Interview with the Author: Anna Marshall-Baker on C2C

February 20, 2012 § Leave a comment

Our Department Chair, Dr. Anna Marshall-Baker, together with Dr. Lisa Tucker, Associate Professor at Virginia Tech, authored the new book, Cradle to Cradle Home Design: Process and Experience. As Dr. Marshall-Baker notes in the preface, the book evolved from discoveries of sustainable design practices from the C2C (Cradle to Cradle) home design competition in Roanoke, VA in 2005. Using the more than 600 submissions as sustainability case studies, the authors developed a paradigm of design processes to intrinsically include sustainable thinking from conception to construction.


“This book accomplishes two purposes. One is to delight in the prospects that designing from the cradle to cradle paradigm provides. And a second is developing an alternative approach to the design process that complements cradle to cradle, thereby shedding traditional, standard, typical practices realized through a sometimes uninspiring process.” (p.xv)

KR: In the book, you describe cradle to cradle as “an inclusive, holistic approach regarding human activity and the natural world.” This description you credit to William McDonough and Michael Braungart, authors of Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. You even mention McDonough’s assistance in the design competition. What was most inspiring to you about his message?

AMB: He didn’t coin the phrase ‘cradle to cradle’, but what McDonough did was to take ownership of this idea, apply it in his own work and start promoting it.  The most interesting and I think the most inspiring thing about Cradle to Cradle: it’s the only approach to sustainable design that is comprehensive, from the level of the molecule to the level of the universe.

KR: It almost seems like the true multi-discipline concept.

AMB: I think it is, and I think McDonough would say that, too. But some people would criticize him for that as if it’s just so boastful, and it is ambitious, there’s no question. Yet, he and Braungart are as constrained as all of the rest of us in achieving it. He said to Greg Lewis, who developed the idea of the C2C competition, that you can’t build a cradle to cradle house. The reason is because much of the material to build in this fashion is just not yet available.

KR: What did you find most surprising or unexpected from the C2C home design competition?

AMB: There is an article by Guy and Farmer (2001) that indentifies six distinct approaches to sustainable design. This was a major contribution from my co-author, Lisa Tucker, who knew about this article and thought it worked well with the competition. What surprised us most about looking at the entries is that they often fell into one of these six categories, which is all well and good, but none of the six are a comprehensive approach to sustainable design. The majority of the entries didn’t meet the tenets of c2c design.  That was surprising.


KR: I did notice that the competition did take into account a specific historic district in Roanoke, VA, where the house would be located.

AMB: Yes, we did have a particular site in mind. So in the last chapter, we took the winning entries, and talked about what they did successfully. The last chapter talks about lessons learned from the winning entries and address the difficulties in designing something that rises to the cradle to cradle paradigm.

KR: Did a house get built? Was it one of the winning designs or a derivative of several successful designs?

AMB: Yes, it did, and we debated about putting that into the book. After the design competition, the plan was that construction documents would be drawn up, and then they would build it. Once you got into the realities of who the builders are, who has the experience to build these systems, the costs of the systems and whether or not the manufacturers are willing to donate the materials, it became clear what could and could not be done.  So the winning entries were not chosen.  When the rubber hit the road, they selected a different entry and modified it into one that was buildable under these conditions.

KR: Did you find it to be a challenge to have the competition location in Roanoke, VA in a low-income neighborhood?

AMB:  You know, it should not have been an issue, because that parameter is very real. Everyone should have access to really good design.  These principles of C2C design, yes there may be problems with attaining materials and sometimes a lack of technologies, but to some degree, all of the principles are easily attainable. I don’t think the parameter for a reasonable house for a lower income family that has sustainable design qualities is an unrealistic design challenge.

So the house they built meets some of those challenges:  it’s a frame house with a front porch, has a garden, clerestory windows, and wood siding from Southwest Virginia.  Were there compromises? Yes. This house has vinyl windows, and there is nothing green about PVC. But the project was dependent upon contributions, and a company donated all of the windows.

