McDonough: ‘If Buildings Were Trees …’

I’ve spent the last few days getting an education on “green-collar jobs” and training programs for jump-starting our economy and our environmental sustainability at the same time. I was on a conference call hosted by Policy Link and Green For All about how to get Obama’s “green dollars” into local communities. More than 800 people dialed in to hear the call. I’m also editing articles for the May issue of Sojourners on the green economy.

green-festival-mcdonoughnov-011-cropAll this reminded me about hearing architect and genius Bill McDonough speak at the Green Festival last fall.  (McDonough wrote a great article for Sojourners in May 2005 called Ecology, Ethics, and the Making of Things, drafted from a sermon he gave at St. John the Divine in New York.) I was so intrigued and inspired by his talk that I looked up other presentations he’d given.

The McDonough excerpt below called to mind that strange passage in Mark’s gospel (8:24) when the half-healed blind man says, “I see people as trees, walking.”

What if buildings were alive? What if our homes and workplaces were like trees, living organisms participating productively in their surroundings? Imagine a building, enmeshed in the landscape, that harvests the energy of the sun, sequesters carbon and makes oxygen. Imagine on-site wetlands and botanical gardens recovering nutrients from circulating water. Fresh air, flowering plants, and daylight everywhere. Beauty and comfort for every inhabitant. A roof covered in soil and sedum to absorb the falling rain. Birds nesting and feeding in the building’s verdant footprint. In short, a life-support system in harmony with energy flows, human souls, and other living things. Hardly a machine at all.

This is not science fiction. Buildings like trees, though few in number, already exist. So when we survey the future-the prospects for buildings and cities, settled and unsettled lands-we see a new sensibility emerging, one in which inhabiting a place becomes a mindful, delightful participation in landscape. This perspective is both rigorous and poetic. It is built on design principles inspired by nature’s laws. It is enacted by immersing oneself in the life of a place to discover the most fitting and beautiful materials and forms. It is a design aesthetic that draws equally on the poetics of science and the poetics of space. We hope it is the design strategy of the future.

Read McDonough’s whole article here.