Architect William McDonough looks at private sector efforts on sustainable design

From turning corporate headquarters into green building showcases to retooling the design process for consumer goods, architect William McDonough has worked to bring sustainable design into the mainstream. He joins OnPoint to discuss what he calls "ecologically intelligent design," and the book -- "Cradle to Cradle" -- he authored on the subject. McDonough also discusses his efforts in China, where he is designing several major cities to be more energy efficient and to use renewable sources of energy. Plus, he explains why indoor air quality and household toxics may be the next major environmental issues facing manufacturers.


Brian Stempeck: Hello and welcome to OnPoint. I'm Brian Stempeck. Joining us today is William McDonough. He's the principal and founder of the architecture firm William McDonough and Partners and he's also author of the book "Cradle to Cradle." Bill thanks a lot for being here today.

William McDonough: It's a pleasure.

Brian Stempeck: I want to start off, right now you're doing a lot of work over in China. Basically you're working to help design seven cities based on a set of kind of economically sustainable and ecologically sustainable principles. Talk about some of the work you're doing in China right now.

William McDonough: We've been asked to do master planning and conceptual master planning for seven communities, some of which are really large, 50 square kilometers. It will involve millions of people. And we're basing it on cradle-to-cradle philosophy, the idea that everything goes back to soil or back to industry forever. And the communities are being developed around transportation systems that will be run for the elders. We're moving all the farms up onto the roofs so that there's farming going on and we don't lose our soil. We're developing new building materials so they don't have to build them out of brick, because if China built cities in 174 jurisdictions out of brick they would lose all their soil and burn all their coal.

Brian Stempeck: Now basically this is happening as 400 million people are moving from the countryside into the urban centers in China. What do you see as kind of the top priorities? I mean you mentioned the building materials. As these people move to the urban centers and the farmers kind of come into a more densely populated area how are you working to try to address the concerns that come when you have these megacities springing up so quickly in China?

William McDonough: Well there are two things to deal with. One would be what is the nature of the rural countryside that they are leaving? Because they're leaving great poverty and they're leaving behind a place where they're trying to "rationalize" the agriculture based on Western standards. So we have to go back and look at the countryside and how to restore ecological intelligence, organic agriculture and the ability of people to stay on the farms where they have employment. And the kids have a future and get good education, because that's why they leave. So that'd be the first thing. That's 800 million people. As far as the urbanization goes if the cities were cradle to cradle cities and maintained their farmland in those locations and could expand in ways that are positive instead of destructive, then we might have some hope. So looking at the cities as an opportunity for ecological restoration rather than a liability of ecological destruction I think is a key strategy for the country.

Brian Stempeck: Now in the book you talked about basically the need for a second kind of industrial revolution. Saying one that's more planned to deal with a lot of the problems we've encountered after the first industrial revolution. Working in China, do you feel like that's kind of a blank slate with these cities springing up, the economy growing so quickly? It's a chance to avoid some of the mistakes that have been made in the United States and other countries?

William McDonough: I think there is. It's a ray of hope within a supernova that's imploding and exploding simultaneously. China is both a terrifying prospect and a highly hopeful prospect. They're immensely practical people. They're into extreme growth so that growth can be directed. And the fact that the government there has the ability to direct a lot of the things that happen means that some of these things will be part of a national agenda and actually get executed.

Brian Stempeck: Now one thing we hear a lot about is the energy difficulties that China has run into. Massive increase in the amount of oil they're consuming, the amount of electricity they need, building dozens upon dozens of new coal fired power plants. That's something that you've been working with as well, dealing with solar power and energy efficiency. How do you see China meeting its energy demands and what role can you and other American officials play as part of that?

William McDonough: Well I don't have an official capacity. I have a business capacity.

Brian Stempeck: Right.

