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Green architect likens rights of nature to rights of man

World-renowned architect and designer William McDonough has a practical utopian vision for environmentally sound design, from green buildings to zero-waste cities.

In his April 21 Iscol Lecture in Kennedy Hall's Call Alumni Auditorium on "Cradle to Cradle Design," he outlined a brief history of the definition of human rights in the United States, from the rights of white landowners in Thomas Jefferson's time to emancipation, women's suffrage, and civil rights. The country first recognized the rights of nature with the Endangered Species Act in 1973.

"The idea of the rights of nature is fundamental to our human experience and what our human experience is about to be," he said. Then he asked: What does recognizing the rights of nature mean for designers?

"The first question we ask in our design is, how do we love all of the children of all the species for all time?" he said, then answered the question with his firm's mission statement: "Our goal is a safe, healthy and just world, with clean air, water, soil and power; economically, ecologically and elegantly enjoyed."

He showed a photograph of the 10.5-acre green roof his Virginia-based firm, William McDonough & Partners, Architecture and Community Design, designed for a Ford Motor Co. plant. The roof is home to a nest of killdeer eggs. McDonough explained: "The killdeer arrived five days after the roof was put there. The idea here was to design as if other species cohabited the planet Earth."

McDonough, whose firm practices "ecologically, socially and economically intelligent" architecture and planning, was lauded by Time magazine in 1999 as a "Hero for the Planet." He showed examples of his firm's green designs for such corporate clients as Ford, Nike and the furniture maker Herman Miller. Their buildings optimize daylight and fresh air and have shown improved productivity, he said; they also can be converted to housing if they are no longer needed for industrial or commercial purposes.

The visuals in his presentation were peppered with charts and aphorisms including: "Being less bad is not being good." He also noted that humans cannot create anything with all of the functions and benefits a tree provides. "It took us 5,000 years to put wheels on our luggage," he said. "We're not that smart!"

Dean Koyanagi, the university's sustainability coordinator, observed: "We sometimes get speakers in who speak to students from one industry. But [McDonough] wraps the design idea around, 'This is human intention. Where are we going as a species?'"

McDonough is Cornell's 11th Jill and Ken Iscol Distinguished Environmental Lecturer. Earlier in the day, he visited classes on environmental systems and facility planning and management and took part in a roundtable discussion on "Green Innovation: Challenges and Opportunities" with human ecology professors Anil Netravali and Sheila Danko.

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Nicola Pytell