Principles, Practices and Sustainable Design (2003)

Toward a New Context for Building Codes

By William McDonough



Codes of conduct are essential to the practice of architecture. Whether they regulate building performance, prescribe the specific stylistic desires of a community, or voluntarily answer public outcries for environmental protection, codes institutionalize a wide spectrum of social feedback on the impact of design on buildings, landscapes and culture. This is no small matter for a profession that operates so visibly in the public realm.

Yet, when we look specifically at the codes of conduct for making buildings—and more specifically at how we use materials and energy—we often see that “meeting code” is almost always an exercise in fulfilling minimum expectations. Even codes written to address environmental and public health issues are typically designed to limit the negative impacts of architecture rather than to encourage innovations that generate positive, socially beneficial effects. As such—as reactive, regulation-driven standards developed by industry consensus—building codes can become a rather meager measure of quality. When one meets code, one has met the lowest acceptable standard for building performance.

This is especially troubling when one considers the context of today’s building codes. Contemporary architecture, on a grand scale, is depleting the earth’s assets and turning them into liabilities. It’s well known, for example, that the waste flows generated by the construction and maintenance of new buildings rival those of the entire manufacturing sector of the global economy. We know, too, that many of the materials used in today’s buildings are harmful to human health and that conventional building designs can wreak havoc on local ecology. In this context, is meeting conventional codes enough? Are low standards of any kind acceptable?

Few architects would say yes. Indeed, many are adopting voluntary codes and practices that support more sustainable methods of harvesting, transporting and using energy and materials. Some are creating energy efficient designs that use less fuel to heat and cool buildings. Others are using new, lightweight materials or retrofitting old buildings to minimize resource consumption. And these voluntary efforts are being codified by organizations such as the U.S. Green Building Council, whose Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standards signal that building codes can indeed evolve in response to new conditions.

Building codes cannot, however, create a new design paradigm. And that is precisely what is needed in the world of architecture today. While emerging “green” codes have created considerable improvements in the environmental performance of new buildings, they are still the product of a consensus-based exercise largely focused on trying to be “less bad,” on minimizing the impact of the old industrial system by making it more efficient. This yields both low standards and flawed designs.

Consider commercial carpet codes. Seeking to stake out a sustainable business position, the commercial carpet industry is lobbying to make recycled content its only regulation metric. By keeping a quantifiable percentage of materials out of landfills and incinerators, the industry wants to meet code by limiting the impact of the current industrial system. But codifying recycling has no inherent value unless we can determine that what we are recycling is safe, valuable and socially beneficial—in other words, unless we understand the context of recycling. Simply recycling carpets to meet an arbitrary green code, for example, overlooks the quality, content and potential hazards of carpet materials.

This is a potentially egregious oversight. Most recycled carpet materials contain high levels of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which can contain plasticizers and toxic heavy metals such as cadmium and lead. Plasticizers are suspected of disrupting human endocrine systems; cadmium is known to be carcinogenic, and lead is a neurotoxin. Do we really want to use these materials in carpets in the first place? Does recycling a percentage of them offer a meaningful benchmark or serve a larger purpose? Does it inspire a high standard of quality? Clearly, if recycled content becomes the accepted sustainability standard for the carpet industry, we are perpetuating both poor design and a dangerous system.

What is needed instead is a new operating system for architecture, a positive, principled approach to sustainable design in which building codes are seen not as the highest level to which designers can aspire but as consistent guidelines that serve a much larger purpose. That larger purpose is life itself.

Just over a decade ago, my colleague Michael Braungart and I developed The Hannover Principles to provide the framework for ethical activity within this new, life-supporting paradigm (see sidebar). The Principles see architecture within the overarching context of the natural world. They “insist on the right of humanity and nature to co-exist in a healthy, supportive, diverse and sustainable condition.” They point to natural systems as a model for human designs that generate productivity, benefit from natural energy flows, and eliminate the very concept of waste. In short, the Principles reframe and resolve apparent conflicts between economic prosperity, human health and the well being of the environment, providing a new context in which architects can aspire to support and celebrate life.

The Principles themselves are not a building code. When we say, “rely on natural energy flows” we are not saying to use a certain percentage of solar or wind power. When we say that design can approach the state of natural systems and eliminate the concept of waste, we are not suggesting that architects should measure material reductions. Instead, the Principles establish a lens through which to fundamentally re-imagine building design in a positive, principled framework. They suggest that it is possible to design buildings that are commercially productive, socially beneficial and ecologically intelligent.

Imagine, for example, buildings that make oxygen, sequester carbon, fix nitrogen, distill water, create habitat for thousands of species, accrue solar energy as fuel, build soil, provide fresh air and sunlight to their inhabitants, create community, generate productivity, change with the seasons and are beautiful—all cost-effectively. Working within the framework of the Principles, architects at William McDonough + Partners are already designing buildings such as these. In doing so, they are developing practices within an open system of inquiry that generates creatively interactive and beneficial relationships between each building and its place.

A building code alone could not do this; alone, a code might even discourage deep inquiry or creative innovation. But nested in a principled context, evolving codes can serve a larger vision.

Indeed, in the world of building codes, context is all.




  1. Insist on the right of humanity and nature to co-exist in a healthy, supportive, diverse and sustainable condition.
  1. Recognize interdependence. The elements of human design interact with and depend upon the natural world, with broad and diverse implications at every scale. Expand design considerations to recognize even distant effects.
  1. Respect relationships between spirit and matter. Consider all aspects of human settlement, including community, dwelling, industry and trade, in terms of existing and evolving connections between spiritual and material consciousness.
  1. Accept responsibility for the consequences of design decisions upon human well-being, the viability of natural systems and their right to co-exist.
  1. Create safe objects of long-term value. Do not burden future generations with requirements for maintenance or vigilant administration of potential dangers due to the careless creation of products, processes or standards.
  1. Eliminate the concept of waste. Evaluate and optimize the full life cycle of products and processes to approach the state of natural systems, in which there is no waste.
  1. Rely on natural energy flows. Human designs should, like the living world, derive their creative force from perpetual solar income. Incorporate this energy efficiently and safely for responsible use.
  1. Understand the limitations of design. No human creation lasts forever, and design does not solve all problems. Those who create and plan should practice humility in the face of nature. Treat nature as a model and mentor, not as an inconvenience to be evaded or controlled.
  1. Seek constant improvement by the sharing of knowledge. Encourage direct and open communication between colleagues, patrons, manufacturers and users to link long-term sustainable considerations with ethical responsibility and to reestablish the integral relationship between natural processes and human activity.

The Hannover Principles should be seen as a living document committed to transformation and growth in the understanding of our interdependence with nature so that they may be adapted as our knowledge of the world evolves.


Principles, Practices and Sustainable Design © 2003 William McDonough

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