Architect William McDonough – Climate Change is a Design Project Needing Lots of Attention
William McDonough + Partners’ Apex Plaza will be the tallest timber building on America’s eastern seaboard. Image courtesy of William McDonough + Partners
Removing excess carbon from the atmosphere is a daunting but “very exciting” design challenge, according to sustainable-design guru William McDonough.
Describing climate change as a “design failure,” the American architect and designer said that solving it will involve “hundreds of technologies and systems.”
“It’s a design project needing lots of attention,” McDonough told Dezeen via a video call from his home in Virginia. “It’s very exciting to look at how many ways we can do this, but it’s daunting”.
The root of the problem is what McDonough describes as “fugitive carbon”. This is anthropogenic carbon in the atmosphere that “meets the description of a toxin: it’s the wrong material, wrong place, wrong dose, wrong duration.”
The educator and writer, whose seminal 2002 book Cradle to Cradle is regarded as the precursor to the circular design movement, turned his attention to carbon in 2016 when he wrote a ground-breaking article for the science journal Nature.
“Climate change is the result of breakdowns in the carbon cycle caused by us,” he wrote in the article, which was echoed in a speech given around the same time at the COP22 climate-change conference in Marrakech. “It is a design failure.”
Carbon is “an innocent element in all this”
He further set out his thinking in a blog post that called for “a new language for carbon“. This categorized carbon into three categories.
“Living carbon” moves through all living things in an endless cycle that makes life possible.
“Durable carbon” describes the earth’s carbon stores, including fossil reserves, limestone and long-lasting materials such as timber and recyclable polymers.
“Fugitive carbon” is carbon that mankind has taken from the first two categories and put into the atmosphere. The twin design challenges are to stop creating more of it while bringing the rest of it back to earth.
“The point I wanted to make there was that we had started referring to carbon as the enemy,” he explained. “It’s an innocent element in all this. I thought we needed a new language.”
“We are probably going to have to electrify everything”
Creating this new taxonomy allowed McDonough to start seeing atmospheric carbon as a design problem that could be solved.
“I see encouraging living carbon as positive behavior; doing carbon-neutral things as neutral behavior; and releasing carbon where it doesn’t as negative behavior,” he explained. “I tried to get the language straight enough so I can design with it.”
One part of the solution is to simply “stop burning… let’s not use the word fossil fuels,” he said. “Because it means we intend to burn it.”
Switching from fossil energy will involve “massive efficiency and massive adoption of renewables. We are probably going to have to electrify everything.”
Hydrogen could be used for heavier uses such as long-distance trucking and heavy industry, he said. Carbon-free ammonia, which has a higher energy density than hydrogen and is less volatile, could power shipping.
Humanity will need to adopt principles of circularity
To stop climate change, humanity will have to adapt the principles of circularity in order to capture fugitive carbon. McDonough describes the goal as the “circular carbon economy”.
This will involve “moving toward recyclates,” McDonough said, referring to materials that are capable of being recycled many times. “There’s going to be a big move to do chemical recycling of plastics to get them back to oil basically and start over. Plastics are an immensely useful thing, but not if they go fugitive.”
Biomaterials such as agricultural byproducts, bacteria and mycelium have huge potential too since they store large amounts of carbon.
The ultimate biomaterial is, of course, wood.
“I think it’s fundamental and it’s hugely important,” he said. “It’s critical because we need living wood in order to sequester carbon from the atmosphere. We need nature-based solutions to carbon in the atmosphere. And trees play a huge role in that.”
Mass-timber buildings are “coming very fast”
The use of timber as a construction material is “coming very fast,” he said, with cross-laminated timber, in particular, allowing architects to build high-performance mass-timber buildings, including tall structures.
William McDonough + Partners’ Apex Plaza headquarters for Apex Clean Energy, under construction in Charlottesville, will be the tallest timber building on America’s eastern seaboard when it completes later this year.
The eight-story CLT structure will have “a total potential carbon benefit of approximately 3,000 metric tons compared to traditional approaches,” according to William McDonough + Partners’ website.
Wood “holds up very well in fire too,” he explains. “Some people are surprised by that but wood will char before steel fails. High temperatures can take steel down long before a wood structure.”