Tucked away in the hills of Rapidan is a snug little house with astonishingly thick, earthen walls, designed in 1935 by a mid-20th century architect named Angus Snead Macdonald. Inside the house, on a misty morning in late fall, sat his grandson, Angus Wyman Macdonald, also an architect, who has dedicated his career to building energy-efficient houses and commercial structures, often using prefabricated materials.
Precise and mild-mannered, Macdonald lights up when he describes the ways architects can reduce the world’s carbon footprint. Through the hundreds of buildings he has designed in the U.S. and abroad, he has burnished the family legacy (his grandfather was a trusted adviser to Frank Lloyd Wright) while making key innovations all his own. He also has lectured internationally on his forward-thinking approach to architecture and landscape design.
Macdonald says construction, combined with the heating and cooling of buildings, accounts for 40% of the world’s carbon footprint. As a considered response to that staggering percentage, he concentrates on “using architectural forms to harvest, store and distribute renewable energy”—which he said saves money for clients and lowers carbon emissions.
Macdonald grew up in Hinsdale, Ill. His father was an electronics engineer and his mother was an artist and owner of a fashion boutique. When he was in high school, he worked as a field supervisor for an architect in Chicago who designed a number of schools in the nearby suburbs. Young Angus quickly realized that architects could do a better job of communicating their intent to builders, who sometimes struggled to make sense of unwieldy sets of drawings. It was an early introduction into the importance of collaborative work with all the parties involved in making a building come to life.
After earning a B.A. and a master’s degree in architecture at Yale University, Macdonald worked for an architecture firm in New York. During that time, he suffered a bout of ill health, which was never fully diagnosed. Seeking a new job and a curative change of environment, he took off for Jamaica: “Within six weeks I was playing tennis again. It was fantastic.” While there, he experimented with building homes from prefabricated panels, a key element of his work ever since.
Macdonald eventually moved back to the U.S. and settled in Rapidan, on the ancestral property where his grandfather had built three houses, including the one where Angus and his wife, Marjorie, live. During a wide-ranging interview, Macdonald discussed his competing career interests, his creative process and his innovations in a field that has been a lifelong passion.
How old were you when you realized that you wanted to be an architect?
Oh, gosh. I used to build sandcastles as a little kid and I wanted to be an architect from that time. So probably from when I was 6.
Was it because of your grandfather or was that coincidental?
I have a feeling it was coincidental, because we were close to him [and] we saw him fairly often, but in those days, children were not involved in the conversations and philosophy and everything that adults talked about. So, I think it was more from the feeling of the sand in my hands and the forms that came to mind and the ability to create something with your hands. For instance, I did a lot in pottery. … So I think my love of architecture was much more my love of being able to make forms that you dream of in your mind and bring them to a reality.
I also wanted to be a concert pianist, and I made a lot of musical instruments in my life and one time in college—I think it was senior year when we were about to graduate and I had to decide if I was going to go on into architecture school—my music teacher was getting very tough with me. We’d practice a piece and then I’d play it and he’d come up and bang me on the shoulder: “Get that beat right!”
And he said, “I’m training you to be a pianist for a symphony that we’re starting in New Haven. I said, “Wow!” And he said, “But in order to do that, you need to study the piano nine hours a day.”
I said, “But what about architecture?” He said, “You have to choose one or the other.” And I remember going home that evening with such a sinking feeling in my stomach because they were both the love of my life. And I couldn’t have them both.
What did you do?
I went through it in my mind, and it took me weeks of having stomachaches and being upset about it. But I finally decided that the world of music is a very closed world. If you’re a concert pianist, you’re one of one-tenth of one hundredth of one percent of the musicians. If you're an architect, you don’t have to be one-tenth of 1% to have an effect on people’s lives. And I felt the effect I could have on their lives would be more beneficial as an architect than as a musician, simply because I felt that my chances of being really heard were very, very small as a musician.
And to me, architecture was more vital. It has to do with survival and man’s place on the earth and how he either destroys the earth or helps the earth.
