Sitting in his office in Charlottesville, Virginia, William McDonough isn’t bashful about his ambitions. “We’re trying to transform the making of buildings and the way we conceive architecture and products and systems,” he says.

In a black shirt, black trousers and a black-and-white bowtie, McDonough looks every bit the architect. He designs spectacular private homes, using wood, stone and open spaces to ensure they blend into their surroundings and allow breeze and light to move through.

“People come to us because we’re good designers,” he says. But he and his colleagues also work at several other levels. “We’re looking at design writ large, as the first sign of human intention. We look at it from the galactic to the molecular . . . and a home fits somewhere in the middle.”

McDonough is most famous for what he calls “environmentally intelligent design strategies” that have thrust him to the forefront of the sustainability movement.

It started in 1977, when, still a student at Yale University, he designed and built the first solar-heated house in Ireland. In 1985, he designed the first “green” office in the US, for the Environmental Defense Fund. More recently, he created a 10-acre(454,000 sq ft) “living” or planted roof on top of a Ford truck plant in Dearborn, Michigan.

He is currently working on a skyscraper in the very low-rise city of Colorado Springs, advising the Chinese government on seven large-scale planning projects and developing a certification system, to evaluate the human and environmental health impacts of products and their potential to be recycled or composted.

In the UK, he is designing the National Collections Centre in Wroughton to display 19th- and 20th-century artefacts from the National Museum of Science and Industry and working with Gazeley Properties, the developer, on a master plan for a new town on the site of the Rugby Radio Towers.

In these and dozens of other projects, McDonough pursues what he calls a “cradle-to-cradle” design paradigm. Developed with Michael Braungart, a German chemist, it rejects what they call the “take-make-waste” model of the last century, instead promoting “eco-effectiveness” – eliminating all waste by perpetually circulating materials as foods in natural and industrial systems. Most people in the environmental movement concentrate on being “less bad”, he explains. His aim is to be “more good”.

Together, the two have written Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things and The Hannover Principles: Design for Sustainability, guidelines used for the 2000 World’s Fair.

“We’re actually looking at what it would mean to make a house a net energy exporter, so it’s like a tree,” he says. “Imagine a house that makes oxygen, sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen, distils water, builds soil, creates habitats for hundreds of species, accrues solar energy as fuel, makes complex sugars and food, creates microclimates, changes colours with the seasons, is always beautiful, is always different, and self-replicates.”

It’s all a bit hard to fathom, but as McDonough walks through his office, some of the elements begin to make sense.

Sketches of a Chinese village show farmers at work on the rooftops. Waste water would be directed to the top of the building, to water the gardens.

McDonough points to the carpet below his feet, which he designed, its black and beige pattern intended to resemble a zen garden. Its manufacturer has pledged to recycle it fully, using it to make other carpet.

Scattered desks in the three-storey office have shallow dishes of cactuses. He points to special colour-controlled lights above and declares, “I’m experimenting,” then concludes the dishes need less soil and more sand. (He is working with succulents too, he says.)

There are signs hanging all over the place, declaring lofty goals such as “eliminate the concept of waste” and “rely on natural energy flows”. A magazine rack is loaded with glossy displays of his work. His picture appears on one cover, which asks “Can this man save the planet?”

He certainly seems to be trying. “All sustainability, like politics, is local,” he says. “Your sustainability comes down to your life.”

Short of redesigning our homes, McDonough says people should do what they can to restore soils and restore industry. That means composting and recycling. He complains that most recycling is really “down-cycling” – turning waste into lower-quality products. “But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, because we need the infrastructure.”

In the private homes he creates, McDonough goes a bit further. A waterside house in Virginia Beach, Virginia, with south-facing angled roofs and a wetland pond, is an example of what he calls anticipatory design, ready for the addition of solar collectors when they become cost-efficient.

Another, on a South Carolina island, features a series of single-storey pavilions made of wood from “sustainably derived sources”. And in Charlotte, North Carolina, a stone house relies on an environmentally friendly heat pump, solar power and products low in volatile organic compounds – chemicals that evaporate over the life of the material.

McDonough, 54, says his early life experiences help explain his passion for the planet. Born in Tokyo, he grew up principally in Hong Kong. “We had 6m people in 40 sq miles and no water. Everything was limited. Everything was rare and important.”

But he spent his summers in “a place of amazing abundance”, Puget Sound, in the US Pacific northwest. He stayed with his grandparents, who, after living through the Depression and the second world war, were frugal, saving aluminium foil, steel cans and rubber bands.

“I went from extreme limits to extreme abundance, and yet everybody was still very careful,” he recalls. But then, in high school and college, “all of the sudden, I saw people leaving the hot water running in the gym, and that didn’t make any sense to me at all,” he says. “It’s a question of fairness.”

That feeling obviously remains with him today. Flipping off light switches in empty parts of the office that others have left on, he says he worries that some of us may not be doing enough. “It’s going to take all of us and it’s going to take forever,” he explains.

If he prevails in his approach, he contends that people will be able to celebrate consumption, rather than feel guilty about it. “If all you’re doing is recreating soil or technical nutrients, you can have more of it, without guilt. It’s not a problem. As long as you’re destructive, you can feel guilty and want to be less bad. But if you’re actually productive, you can feel good.”

McDonough says the attention of political leaders to his cause would make things easier, but he thinks business will lead the way. “I think commerce is the engine of change,” he says.

He insists his way of doing things isn’t more expensive. (“It can’t be. Otherwise, we wouldn’t get to do it.”) and points to a large photograph of the Ford roof That project, which retains rainwater and allows daylight to enter the factory floor, saved the company $35m on its first day, he says.

But how did we get in this mess in the first place?

“The human species is hard-wired to be opportunistic,” he says, chasing oil for 150 years, for example. “I think we’re only now realising that it’s time for us to nurture again, after a round of opportunism. I think we’re going to realise that we’re place-centric again, and the place is the planet. There is not another planet sitting there, next door, waiting for us to all show up.”

The challenge starts sounding especially bleak when he talks about how carbon releases are dissolving the coral reefs, threatening the entire food chain. “I think we have about 20 years to figure this out,” he says. “After that, it’s going to be a [downward] spiral. But I think we can do it.”

What makes him so optimistic?

“Designers are inherently optimistic,” he says. “We wake up in the morning trying to make the world a better place. That’s all I can do. We’re all dust anyway, so I just do the best I can.”

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