Design Approach

Inspiration and innovation

We are a collaborative, principles-driven design firm that sees the unique characteristics of each place and project as a source of inspiration and innovation. The foundational principles we bring to each project derive from our vision of the future: a delightfully diverse, safe, healthy and just world—with clean air, soil, water and power—economically, equitably, ecologically, and elegantly enjoyed.

Design is the first signal of human intention

As designers, we promote a positive vision of the future, based upon the belief that many of the environmental problems we face are, at root, design challenges.

Our work is grounded in the Cradle to Cradle® philosophy developed by our founder William McDonough and German chemist Michael Braungart in their 2002 book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (North Point Press). Cradle to Cradle encourages us to step back from the routines of daily problem-solving and rethink the frame conditions that shape our designs. Rather than seeking to minimize the harm we inflict, Cradle to Cradle reframes design as a beneficial, regenerative force—one that seeks to create ecological footprints to delight in, not lament. It expands the definition of design quality to include positive effects on economic, ecological and social health in addition to the traditional architectural standards of commodity, firmness and delight.

Cradle to Cradle rejects the idea that growth is detrimental to environmental health; after all, in nature, growth is good. Instead, it promotes the idea that good design supports a rich human experience with all that entails—fun, beauty, enjoyment, inspiration and poetry—and still encourages environmental health and abundance.


As with all Cradle to Cradle designs, our work is inspired by natural systems and seeks to embody three principles derived from nature:

  • Everything is a resource for something else. In nature the discharge of one system becomes food for another. Buildings can be designed to be disassembled and safely returned to the soil (biological nutrients), or re-utilized as high quality materials for new products and buildings (technical nutrients).
  • Use renewable energy. Living things thrive on the energy of current solar income. Similarly, human constructs can utilize renewable energy in many forms—such as wind, geothermal and gravitational energy—thereby capitalizing on these abundant resources while supporting human and environmental health.
  • Celebrate diversity. Around the world, geology, hydrology, photosynthesis and nutrient cycling, adapted to locale, yield an astonishing diversity of natural and cultural life. Designs that respond to the unique challenges and opportunities offered by each place fit elegantly and effectively into their own niches.

Nutrient Flows

An important component of Cradle to Cradle is a new conception of material flows. Instead of seeing materials as a waste management problem in which interventions here and there slow their trip from cradle to grave, materials are seen as nutrients that can be maintained in two safe metabolisms: biological and technical.

In the biological metabolism, the nutrients that support life on Earth—water, oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide—flow perpetually through regenerative cycles of growth, decay and rebirth, thereby recapturing nutrients to create new life. Simply put, waste equals food—the “waste” of one system becomes food for another. In the human world, a technical metabolism can be designed to mirror natural nutrient cycles. This is a closed-loop system in which valuable, high-tech synthetics and mineral resources circulate in an endless cycle of production, recovery and remanufacture.

By designing intelligent manufacturing processes and specifying safe, healthful ingredients, we can create and use materials within these Cradle to Cradle cycles. Materials designed as biological nutrients can biodegrade safely and restore the soil after use. Materials designed as technical nutrients can provide high-quality, high-tech ingredients for generation after generation of synthetic products—again a harvest of value.

Innovation through design leadership

We lead design teams in the pursuit of place-specific, high-performance designs. Our collaborative design approach begins with a detailed analysis of each site, program and community, identifying the economic, environmental and social forces that will give form to the design solution. We then synthesize these unique characteristics with broader criteria for habitat creation, watershed protection, mobility, energy production, material health and recapture, and indoor environmental quality.

For each project, we create a design framework built upon clearly articulated principles (what is valued), short, medium and long-range goals (what projects hope to accomplish), and specific design strategies (how goals will be achieved). This framework establishes the project’s direction and serves as a reference point throughout the building’s lifespan—it establishes priorities and focus by asking the right questions at the right time.

Our design teams begin with our clients and their communities and extend to the multidisciplinary consultants with whom we collaborate from the earliest stages of the project. We foster a team dynamic that gives everyone a voice while providing the right expertise at key decision points. Working around the world, we use the latest technologies to facilitate frequent and effective communication with each project team.

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