Redefining Green: A New Definition of Quality Empowers the Next Wave of Design

By William McDonough & Michael Braungart, ©2002. Adapted from an article published in Perspective, Spring 2003.

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Inside a new, state-of-the-art building designed to meet the highest standards of energy efficiency—a building many would call environmentally intelligent or “green”—you might expect to be able to breathe clean air.

You’d be mistaken.

Clean, fresh indoor air is not a guaranteed by-product of green design. Indeed, a recent study in Germany found that air quality inside several highly rated energy-efficient buildings in downtown Hamburg was nearly four times worse than on the dirty, car-clogged street. For all the care taken to save energy by keeping out the elements with better insulation and leak-proof windows, no one considered the long-term effects of sealing in the chemically laden carpets, upholsteries, paints and adhesives used to finish the interiors.

The effects are hard to ignore. People spend 90 percent of their time indoors, and where buildings with reduced air-exchange rates are common, so are health problems. In Germany, where tax credits support the construction of energy efficient buildings, 47 percent of all 7-year old children are suffering from allergies, largely due to the poor quality of indoor air.

Your own office, if it’s in a typical commercial building, could be just as bad. That “new carpet smell” in the conference room? If your nose tells you there’s more to the lingering odor than the fragrance of the new, chances are you’re right. The installer, after all, wore a mask while gluing the carpet to the floor. He was thinking about the warnings on his bucket of adhesive: “Do Not Use In An Unventilated Area” and, in fine print, “This product contains a substance known to the State of California to cause reproductive effects.” Does your office window open?

If only it was just the carpet, just an unpleasant smell. But our research tells us that many of the materials interior designers are using today—even designers following LEED standards—contain problematic chemicals that contribute to poor air quality and the generally sad state of the indoor environment. In fact, only a precious few of the materials used in commercial building interiors are specifically designed with human health in mind. If the upholstery fabric isn’t abrading an allergen, the paint and the office furniture are off-gassing formaldehyde. If the carpet is said to be recyclable, it might be backed with PVC, a polymer built with a vinyl chloride monomer, a known carcinogen.

What’s an interior designer to do?

The Evolution of Green Design

First of all, don’t despair. A look at the brief history and the current landscape of green design can offer perspective, hope and an empowering strategy for the future—not just for clearing the air in commercial buildings but for rethinking the very foundations of design.

Design for the environment is a very new field. Architects, planners and government officials began to embrace energy efficiency in the wake of the OPEC oil embargo in the 1970s. Energy efficiency seemed like a positive goal, and within the context of the time, it was. No one imagined that sealing up drafty old buildings and designing new, airtight, energy efficient structures would lead to a dramatic increase in indoor air problems. But soon, anecdotal reports from the sickened occupants of commercial buildings began to pile up. Over a decade’s time they created a compelling case for re-examining everything about how we design buildings, inside and out.

Even so, when we began to address indoor air quality in the early 1980s, there was virtually no in-depth research on the problem. In the United States, we found only one company devoted primarily to the scientific investigation of indoor air. As it turned out, the consultancy’s work was apparently underwritten by a tobacco company and was designed in part to prove that second-hand smoke in the workplace presented no danger to public health. We felt pretty much all alone.

But step-by-step, material-by-material, we tried to examine everything in the designer’s palette that might be problematic. We explored volatile organic compounds, carcinogenic materials and anything else in the paints, wall coverings, carpetings, floorings and fixtures that might cause indoor air problems or multiple chemical sensitivity. With little or no research available, we turned to the manufacturers, who often told us the information was proprietary and gave us nothing beyond the vague safeguards in the material safety data sheets mandated by law. We did the best we could at the time. We used water-based paints. We tacked down carpet instead of gluing it. We provided thirty cubic feet per minute of fresh air per person instead of five. We had granite checked for radon. We used wood that was sustainably harvested. We tried to be less bad.

Over the next decade, we saw that our sometimes lonely efforts helped change the design playing field. We saw our clients grow more receptive to environmentally-intelligent design. We saw designers adopt a variety of strategies aimed at making architecture and industry less destructive. But we also saw that simply trying to be less bad—minimizing the impact of the things we make, using less energy and fewer materials, reducing waste, limiting the amount of toxic chemicals released into the air, water and soil—fell far short of a truly hopeful, truly transforming strategy of change.

From Green Design to Good Design: The Science of Product Quality

Today, being “less bad” continues to be the strategy of choice for many environmentalists and green designers. As we have seen with energy efficient buildings, such an approach, as much as it is based on good intentions, can create a whole range of deleterious effects. And because “less bad” strategies tend to define the world by what we cannot do, they can stifle inspiration and creativity.

This is not to gainsay efficiency. The efficient use of energy and materials can be a valuable part of a broad strategy of change and it can help slow down and turn around the current industrial system. But as long as the system itself is flawed, attempting only to mitigate its negative effects is a fatally limited goal—and a dispiriting one as well.

How about an entirely different model? Why not shift the focus of green design from managing the environmental impact of a destructive system to creating buildings and materials that generate wholly positive effects for people and nature. This changes the entire context in which design decisions are made. Rather than asking, “How do I meet today’s environmental standards?” designers would begin to ask, “How do my design decisions make sense in the overarching context of the natural world?” Ironically, this focus on the earth takes the green out of green design, for following the laws of nature is simply the path to good, high-quality design.