KR: That is a good point for students to understand, that reality sometimes throws you curves.

AMB: I think that if you recognize the limitations you don’t need to be defeated by them. You can press the industry. You can say, look, how are you going to compete with this group that makes windows with vinyl?  They are half the price of windows made with wood and aluminum. So, push back on the industry and say, can you make a product that is as cost-effective as these vinyl windows? When you hit these roadblocks, it’s important not to give up. If you don’t push back and ask for it, it will never happen. Use your power as a designer. You can say, I’m a designer with a successful practice and I specify x number of windows a year. I’m happy to give that business to you, but I need you to be competitive with this price. Make noise.


KR:  How does this new model for design differ from the traditional design approach? As a designer who’s been in the industry before LEED came around, how do we incorporate the C2C concepts into our work?

AMB: One of the things we talk about in the book is the design process. In fact, the book is organized by the design process, but not in the way we are used to. The traditional design approach is linear, and when it comes to the building stages, we pass off the job from one subcontractor to another and another. From an interiors perspective, we get involved after the architect and engineer has finished with their work, and we are asked to put together the finishes, etc. That is also linear. With sustainable design, the decisions around water distribution are form giving decisions, and that hasn’t always been the case.

 KJ: This is where C2C pairs with the Integrated Building Design (IBD) process.

AMB: Absolutely.  If the process is going to be different, then the design team needs to be different.   That’s where IBD comes in, which says, the plumber has to be at the table the first day. So does the electrician because the same form giving issues that surround water also surround energy: solar panels, clerestory windows, thermal mass with passive and active solar needs. We are all a part of the integrated design team:  engineer, electrician, plumber, interiors, architect and even cabinet maker. It’s a completely different design process. Even the book chapter titles are not traditional for a design book because the process doesn’t follow a linear process. It’s not easy for others to understand.


KR: In the book, you mention that there was little difference between the quality of the student and professional sustainability submissions in 2005, and that everyone was new to LEED and sustainable measures. Do you think that has changed today or are we still looking backwards to include sustainable measures into our designs?

AMB: I think there are a lot of people who are practicing very good sustainable design. I think, as in all things, there are still those who work backwards and try to include things, particularly in regards to LEED. Not every point in LEED can work that way; some of the points of LEED require a different kind of design from the beginning.  I give LEED a lot of credit for bringing attention to the need of sustainable design, but there are some weaknesses in LEED.  What is problematic about LEED is that you can build a building that earns LEED points that is not sustainable.  Students particularly don’t get that.  Students often design green buildings that are not sustainable. The broader issues get you back to social justice.  Designing a building that includes a cork floor may at first glance appear green, but if the cork came from Portugal there’s nothing about it that’s green. It’s hard to hold all those questions in your head.

KR: We had this discussion in the library the other day regarding bamboo flooring that is transported by freighter from China.

AMB: You’re right. It is renewable, but not sustainable. The amount of energy it takes to compress bamboo into bamboo flooring is enormous, the person who is making that flooring is likely not earning a living wage and then to transport it by freighter, well, it takes a gallon of fuel  to move a freighter 35 feet.  What’s sustainable about that product once it’s here? These are difficult questions. Does this mean we don’t use cork or bamboo? This is where protocol sheets come in, so you can look at them and make an informed decision.  Using cork is better than clear cutting a forest for the lumber.

KR: It’s a matter of choosing between the lesser evils.

AMB: You’re right. Linoleum is easy to make, just about anywhere. The bottom line is you’re not going to have a linoleum manufacturer in every town.  There will still be shipping to consider.  If we eliminate linoleum we’re basically down to dirt. You must ask, which is the best for your project? What is the lesser of the evils until we can build buildings that aren’t harmful to human and environmental health.  If you change the way you think about design you will by default adopt a new approach because our linear approach is not going to work.

Contributed by: Karyn Reilly                       Edited by: Patrick Lee Lucas


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