Construction Corner: Let’s change how we think about buildings

0 128 Technology

by Korky Koroluk

It was about a dozen years ago that a consultant friend was telling me, with real excitement in his voice, about what was then a new book by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.
Construction Corner: Let’s change how we think about buildings
Photo: Korky Koroluk

It was called Cradle to Cradle, and the concept was then brand new. I'd never even heard of it, but on my friend's recommendation, I bought a copy. As I read it, I felt the same excitement I'd heard in my friend's voice.

The book's subtitle is Remaking the Way We Make Things, and that pretty well sums up what's inside.

McDonough, an American architect, is a cross-disciplinary thinker with a gift for making the obscure obvious. Braungart, his collaborator, is a German industrial chemist who operates on the same wavelength.

Then, about two years ago, the pair was back with a second book: The Upcycle: Beyond Sustainability —Designing for Abundance, and it picked up where Cradle to Cradle left off.

The first book enunciated a radically different environmental ethic. Instead of the "reduce, reuse, recycle" mantra we had heard for years, the author showed how that approach perpetuates a one-way cradle to grave manufacturing model that dates back to the Industrial Revolution, and casts aside as much as 90 per cent of materials used as waste, and much of that is toxic.

Why not, the authors asked, challenge the idea that human activity must inevitably damage the natural world.

Why not take nature itself as our model?

In the interval between the books, McDonough and Braungart, did a number of imaginative projects that serve as statements of principle, including "Sustainability Base," built for NASA in Silicon Valley.

The building brings their vision to life, infusing objects with colour using reflected-light polymers, rather than (sometimes poisonous) dyes. It provides plants in the building with the specific light they need using solar-powered LEDs. Oriented to take advantage of the sun's arc and prevailing winds from San Francisco Bay, the building is highly "intelligent, optimizing performance automatically in response to changes in sunlight, temperature, wind and occupancy.

It is, NASA says, unlike any building ever created.

It uses innovations originally engineered for space travel and exploration.

The building houses offices and research facilities, and acts as a testbed for NASA's new technologies that can be applied to improve building performance in general.

McDonough seems to go from strength to strength, often with two or more projects under way at the same time. His latest is a garden factory, in India, which seems to bring together everything he's been writing and practicing.

It's a motorcycle factory built for Hero Motocorp, which is one of world's largest motorcycle manufacturers.

The building demonstrates what McDonough called octa-generation, which means it captures or generates eight things: electrical energy, heating, cooling, water from the air, carbon dioxide for rooftop greenhouses, food, jobs on the roof, and excellent air quality for people working in the building.

It combines a 1.5-megawatt solar system, extensive daylighting, a green roof and rooftop greenhouses.

An interior bio-wall of vegetation filters indoor air.

It's been awarded LEED Platinum status, and it's just the first such facility of many that Metro Motocorp plans for India. McDonough and Braungart are seminal thinkers, and they're changing the way we think of buildings, how we design them and how we build them.

Their books synthesize their thinking, and I suspect that a third volume might be coming along in another few years as their thinking evolves.

For now, though, if you know someone with a keen interest in the environment and the way buildings are built and what materials are used, these two books would make a handsome Christmas gift.

Korky Koroluk is a regular freelance contributor to the Journal of Commerce. Send comments or questions to

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