William McDonough: But I think there are two things. One would be efficiency first. That's easy. And I think there's about a 50 percent opportunity for efficiency right away that can be driven through all these different processes. The other is large-scale renewables production. China holds the key to large scale solar energy on a planetary basis. If we wanted carbon free energy on a global level, we've just discovered from one of our national laboratories here, we will need 17 terrawatts by 2050. That would mean a nuclear power plant of 1 gigawatt per day for the next 45 years. A new nuclear plant per day is the only way to do that, other than solar energy, which could provide 600 terrawatts, practically. So when we look at how we're going to meet future demand, China holds the key because they can make solar energy cheaper than burning coal.

Brian Stempeck: How do they do that? I mean it seems like, to an outsider it would seem like, building power plants, from coal, from nuclear seems like the most viable options for the Chinese if they're looking to grow very quickly, which they are. If you're taking a longer term view of things with solar it is more expensive. If you're talking about energy efficiency, that also is more expensive than just springing up a coal plant. Is that a viable option?

William McDonough: Well energy efficiency is not more expensive than building a new plant. There are technologies now that can do that more cheaply than building new plants. On the solar side what we're looking at is mass production. If China can make the call on what technology to use and then deploy it in mass production it will drop the price of solar below the price of burning coal at some point probably in 10 years.

Brian Stempeck: Now I also wanted to ask you one of the things you're most known for is designing some of the corporate headquarters in the United States, the Gap headquarters, the River Rouge plan for Ford Motor Company in Detroit. These are two efforts where, basically major green building initiatives. Since the time that those buildings have been built, in the past few years, how much more do you think green building has gotten into the mainstream of American architecture?

William McDonough: Well the most recent Green Building Conference had 12,000 people at it. So that'll give you a sense of this. There's a new Green Building Council. U.S. Green Building Council was created has created a new standards. They're being adopted by communities around the country. So I think the green strategy is becoming a mainstream platform within the client requests and within the professional delivery. I think our job is to keep pushing that forward and to keep leading it and trying to move it to the next level of an ecologically intelligent and human health intelligent system. Not just more efficient use of existing products which may be badly designed in the first place from a perspective of cancer or birth defects or something like that. So it's not just recycling toxins and calling that a good thing. It's more about creating more good instead of less bad.

Brian Stempeck: It seems like among mainstream builders and developers though there's still a sense that to build green, to build more efficient buildings is still going to have a cost premium attached to it. Do you think you've gone far enough in addressing those concerns?

William McDonough: There's no question that companies that are doing things that are for legacy, the companies that understand they have a long-term strategy, can understand the cost benefit analysis immediately. The most difficult place to get this in, it's usually about 10 percent more expensive, but it has cost benefit analysis, so anybody who's doing business can understand it, a company that building on its own behalf for example. It's the speculative builders that aren't able to factor it into their speculative marketplace because they don't see any consumers or customers that understand the difference between a long term viable project and a short term dollar amount on a square foot.

Brian Stempeck: As you work with corporations is a tough sell? In the book there's a really great story talking about when you first started working with Ford one of their engineers came in and said you know you want to put skylights everywhere. You want to put grass on the roof. Basically talking to you like you were insane and you talk about your response to that. How hard is it to sell this idea to corporate America?

William McDonough: It's very easy once we use the language of corporate America. We explained these projects in terms of money. And once they see that this is a fiduciary responsibility and that they can make lots of money doing it then they do it because they're not stupid.

Brian Stempeck: You're also working on, going along with the cradle-to-cradle concept, is in terms of coming out with a label for certain products. Talking about designing a product in a way so it can be recycled or off cycled as the case may be. Talk about that in terms of when consumers are going to be able to look at a product they can buy in a store and see that it is meeting the criteria that you set forth in the book?

William McDonough: Well we're hoping it will happen very quickly. And we're hoping for ubiquity. We've launched the cradle-to-cradle certification process in the last six weeks. So the first products are usually industrial products that are coming out of the manufacturing sector, in the furniture and carpet. We have running tracks, concrete additives, just a whole plethora of things that wouldn't necessarily be consumer products yet. But we're hoping within a year to have thousands and thousands of these available.