If architects were to use architectural forms to provide the energy for a house that is now being done by machinery and using electricity—if architecture can help that—we can reduce that carbon footprint very easily. We have the technology right now. We don’t have to invent a solar airplane or a solar train to do this. So that 40% [reduction in carbon emissions] could be brought down to zero, because we have now something called a “net zero design” where the house provides all the energy that it needs and even has enough energy to charge your electric car. That is so essential right now because if we could cut man’s carbon footprint by 40%, we’d be well ahead of the Paris Accords, and the effects of global warming would not be so severe.
How do you get the word out? I mean, that’s huge.
I want to start a movement among architects as well as design examples of how this can be done and hopefully start a factory that shows that this can be affordable.
What do you consider your most significant contribution to your field?
I invented an affordable construction method that creates disaster-resistant structures using prefabricated, galvanized steel frames, embedded in concrete footings, and coated with ferrocement [wire mesh coated with mortar or plaster]. This system has been used in the U.S., the Caribbean and in Africa to lower construction cost, increase building speed and create strong durable and seamless uni-body construction.
What is the difference between a good architect and a visionary architect?
I think the difference is that the so-called visionary architect is dwelling in that place where your brain has something in mind that has not totally materialized, but it is energy coming from your spirit that something can be like this, whether it’s a social order or a piece of music or a way of playing an instrument or a way of building a building or whatever it is. You have that impetus, but it’s not real yet. It hasn’t been formed in any real material or in sound yet. It's just that it’s something that you want; your intention is there.
And intention is probably the strongest thing that we have in our psyche. When we intend something and we're passionate about that intention, that gives us a tremendous ability and energy to go through all the other stages of creation. And going through the stages of creation, there's a lot of hard drudgery.
If you're a sculptor, you're starting with something like a piece of clay, you don't just think up something in bronze and there it is. So there's many, many stages. And the same with architecture. You go through: “Does the client like it?” It may not even get past stage one.
And then the preliminary stages—can the client afford it? You’re doing the budget. And then finally the permitting stages. Does the county like it? And then you go on to, is the banker willing to write a mortgage on this? What is the resale value? Do other people like it? … It’s many, many people’s opinions and their visual acceptance of a concept by an architect.
The good architects all have to deal with all of that.
The visionary architect never gets to that stage. He’s able to create pictures or, these days, 3D models of these fantastic buildings, but they don’t meet some of the essential criteria of reality—too expensive or not energy-conservative. They can’t be built structurally; we don’t have the technology to do that yet.
But I meant a visionary architect in the positive sense.
Well, that’s my idea of a visionary architect. It’s a person who has this extreme capability to visualize something that could be, but never got past the constraints—the constraint parts of it.
So you don’t see it as something positive?
Yeah, I do! None of us would move forward if we didn’t look at those pictures and get passionate about what these guys think of.
Until we had this last exchange, I would have described you as a visionary architect, but it sounds like you’re going in a different direction from them.
No, I’m going from there past it, to get the things built, and it’s a long, hard road. And like you said, “Well, you’re starting a movement, what are you doing?” Well, there’s a lot of things to do, but once the movement has started, then I could sit back and visualize that, and there’ll be the factory to make it, and the person to build it cheaply. It’ll be real. But right now it's still in the visionary stage.
So you’re both: you’re the visionary architect and the practical, hardworking architect.
Yeah. And I don't think there’s a huge dichotomy between the two types necessarily. I mean some of the visionary designs you see can be created with the right work done on them.
What is it about you that makes it possible for you to do the visionary part and the practical, somewhat tedious part?
My intent. … I have developed a way to be diplomatic with code officials, for instance, and other people that I need to impress to get [to my goal], but it’s not natural to me. I’d be perfectly happy sitting on the sand on the beach, building the sandcastle. That’s 100% gratification. But in order to get the 100% in terms of the actual building, you have to wear many hats.
But on the other hand, there’s all different kinds of people. There’s some people who enjoy going through the numbers and they get a kick out of making that work, making that number and that number match. So that’s why we have companies of different people, who have different focuses in life, work together.
If I get the opening, the first thing I’ll do is form a company, and it’s going to be a very diverse company because the more different kinds of people you get together, the stronger the interactions are. And you know that two different kinds of people who don’t like each other—the friction itself is energy. “Well, where’s your problem with this?” “Well, here’s my solution.” And that kind of interaction—that’s the exciting part of working with a company.