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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

William McDonough: Portrait of a Green Designer

Air Date: Week of

Architect Bill McDonough is Dean of Architecture at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville. He is profiled by host Steve Curwood and producer Sandy Tolan.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

McDONOUGH: In personal life, the whole idea of taking on guilt as an operating method is not necessarily productive, because we find ourselves saying I'm guilty, I'm guilty, and then we keep doing the same thing.

CURWOOD: If this sounds like a group guilt therapy session, well perhaps it is. But the man speaking is a university dean, an architect, and someone who believes we can solve the global environmental crisis by simply drawing up and implementing some new designs.

McDONOUGH: We're not saying feel guilty. We're saying feel excited. We're asking people to get up, get going, and fix it.

CURWOOD: His name is William McDonough. He's dean of the School of Architecture and Design at the University of Virginia, and one of the architects of the so-called Green Design Movement. Today on Living on Earth we take a long look at the man and the ideas he's expounding to change the very ways society and industry work. The man major corporations often call when they want to go green.

(A motor; beeping sounds)

CURWOOD: Bill McDonough is in constant movement, a blur streaking through a slow-motion world. He's the green dean, flamboyant in his bow tie, cape, and Armani suits. He's at once an intellectual and a businessman, a professor who believes his own green ideas can change the world, an entrepreneur who says his own success will teach global corporations there's money in going green. His admirers call him an eco-visionary, a man helping to draw up the map for the way out of the global environmental crisis. Others worry his strategy of embracing the Monsantos and Walmarts of the world is naive, and may only help perpetuate the crisis. But Bill McDonough says he doesn't worry too much about his critics. He moves forward, fully occupied with his mission of redesign, head filled with ideas.

McDONOUGH: (speaking aside) No, I'm going to a meeting with the president of the university, so I'll be out of pocket...

CURWOOD: Whether it's a brainstorm for implementing green design in corporate America --

McDONOUGH: Over here is the Gap corporate campus, and it's an office building that is designed to be housing in the future. So we're designing a building to be recycled...

CURWOOD: -- or a new washing machine that saves on water --

McDONOUGH: A stainless steel drum, all right, that's hexagonal inside, an octagonal drum. Uses one fifth of the water of a regular American washing machine...

CURWOOD: -- or reviewing the new design for a factory that uses hardly any outlet pipes because it generates hardly any waste.

McDONOUGH: The industrial filters of the future will be in our heads and not at the ends of pipes, or smokestacks. In the future we could have industries where their effluent is cleaner than their influent. That means you can cap your pipe. That means you're no longer regulated.

(Ambient voices; gulls)

CURWOOD: Or building a new generation of green designers, as he glides toward his first lecture of the semester in his custom designed rain cape.

McDONOUGH: Good afternoon. Today we start on this -- this notion of making environmental choices. I'd like to begin by saying that design, I see here, as the first signal of human intention.

CURWOOD: He's 45 but looks younger. He has a youthful, impish smile, suggesting that so far he's managed to avoid life's tragedies. Colleagues say McDonough possesses the enthusiasm and optimism of a child, but with the mind of an architect. Standing at the podium in the old lecture hall, Bill McDonough makes a central point: society has a design problem.

McDONOUGH: Would you design an industrial system that produces billions of pounds of highly hazardous material and puts it in your soil, your air, and your water every year? Could you design a system that measures prosperity by how much of the earth's natural capital you can dig up, cut down, deplete, bury, otherwise burn, while 20% of the world's population uses 80% of the world's resources. Could you make up a few things that are so highly toxic and dangerous that they'll require thousands of generations to maintain constant vigilance while living in terror? Is that an ethical assignment?

CURWOOD: But it is not enough, Bill McDonough tells his students, to bemoan the legacy of bad design.

McDONOUGH: So let's think of a new design assignment, and that would be the design assignment of this course. Let's design systems which produce no hazardous material and put it in the soil, the air and the water every year? Let's measure progress by how many buildings have no pipes.

CURWOOD: Bill McDonough is not just blueprints and brainstorms from the ivory tower. His message of green design is starting to move into corporate boardrooms and even onto factory floors. In designing a furniture company's fabric, he sought out the chemical giant Ciba-Geigy to produce chemical dyes with no known toxins, no heavy metals, no carcinogens. The result: a safe, biodegradable fabric. For a carpet maker, he introduced a leasing program where carpet tiles are replaced and recycled with a goal of zero waste, zero toxic emissions. He's worked with the city of Chattanooga to design a zero-emission zone, where one factory's waste could become another's fuel. These are examples, says Bill McDonough, of the next industrial revolution, a green design poles apart from the legacy of trash and pollution of the first industrial revolution.

