Washington Post
August 27, 2005


CM: "A diverse, safe, healthy and just world with clean air, water,
soil and power is attainable by redesigning the way we make things,
without waste and in harmony with nature."

By Linda Hales

Environmental architect William McDonough made a powerful case for a
"new industrial revolution" when he planted a living roof in 2002 atop
Ford's sprawling, grime-choked River Rouge truck plant in Dearborn,
Mich. The feat of green design is said to have saved the beleaguered
carmaker $35 million in environmental cleanup costs. Birds now lay
eggs in the flourishing 10-acre blanket of sedum, which cleans runoff

On Wednesday, the visionary from Charlottesville made an even stronger
argument for change with a little yellow rubber ducky.

In a speech to the Industrial Designers Society of America, which is
meeting at the Marriott Wardman Park through Saturday, McDonough noted
that in California, the $2.99 bath toy comes with a warning. Toxic
chemicals in that sweet, squishy body have been known to cause cancer,
birth defects or other reproductive harm.

"What kind of society would make something like this to put in the
mouths of children?" McDonough demanded. "Design is the first signal
of human intention. What is your intention?"

No designer rose to defend the duck.

McDonough moved on to the usual suspects: belching smokestacks,
chemical fumes in carpets, hazardous high-tech garbage. IQs are
declining in industrial Ohio. A graveyard of plastics is growing in
the Pacific Ocean. Acidification is turning coral, the bottom of the
food chain, to jelly.

"Our current society has a strategy of tragedy," he said. "These are
the things that are happening because we have no other plan."

McDonough has been practicing, writing and preaching ecologically
sensitive, socially just design for more than 20 years. Style is one
thing, but in terms of transforming the planet, no designer is more
important to watch now.

He argues that a "diverse, safe, healthy and just world with clean
air, water, soil and power" is attainable by redesigning the way we
make things, without waste and in harmony with nature. PepsiCo, Shaw
Industries, Steelcase, BASF and Nike have signed on. But change comes
in fits and starts.

On the other side of the wall, the year's neat new products and
prototypes were arrayed in an exhibition hall. An Erik Buell
motorcycle and Gerber's new plastic snack-and-sippy cup drew admiring
glances. On the edge of the bazaar, companies that supply designers
with polymers and other synthetic materials were marketing their

"Benzene coming off gaskets," McDonough warned as he passed through. A
clear danger of phthalates, the chemicals used to soften plastics,
which have just been banned in toys in Europe. McDonough's 10-year-old
son, Drew, was briefly mesmerized by a display of hot pink, green and
orange plastic guitars.

How much time before we self-destruct?

"Twenty years," McDonough guessed. "We have 20 years to figure this
out. We have to work quickly, we have to work systematically, we have
to integrate this into everything we do."

McDonough, who is designing American University's School of
International Service, was just past 30 when he kick-started the green
architecture movement. Born in Japan in 1951, and raised partly in
Hong Kong, he earned degrees at Dartmouth and Yale before opening a
studio in New York. He designed a solar-heated house in Ireland. A
1984 commission from the Environmental Defense Fund led to a landmark
eco-friendly office.

In 1994 he moved the firm, William McDonough + Partners, to
Charlottesville to become dean of architecture at the University of
Virginia. By the time he relinquished the post in 1999, the firm had
won awards for a daylight-filled factory for the Herman Miller
furniture company in Holland, Mich., and a campus for Gap in San
Bruno, Calif. President Clinton gave him the only White House award so
far for sustainable design.

On campus, McDonough was known as the "Green Dean," who promoted "zero
pollution and total recycling." That philosophy defines the work of
MBDC, the product design firm he formed in 1995 with German chemist
and Green Party figure Michael Braungart. After producing clean
carpeting for Warren Buffett's Shaw Industries, they published their
ideas in "Cradle to Cradle" in 2002. The book has made McDonough a
welcome visitor in enlightened executive suites.

Tenets of the eco-design revolution include waste equals food;
effectiveness is better than efficiency; and being less bad is not
good enough. Biological materials can be recycled back into the earth.
Hard goods ought to be designed for dismantling and reuse.
Regeneration is "the infinite game." Regulation is a failure of

It would be easy to close the book's synthetic cover -- no trees were
destroyed -- and dismiss the dream, except that the Chinese have
adopted the concepts wholeheartedly. The government plans to provide
new housing for 400 million people in 12 years, McDonough says, and
has published "Cradle to Cradle" as government policy. (There, the
title translates into "virtuous circle.") McDonough has been hired to
develop entire cities as model eco-urban environments -- without
sprawl, congestion, pollution, waste or reliance on fossil fuels.

One plan shows a compact urban zone with solar-powered buildings
layered with commerce and housing. Rooftops support solar panels or
agriculture. Aerial bridges would allow farmers to travel from field
to field six stories off the ground.

McDonough does not worry that the Chinese may beat the West to clean,
efficient, affordable modernization in the 21st century.

"It's not something to be panicked about, it's something to go after,"
he says. "Let's go after global quality."

That pro-growth, capitalist optimism has made McDonough palatable to
business. The pressure he puts on designers is relentless. Shaun
Jackson, the IDSA conference chairman, expected the audience to be
"inspired but uncomfortable." They design the cars, computers,
skateboards, diapers and rubber duckies, not to mention the
packagings, that are piling up in landfills.

"You may be making a beautiful car, but it's causing global warming,"
McDonough said. "What have you done?"

After his speech, a General Motors executive was waiting to shake
McDonough's hand. Douglas Soller, a senior research designer for S.C.
Johnson & Son Inc., maker of Ziploc, Windex and Drano, said, "He
struck a nerve loud and deep."

The MBDC consultancy is about to raise the bar. Next month, it will
begin to certify products for "eco-effectiveness." A Web site is
imminent. One day soon, consumers will be able to shop by the cradle-
to-cradle label.

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