Brian Stempeck: There was one product I saw, recently you were featured in Esquire magazine talking about some of the future ideas that you're working on. And one product was looking at this chair that's designed in a very sustainable type of way. If I'm a consumer going into a store and buying that chair what does the cradle to cradle label tell me about what I'm buying?

William McDonough: Well first of all, it's something abrades off the chair, if you rub it and you breathe the particles, instead of having to worry about what chemicals are in there, they're actually all safe and defined down to the parts per billion, parts per million for ecological and human health. That matters a lot in terms of your just daily life. Also the materials are what we call technical nutrients. The chair can come apart in five minutes. So when you finish with this chair you can call Herman Miller, in the case of the one you saw there, or Steel Case or Hayworth the manufacturer, and they want the chair back because its materials are what they will use to make the next furniture. So it's called a technical nutrient chair. What they see though as the value is not so much just the plastic and the metals that are in the chair that come apart and go back to plastic and metal, it's the relationship to you. Because all of a sudden they have a relationship with you, because you're a part of their family. When you finish with the chair you send it back to them. They get to send you a new one. And it's that relationship that has the most value.

Brian Stempeck: So what's the advantage I guess? I mean you said the advantage to them is that they can build the relationship. But in terms of ecologically what do they do with those parts? I mean is it talking about building another chair? Where does the manufacturer go from there?

William McDonough: Well a lot of plastics might go back to the plastics company, like BASF. The metals might go back to an aluminum recycler and things like that. So the materials may go back into the raw material industrial system. The real value is it's the right thing to do. So for a company like Herman Miller, Steel Case or Hayworth, they're competing in a marketplace where the customers are saying we want the right thing and we want it done the right way. And we want you to make sure that you make money doing it so that you can continue to do this for a while. So it's a very simple business proposition.

Brian Stempeck: One of the things that you mentioned was talking about some of the particles in the air, some of the pollutants that we don't normally think of when you use an everyday consumer product. And this is kind of an issue that seems to getting a lot more attention in the mainstream media right now. The Wall Street Journal has had a big series about phthalates, basically an ingredient in plastics that might be more toxic than people thought in the past. How do you see that? Does that strike you as kind of the next idea that getting into the mainstream, after green building, looking towards how these things we use on an everyday basis might be affecting us?

William McDonough: We did the first so-called green office in the United States in 1984. We started looking at building materials and we started looking at phthalates and we started looking at off gassing and volatile organic compounds and things like that. And we were the first people to do it. The only people doing it of our quality were the tobacco companies trying to prove that there's no danger from smoke in the workplace. So it was just getting started then. Here we are 20 years later and it's becoming a major, major issue in the public consciousness. And there's no question that in the '70s it was energy. In the '90s and in the next few decades it will be both energy and material quality, air quality and so on, especially in interiors where people are spending 90 percent of their lives.

Brian Stempeck: Now you work mostly with the private sector, a lot of the corporations, these different companies in making these products. What do you see as the role for White House, for Congress, for regulatory agencies to come in on these same kinds of issues?

William McDonough: Well regulatory agencies typically are reactive to when bad things are happening. So they'll come back and slap a few wrists, slap on a few regulations saying be less bad. We control the right to kill. We don't want to give you the right to poison a river and things like that. I think the real value of the government in a regulatory framework is to set benchmarks that are higher and give encouragement for people to rise to those levels of benchmarking. That's what we're looking at in China for example and that's what we look at when we redesign products that don't require any regulation. We've designed textiles so safe you can eat them. The mills are producing drinking water. Well what if the government said, look, see, this is possible. So we would love everybody to try and rise to that occasion instead of simply saying you're releasing cadmium. It's a known carcinogen. Stop doing that at the same levels. Reduce your levels of cadmium release. I mean that's a negative, a less negative kind of response. What we're looking at is a more positive kind of response. And a regulator could do that.

Brian Stempeck: Bill, we're out of time. Thanks so much for being on the show today. We appreciate it.

William McDonough: My pleasure.

Brian Stempeck: I'm Brian Stempeck. This is OnPoint. Thanks for watching.

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