ICONic Profile: Jason F. McLennan — By Ambrose Clancy
Jason F. McLennan lives on Bainbridge Island,
Washington, reached by ferry from Seattle,
where he and his wife, Tracy, built their home,
Heron Hall. Here, they’re raising their children:
Rowan, 10; Aidan, 12; and Declan, 15 (their
oldest, Julian, 22, lives in Seattle). The house,
which is solar-powered and provides all of its
own water, is on about an acre of land next to
an estuary and a salmon stream, a place where
eco-systems meet—land, marsh, forest, meadow,
and fresh and salt water.
It’s a suitable place for the head of McLennan
Design and one of the leaders of the green
construction movement. Among his many honors,
McLennan won the coveted Buckminster Fuller
Challenge, the top prize for sustainable building
and design. The author of six books, including
The Philosophy of Sustainable Design and The
Ecological Engineer (co-author), he is both an
Ashoka Fellow and Senior Fellow of the Design
Futures Council. McLennan is the chair of the
International Living Future Institute and founder
and creator of the Living Building Challenge and
Living Product Challenge.
McLennan Design’s work can be seen in
many forms across the United States and
Canada, including educational campuses,
corporate buildings, residential housing,
and in the hospitality industry.
Born and raised in Ontario, Canada, McLennan
was educated at the University of Oregon and
The Glasgow School of Art in Scotland.
i+D: What is regenerative design?
McLennan: Leaving a better place as a result
of designs we do when we get to those places.
Healing the planet, healing a community, and
not keeping the status quo, but improving on it.
Increasing habitat. Improving the watershed.
Bringing life back to an area.
i+D: Leaving a lighter footprint?
McLennan: That’s trying to be less bad.
We want to be good, to have a footprint that
has a positive effect.
i+D: What do you always have with you?
McLennan: A necklace I wear, a “koru” from
New Zealand, hand-carved from bone into a
swirl. It’s a symbol of regeneration that my wife
bought. The custom is to give it as a gift, but the
giver has to wear it for a period of time to impart
their energy into it before giving it to you.
McLennan: Yes. From the Māori tradition.
i+D: Where’s the place that environmental
science and design meet in the creative process?
McLennan: They’re not separate. There’s no
beginning and no end—it’s embedded in our
thinking as we design.
i+D: What are you reading?
McLennan: Sapiens: A Brief History of
Humankind. And, a book on boating to learn
what I need to know to get out into Puget Sound.
i+D: When you wake up, how long
is it before you think about work?
McLennan: It’s pretty quick. (Laughing)
Oh, yeah, absolutely.
i+D: What advice would you give
someone entering the profession
that you wish you’d received?
McLennan: Don’t worry about the math.
You do more math in school than you ever
do in practice. I don’t know how many
people I’ve heard say, “Oh, I was going into
architecture, but I couldn’t get the math.”
i+D: Like the idea that lawyers are doctors
who were scared of chemistry?
McLennan: Yes. Another piece of advice
no one told me—be prepared to work hard.
i+D: What exasperates you?
McLennan: Politics today. There’s a lack
of truth, compassion, and intelligence.
i+D: What elevates you?
McLennan: The natural world. Great writing
and art. Thoughtfulness. My kids.
i+D: What’s wrong with design today?
McLennan: That most things are not designed
at all, just slapped together and carelessly
made. Lots of things are manufactured, but
not designed. And, also, people aren’t thinking
about the consequences of their designs in terms
of upstream and downstream impacts to the
planet and people.
He spoke with i+D from Heron Hall.
i+D: How did you come to name your house?
McLennan: It’s for the heron that lives in the
estuary next to us. I wanted the house to be
romantic and magical for our kids. I remembered
reading The Wind in the Willows, one of my
favorite books, and in it is Toad Hall. Why not
i+D: With so much information being
processed through visual media, is it
necessary for architects and designers to
read history, science, the social sciences,
biography, and fiction?
McLennan: It’s absolutely necessary.
Architecture and design are two of the last
generalist professions. We have to know a wide
variety of subjects—knowing a little about a
hell of a lot. There’s nothing that’s not relevant
to architecture and design.
i+D: What inspired you to pursue
McLennan: The architecture itself. And,
the idea of creating something that wasn’t there.
i+D: When you look up from your desk,
what do you see?
i+D: What was the first thing you designed
or built when you were a child?
McLennan: I was always drawing castles.
i+D: Anything else?
McLennan: Trees are enough.
i+D: One of my all-time favorite book titles is
yours: The Dumb Architect’s Guide to Glazing.
McLennan: It pokes fun at our profession, and
asks that we not take each other too seriously.
i+D: No, architects taking themselves
McLennan: (Laughing) We don’t know everything
and we should give ourselves a chance to learn.
Image: Danilo Agutoli
i+D: Looking at rollbacks of environmental
regulations in almost every industry in the
United States, what’s the strategy to convince
policymakers to adopt green mandates?
McLennan: In some political environments,
it’s not worth trying to convince them. We do
it by influencing people through constructing
better buildings. Our buildings are healthier and
more beneficial economically. That’s why green
building is still growing despite a lack of good
public policy. If you build better and it’s better
financially, you win. That’s the way commerce
works. Once something is cheaper and better,
it’s adopted immediately, regardless of policy.
is the editor of the Shelter Island Reporter
and a novelist, nonfiction author, and
journalist. His work has appeared in GQ ,
The Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times.