McDONOUGH: Emerson in 1831 goes over to Europe in a sailboat, and he returns in a steamship. He's going over in a solar powered recyclable vehicle operated by craftspersons practicing ancient arts in the open air, and returning in a steel rust bucket putting oil on the water, smoke into the sky, operated by people working in the darkness shoveling fossil fuels into the mouth of a boiler. These are both designed objects. We are still designing steamships. For me, the question really is, what does the next ship look like?

CURWOOD: The key in the design of the next ship, Mr. McDonough says, is to think of life as a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Like reincarnation, everything is used again. As he says...

McDONOUGH: Waste equals food.


McDONOUGH: There is no such thing as away any more. Away went away.

CURWOOD: There is no away any more. Waste equals food. These are the central ideas of what Bill McDonough believes is the next revolution for manufacturing and construction. Sitting in a Colonial living room off the long lawn at the University of Virginia campus, a place so carefully designed by Thomas Jefferson, Mr. McDonough describes a redesigned world where most products would return naturally to the earth. Furniture, fabrics, soda cans, packaging, would simply decompose, destined not for the recycling bin but for the compost pile. Then there would be durables like old TVs or refrigerators. They would not be sold but licensed to consumers and eventually return to become technical nutrients to be sent for reprocessing at the factory.

McDONOUGH: The television set that's broken, that gets thrown out, the back of a pickup truck into a dumpster, essentially has no value at this point in history. It's got a negative value because we're going to have to deal with it environmentally. Under the new protocol, that -- that very thing would be very valuable to Sony, because it would be the technical nutrient of that industry.

CURWOOD: Factories without pipes. Fabrics that get tossed onto the compost pile. TV sets that never see the dump. Soda cans from material you can grow and then toss out like an apple core. Ashes to ashes, refrigerators to refrigerators. Mr. McDonough says these ideas represent a dramatic shift going well beyond things like curbside recycling. But this notion of useful trash, where one factory's waste would become another's fuel, is not all that new. Barry Commoner, biologist, environmentalist, and former presidential candidate, was writing about this in his seminal book The Closing Circle back in 1971.

COMMONER: Basically I said that the engineers had darn well better do something about changing the technologies of production. So I think it was my writing, particularly in The Closing Circle, that laid out the argument for a green industry.

CURWOOD: It is true that some of the ideas Bill McDonough expounds have been circulating for a while. Yet a fellow green architect, Peter Calthorpe, says it really doesn't matter whose ideas belong to whom. He credits his colleague for reinterpreting many old ideas and putting them into practice.

CALTHORPE: I think that he's done, you know, an incredible job of articulating for people principles like interdependence and then kind of reinterpreting these older ideas. The Scandinavian countries have been using cogeneration in terms of their power and using the waste heat from electrical generation for a very long time. So he's not, you know, profoundly new, but restating it and bringing it into today's context is terribly important.

CURWOOD: Today's context belongs to the global marketplace, where corporations increasingly dictate the way we live. The market economy constantly pushes for more growth, more consumption, more consumer demand. It is here, McDonough believes, that the real work needs to be done.

(Many ambient voices. McDonough?: "I'd like the granita and some tea, please. A cup of tea with milk.")

CURWOOD: And so we find Bill McDonough and his partner, the German environmental chemist Michael Braungart, breaking bread in a chic Italian restaurant in Washington, DC, with Robert Shapiro, the chief executive officer of the Monsanto Corporation.

BRAUNGART: But you'd better design it, better product.

McDONOUGH: And that's why what's happening in China is so interesting, because really, you know, we talk about globalization of companies.

CURWOOD: This is the first encounter between the 2 green designers and the head of the huge multinational. Before real change can come to global corporations, McDonough and Braungart believe face-to-face conversations have to take place.

SHAPIRO: It's exciting stuff. You guys have been worried about this set of issues for a long time. How do you keep from despairing?

McDONOUGH: For me I think it's really, once you start to talk about these things you realize that it's not just about despair, it's also about hope. And that we have the capacity to rethink what we're doing and enjoy that creative prospect. That's why I think it is important that we take these issues and get it into commerce.

SHAPIRO: I think we're at a point now where you can start to hope that that's going to happen at a scale that makes a difference.

CURWOOD: At the table, Mr. McDonough envisions a world where environmental regulations are no longer necessary. He praises the speed of commerce. Some worry when they see environmentalists supping with a corporate giant such as Monsanto, long one of the world's biggest producers of toxic chemical emissions. Monsanto's CEO Bob Shapiro says his company has decided it's time to go green.

