effective through the use of clean energy?” It’s always about better, better, better. And it’s much more fun.

CZ:  Numbers are important, but what makes people happy? That matters, too. We are careful with our buildings so that they are designed to make people smile. You can put some money into a higher quality glass for a little benefit as opposed to, say, a green wall with 100 different plants where people stand in awe of it and make photos with their phones, I know where I’d put my money.

William McDonough is a globally recognized designer, thought leader, and sustainable growth pioneer. For more than 40 years, he has defined the principles of the sustainability movement through his companies: McDonough Innovation, William McDonough + Partners, and MBDC. He has created many seminal buildings (including those at Park 20|20 and NASA Sustainability Base), products, and texts. This year, he spoke at the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Working Group and at the World Economic Forum (WEF). He is serving as Chair of the WEF’s Global Agenda Council on the Circular Economy. William McDonough created The Hannover Principles: Design for Sustainability (1992) and co-authored  Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (2002) and The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability—Designing for Abundance (2013). Cradle to Cradle is a registered trademark of MBDC. The Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Products Program is now administered by the non-profit Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.

Economist Dr. Coert Zachariasse is a real estate developer and CEO/owner/director of Delta Development Group. Park 20|20, outside of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, is slated to be complete in 2017; seven new office buildings are now complete or under way, including offices for FIFPro and a new headquarters for Plantronics. Zachariasse was named “the most influential person in the sustainable construction and real estate in the Netherlands” during this year’s Dutch Green Building Week / Sustainable 50 EN Realty, organized by the Dutch Green Building Council, Sustainable Knowledge, PropertyNL and the Green Business Club. He was also named by Fortune magazine as one of the top world’s top 25 eco-innovators.

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