Connecting Kitchen Design Ideas and Food: An Interview with Architect Michael McDonough

TH: At TreeHugger, one of the things we say over and over again, is that the way things are designed really makes a difference, and that truly sustainable design is best executed when everything is considered together, as a system. What obstacles are there?

MM: The recalcitrance of the American building industry. To see the fundamental problem that hasn't been solved, just look at the numbers to underline how much it hasn't been solved: since the year 2000, the average kilowatt per square foot use in buildings in North America has gone up, not down. In the past 30 years, during the advent of the green building movement, we've achieved somewhere between five and six percent of the market. That's up for some discussion, depending on what your definition of "green" is; some people think it's green if you make it from recycled materials, others think it's green to build with straw, still others think it's just energy savings, whatever. Let's be generous and just say five percent of the market is green buildings. Like any industry on the planet and you say, "We've been at this, and it's absolutely critical to our survival as a species, and after 30 years, we have five percent of the market. Let's pat ourselves on the back and say how great we are at this." Wrong. It's a miserable failure.

The reason is that it's a poor fit with the prevailing economic model that drives the construction industry, and that's a problem that we haven't solved yet. The American building industry is enormously efficient at building buildings. We build them at about half the price that they do in Europe, and we build them about twice as fast. So kudos to us for efficiency.

The problems are that they aren't very durable, they aren't very energy efficient, and they're not very good when it comes to our health and well-being; that is, they have a lot of indoor air pollution issues. The prevailing economic model said, for a long time, "Who cares? It's a 10 year, 20 year, or 30 year depreciation rate on the mortgage, and what the heck? If the building falls down after 10 years, who really cares? We got our value out of it."

In a lot of other places -- in Europe, in Asia, in Japan, for example, but, particularly in Europe -- there is a top-down strategy for dealing with building law, and, it basically says you have to build an energy-efficient building, and it has to provide certain amenities in terms of light, fresh air, and so forth, and they're human rights and collective responsibilities and you have to do it this way. I've done some work in Germany, and they basically look at a 50 year durability cycle in their buildings.


Living Green with Michael McDonough: Part 2 in Kitchen Inspirations

In the U.S., in many jurisdictions, there's no guarantee whatsoever, and if there is, it's 12 months. So, you're looking at a country that has zero to 12 month guarantees on many of the systems that go in to the buildings and on the buildings themselves, as opposed to 50 years or greater in other industrialized countries. So, we basically have a disposable building industry.

When you look at the economics underlying that, the idea is that price drives everything, there's no particular broadly based set of subsidies to encourage a developer to look at alternative models. In the absence of economic incentives, to look at alternative models for doing business, they look at the existing paradigm for doing business, and the existing paradigm says do it fast and do it cheap. There's a saying in the construction industry: Good. Cheap. Fast. Pick two. Generally speaking, they pick cheap, and fast.


Photo credit: Concrete Forms via Flickr/Creative Commons

And, they're not fools. There are economic realities underlying that. When you learn how to do something, and you train your people to do it, and your supply chain is set up to do it, and your sales and marketing people, and your whole organization, from top to bottom, is completely integrated in producing this one product properly, relative to the prevailing model, if you disrupt that, in any way, shape or form, it can be catastrophic for your enterprise.

If you come on and introduce a new material or a new technology and the people building your buildings don't understand it, they may refuse to do it, or may do it wrong or in such a way that it has to be torn out. The subcontractor doing it may simply triple the price, since he doesn't know to do it, to convince you to do it the other way. Multiply that mindset, all the way through the industry, and you'll find that there are about five percent -- companies, architects, developers -- who are willing to take a chance.

By and large, they're rewarded, when they take a chance: the U.S. Green Building Council reported -- and I'm speaking from memory -- that LEED-certified units sell something like 30 percent faster at an 11 percent price premium. So you tell that to the developer, and he says, "Well, I don't believe the data. Maybe yes, maybe no." And that's the end of that.

The USGBC just brought that data online, and it's increasingly a persuasive argument. But, it's not 100 percent persuasive. People consider change to be risk, and, in business, risk is a bad thing, for the most part. It certainly is in the building industry, which is a cyclical industry. That means that every seven to 10 years, the industry is basically going to go into a downcycle, in which a large percentage of all builders are going to go bankrupt. So, if they can buy the land, if they can get the financing, if they can train their people, if they have a management team in place, on and on and on, then they only have five to seven years to make money, and then they may go in to a prolonged downcycle that's three to seven years long, like we're in now, for example. So, the builder is say, "I gotta build fast. There's no stability in my industry. By it's nature, it's a cyclical industry, so I'm averse to risk."

How do we fix that? Change the building codes. The building codes dictate the worst building you can possibly create without going to jail, so we try to make better building codes. So, that's the stick, right? Build this building better, or else you go to jail.

The carrot is economic incentives: "Hey builder, I'll give you a 50 percent subsidy, a 60 percent subsidy on green energy. If you consider geothermal, we'll give you a significant tax incentive." And then there's the capitalism-based approach which says, "It's more marketable" -- that's the USGBC saying they sell 30 percent faster at an 11 percent premium. All of those things would help persuade people in the industry to get beyond the five percent market share we're at now. In the absence of leadership in our state government and our federal government, it's an uphill battle.

I try all of those things. I say it's a better building, it's more durable, there's a better shot at marketing it, some of the systems are superior to what you might otherwise use for the same or lower price, but it does take a motivated client.

Keep reading to learn more about the connection between Michael Pollan and Michael McDonough, and how food and design work together.

Tags: Architects | Carbon Footprint | Green Building | Solar Power | Zero Waste

Best of TreeHugger