Q&A: The Future of Green Buildings

Architect William McDonough draws his green-building techniques from the world around him. Before attending architecture school at Yale, he worked on a redevelopment project in Jordan and observed the clever way the Bedouins' tents utilized natural materials to protect them from the elements. His most ambitious project, a redevelopment of the Ford Motors complex in Dearborn, Mich., incorporates a "living roof" that features nearly 11 acres of vegetation to purify storm water and provide natural air conditioning. NEWSWEEK's Fareed Zakaria spoke to him about energy efficiency in architecture, the future of environmental design and the possibility of eliminating all industrial waste from the planet. Excerpts:

Zakaria: How important is it to increase the energy efficiency of our buildings?
There's no question that energy efficiency in existing buildings and new buildings is one of the lowest-cost ways to save immense amounts of energy. Buildings account for about 40 percent of our energy consumption, and existing buildings will be the primary infrastructure for many years to come. So … it's a ripe place to be looking for energy savings. Cost-effective energy-reduction strategies could yield anywhere between 25 and 50 percent.

What are some of the key technologies that will do this?
A lot of this is common sense. For one thing, we want to stop heating, cooling and lighting ghosts [using] intelligent, wireless controls that can sense when people are present and when they're not. We're starting to see windows that have tremendous thermal properties. And then sealing up the houses, weather-stripping and insulation are very … effective.

You've created some revolutionary green buildings for companies such as Ford. Are these showcase pieces that only Fortune 500 companies can afford?
Our clients have commercial realities. If you look at the Ford plant, for example, that green roof saves Ford millions of dollars in storm-water management. It's an immensely practical exercise. The storm-water management [otherwise would have involved] $48 million of concrete pipes and chemical treatment plants. We did the whole thing for $13 million. And we created habitat. The killdeer [birds] started nesting there five days after the roof went down. And the same thing with our corporate campus for the Gap, where we did another green roof, which blocks all the noise from the airplanes flying overhead. These are practical solutions to real commercial problems.

In the United States, we have a preference for single-family houses, which are less efficient than urban centers. Is the future going to require greater population density?
I think we're going to see two things: one is that we're going to recognize that one size does not fit all and that this propensity we've had for everyone to be in a single-family house will probably shift. We'll have cities for younger people and elders who want more contact and convenience. There is a point in a family's life, when you're raising a couple of kids, [where] you might want to be in a place where they have grass to play on. But that doesn't mean that's the only offering we should be giving our citizens, and I think we will see greater celebration of density.

Tell me about your "Cradle to Cradle" concept. What does it mean??
Cradle to Cradle is a protocol I've developed with a German chemist, Michael Braungart. We characterize things as either being part of nature—biological nutrients—or being part of technology, which we call technical nutrients. We look at the world through these two lenses and we say, let the things that are designed to go back to soil, like textiles and clothing, be designed in order to be returned safely to soil, to restore it. But the cars and the computers … [should be] designed to go back into closed cycles for technology.

And the idea here is nothing gets wasted?
Exactly. The other questions we ask are: Is it powered by renewable energy? Does it have reverse logistics—do you have a way to get it back to soil or back to industry? Is the water clean? One of our first [Cradle to Cradle-certified] products was a textile for Steelcase corporation in Switzerland. The water coming out of the textile mill is as clean as the water going in, which is Swiss drinking water. Now when a textile mill has effluent that's clean enough to drink, you're entering the next industrial revolution. All of a sudden, there's nothing to fear from human production.

You say we need to move to renewable energy, and seem to focus on solar. Why?
Direct solar is distributed, it's generally available to most of the planet and it can be applied at the local level. I think about our highway system—phenomenal achievement, but also phenomenal opportunity, because we can [put up solar panels along] all the highways. We can solar-power the railroads. Amtrak can basically let out its airspace for solar collectors. It's already got infrastructure, it's already got power, it's already got distribution. It's an opportunity waiting to happen.

When Jimmy Carter was in the White House, he put solar panels on the roof of the White House. When Reagan came, he took them off. You'd put them back on?
I think that as an emblem and as a signal, it's probably a good thing to do. But I think that we ought to relax a little when we insist on modernizing historic buildings. I got a call from a college president who was saying they were going to renovate a building which he thought was very beautiful. It had high ceilings and tall windows, and they were going to put in aluminum fixed windows, drop the ceilings down to 10 feet from 15 to put in AC. It was going to cost $5 million to make the building energy-efficient. My response to him was: "Don't do it! You'll destroy the building! Go raise $1 million and put up a megawatt of wind power on a family farm in western Minnesota. Let that farmer … send his kids to college, and pay his mortgage, and you'll produce a megawatt of power, which is more than you'll need for your building."