Ecology, Ethics, and the Making of Things: A World-Renowned Architect Argues That Following the Law of Nature Can Make Human Industry Safe and Healthful

By McDonough, William | Sojourners Magazine, May 2005 | Go to article overview

Ecology, Ethics, and the Making of Things: A World-Renowned Architect Argues That Following the Law of Nature Can Make Human Industry Safe and Healthful


McDonough, William, Sojourners Magazine


When architectural historian Vincent Scully gave a eulogy for the great architect Louis Kahn, he describe a day when both were crossing Red Square, whereupon Scully excitedly turned to Kahn and said, "Isn't it wonderful the the domes of St. Basil's Cathedral reach up into the sky?" Kahn looked up and thoughtfully for a moment and said, "Isn't it beautiful the way they come down to the ground?"

If we understand at design leads to the manifestation of human intention, and if what we make with our hands is to be sacred and honor the earth that gives us life, then the things we make must not only rise from the ground but return to it, soil to soil, water to water, so everything that is received from the earth can be freely given back without causing harm to any living system. This is ecology. This is good design.

We can use certain fundamental laws inherent to the natural world as models and mentors for human designs. Ecology comes from the Greek roots oikos and logos, "household" and "logical discourse." Thus it is appropriate, if not imperative, for architects to discourse about the logic of our earth household. To do so, we must first look at our planet and the very processes by which it manifests life, because therein lie the logical principles with which we must work. And we must also consider economy in the true sense of the word. Using the Greek words oikos and nomos, we speak of natural law and how we measure and manage the relationships within this household, working with the principles our discourse has revealed to us.

There are three defining characteristics that we can learn from natural design. The first is that all materials given to us by nature are constantly returned to the earth without even the concept of waste as we understand it. Everything is cycled constantly with all waste equaling food for other living systems.

The second characteristic is that the one thing allowing nature to continually cycle itself through life is energy, and this energy comes from outside the system in the form of perpetual solar income. Not only does nature operate on "current income," it does not mine or extract energy from the past, it does not use its capital reserves, and it does not borrow from the future.

Finally, the characteristic that sustains this complex and efficient system of metabolism and creation is biodiversity. What prevents living systems from running down and veering into chaos is a miraculously intricate and symbiotic relationship between millions of organisms, no two of which are alike.

As a designer of buildings, things, and systems, I ask myself how to apply these three characteristics of living systems to my work. How do I employ the concept of waste equals food, of current solar income, of protecting biodiversity in design?

MY COLLEAGUE Michael Braungart, an ecological chemist from Hamburg, Germany, has pointed out that we should remove the word "waste" from our vocabulary and start using the word "product" instead, because if waste is going to equal food, it must also be a product. Braungart suggests we think about three distinct product types:

First, there are consumables. We should be producing more of them. These are products that when eaten or used, or thrown away, literally turn back into dirt and therefore are food for other living organisms. Consumables should not be placed in landfills but put on the ground so that they restore the life, health, and fertility of the soil. This means shampoo bottles made of beets that are biodegradable in your compost pile and carpets that break down into and water.

Second are products of service, also known as durables, such as cars and television sets. They are called products of service because what people want is the service the product provides--food, entertainment, or transportation. …

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