Here’s why. In the natural world, the processes of each organism in a living system contribute to the health of the whole. One organism’s waste is food for another and nutrients and energy flow perpetually in closed-loop cycles of growth, decay and rebirth. Understanding these regenerative qualities empowers us to recognize that all the materials we use as designers—even highly technical, synthetic materials—can also be seen as nutrients. Just as nitrogen, water, and simple sugars nourish new growth as they circulate in nature, so too can our materials regenerate natural and human systems. Textiles for draperies, wall coverings and upholstery fabrics can be designed as biological nutrients, which naturally biodegrade and restore the soil after use, while technical nutrients, such as nylon carpet fiber, can provide high-quality resources for generation after generation of safe, synthetic products.

These are far more than whimsical notions. The laws of nature are the bedrock of good design. And they inform a cohesive set of science-based design practices, which we call Cradle to Cradle DesignTM, that is already redefining product quality for architects and interior designers worldwide.

Material chemistry is the key indicator of quality in this new context. We’ve seen the results of leaving the ingredients of architectural materials largely undefined. But by following a rigorous scientific protocol, thorough assessments of product chemistry root out toxic or problematic ingredients and discover safe, healthful alternatives. The result: a new palette of materials that nourishes rather than depletes the world.

We believe that this new conception of design can be an empowering force. Designers and their clients need not do the science—that’s what we do through our consultancies MBDC and EPEA. Yet by shifting fully into an understanding of design as an expression of intelligence with nature, and by tapping into good scientific support, designers can begin to lay a principled foundation for creating beautiful, healthful, delightful places for people to inhabit. Quality in this context is not measured by a cost-benefit analysis, a benchmark derived from regulations or a simple bottom line standard; quality becomes a measure of how well a design supports, enhances and celebrates the health and well being of people and nature. Whether or not you call it green, this is good design.

Principles, Power and the Marketplace

The story of Shaw Industries’ quest for the perfect commercial carpet tile provides a good example of how principled, science-based design actually works and how it can empower effective innovation.

Several years ago, Steve Bradfield, Shaw’s Environmental Development VP, turned his considerable energy toward developing a modular floor covering that personified the best of sustainable design. Bradfield had a strong sense of what he wanted his product to be—an infinitely recyclable, completely healthful carpet tile—but he didn’t know quite how to get there.

Carpet is made from two primary elements, a face fiber and a backing. Nylon 6, a face fiber, has a demonstrated ability to be easily depolymerized into its raw material, caprolactam, which can be used again and again to make high quality carpet fiber. The alternative, nylon 6,6 does not. And while the industry typically tries to get high marks for recycling carpet, no one had a backing optimized for environmental and human health. As far as backing is concerned, PVC has dominated the industry for 30 years.

Bradfield saw the industry landscape this way: “At Shaw, we knew the carpet industry had a long way to go before it could call itself a sustainable. We also had an instinctive understanding of the difference between being ‘good’ and being ‘less bad’. But we lacked the framework that could bring our path and our destination into clear focus.”

Shaw’s vision crystallized when Bradfield began to apply cradle-to-cradle principles to the company’s product development process. Now, working with MBDC, Shaw is doing a “deep dive” into the material chemistry of carpet fiber and backing. Dyes, pigments, finishes, auxiliaries—everything that goes into carpet—is being scientifically assessed. This may sound like a simple process, but there are more than 50 chemicals in carpet backing alone and we have to look at every one.

ShawEcoWorxOut of this rigorous process has come the promise of a fully optimized carpet tile, a true technical nutrient. The fiber is branded Nylon 6 from Shaw Fiber, a division of Shaw Industries, or from Honeywell/BASF. Both fibers can be separated from the backing after use and will be returned to Honeywell/BASF for chemical recycling into new carpet yarn. The backing is a safe, polyolefin-based system, which Shaw guarantees it will take back and recycle into new backing. In effect, the new carpet tile eliminates the very concept of waste. Given the hundreds of millions of pounds of carpet fiber and backing that each year do not get recycled (they are sent to landfills or incinerated) or get recycled into products of lesser value, the significance of this technical nutrient on the carpet market is huge.

What’s a Designer to Do, Redux

There’s a lot designers can learn from Steve Bradfield and Shaw Industries. Bradfield is showing how a single individual, powered by principles, can have influence beyond measure in his field. Shaw is showing how an inspired firm can forge a singular place for itself in the market and move design for the environment into the mainstream.

Interior design firms large and small can do the same. It’s industry’s job to provide the safe, healthful materials that allow designers to engage in ecologically intelligent design. But designers can energize industry, and empower themselves, in a variety ways. Here are a few:

  • Specify, specify, specify. Designers can support the market for intelligent materials by specifying them. Specify DesignTex, Climatex Lifecycle and Victor Innovatex fabrics. Specify Shaw carpets. Specify Herman Miller furniture. Increasingly, the products are out there. Find them and use them.
  • When you can’t find them, tell suppliers what you need. Demand the best. Just as industries can pool materials, designers can pool purchasing power. Drive the market.
  • Get training. As we’ve said, designers don’t need to be scientists. But understanding the new context of design decision-making is the key to empowerment. Join MBDC at ED7 in Washington, D.C. on April 30 for an introduction to Cradle-to-Cradle Design.
  • Get support. Interior designers are supposed to be figuring out what shade of blue to use in the conference room, not what is blue made of. That’s our job. Getting access to scientific expertise and the latest tools of design chemistry can give you the freedom to practice your craft with confidence in the products you choose.

We have only begun to suggest how designers can tap into material chemistry and the laws of nature to build a new context for design. There is, of course, much work to do. What is clear to us, though, is that these ideas—materials as nutrients, chemistry applied to creating life-support systems, design as a celebration of our positive role in the natural world—represent a powerful strategy of hope. When applied throughout the design process they entwine rigorous science with positive aspirations, yielding designs that take us beyond mere sustainability toward a truly sustaining partnership between humanity and the natural world. We can’t imagine a more empowering design strategy.