SHAPIRO: I think about sustainability because it's easier to think about it than not to think about it. It is here, it's the elephant sitting on the table. Let's figure out some ways to do something useful. Let's find out how to have sustainable economy. That means reinventing just about everything we do. It's no longer how am I going to minimize how much damage I do so I'll feel less guilty. It's how can I really help? That's exciting.

CURWOOD: To some, this talk sounds convincing. A corporation searching its soul for a way to be useful while being profitable. Bill McDonough, the son of a Seagram's executive who spent many of his early years in Hong Kong, seems comfortable in the world of the international marketplace. And so he's invited in, in this case to consult with Monsanto's new products design team. But some worry that in working with such global corporations, Bill McDonough may be doing more harm than good. By teaming up with Monsanto, is he giving undeserved credibility to a chemical and genetic engineering giant? In dealing with Ciba-Geigy, is he helping the company adopt a softer, greener public face? And in helping design an eco-friendly Walmart, is he helping to perpetuate the consumer culture that generates so much of the waste in the first place?

KORTEN: You've got a whole corporate decision making structure which is driven by the demands of the financial system, which says, you know, sell whatever is profitable. Keep unions weak and wages low, dump your waste wherever it's cheapest, lobby for tax breaks and subsidies, and buy the politicians so you can rewrite the rules in ways that allow you to externalize as much of your cost as possible.

CURWOOD: David Korten is author of When Corporations Rule the World.

KORTEN: Most talk of greening the corporation from within neglects a very basic reality: that the corporation is not a benevolent institution. There's a hope there, almost a blind faith, that somehow the most environmentally responsible technology is going to be the most profitable, but I think these are very definitely the exception. If they weren't the exceptions, our corporations would already be far greener and we would have phased out a lot of useless and environmentally destructive products.

CURWOOD: Bill, I wonder if you're worried about being used by industry, that they bring you in on their team to show that aha, they're a green company. But maybe they're not really such a green company after all.

McDONOUGH: We can't expect that a company, just because we're there, is a green company all of a sudden. One of the problems, I think, that a lot of people have is that they won't understand why I would work with a Walmart, for example. Aren't they part of another system that's trying to pave the planet? You know, aren't they part of the consumption machine? But you see, I look at it as a designer. I look at that and say well, if you don't work with them, it's like Thoreau and Emerson. When Thoreau was in jail for civil disobedience and Emerson came to see him and said, "Henry, what are you doing in there?" his response was, "Ralph, what are you doing out there?" You know, and in a way somebody coming to me and saying, "Why are you working with Monsanto? I thought you were an environmentalist." And I'm saying, "I am. Why aren't you working with Monsanto?" If we don't all work together ecumenically we're never going to get there. This is not about fighting. This is about redesigning. If we don't work with these companies, we're all dead.

CURWOOD: Some environmentalists believe the market economy cannot possibly provide solutions to the global environmental crisis. But with the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is no competing economic model. And Bill McDonough insists that the solution is simply a matter of redesign.

McDONOUGH: It is a revolution of the market economy and capitalism. It is pure market economy. It is pure capitalism, it's also a pure sense of social equity and a pure sense of ecological intelligence. It's really a balancing. The difference is that a socialist revolution often ignores economic effect and central market economies have been a disaster. Socialism is not good for the environment. Pure capitalism is not good for the environment, either.

CURWOOD: Real change, Bill McDonough insists, will come as corporations engage in enlightened self-interest, as companies come to understand that doing the right thing is profitable. And that will come by the examples corporations understand best: generating wealth. Bill McDonough says he plans to get really rich to prove to the rest of the corporate world how profitable his green ideas are.

McDONOUGH: If I have to be a billionaire in order for people to copy what I'm doing, that's what I'll do.

CURWOOD: Do you want to be a billionaire?

McDONOUGH: I don't need to be a billionaire. I'm very happy. But I think -- I think the idea is attractive in terms of its inspiration for other people.

CURWOOD: So that if Bill McDonough becomes a billionaire with these ideas, that's the way to get the world's attention.

McDONOUGH: I think, yeah, I think it's an important way to get the word out. So if I have to go out and get supremely wealthy so that other people go "That looks like a good idea," well then so be it. I'll suffer through that if I have to. (Laughs)

CURWOOD: He says it with laughter, but you get the feeling he's serious. With his bow ties and capes, youthful good looks, and a brain packed with innovation, Bill McDonough feels comfortable mentioning himself in the same breath as Jefferson and Thoreau. Others wonder about the comparison but agree on this: William McDonough is a true believer in the power of ideas to change the world. And the important thing is, he is doing something about it. At the end of the Industrial Revolution, Bill McDonough says, there's an opening, a possibility that didn't exist in the years of the first Earth Day. There's a chance, he says, to implement completely different thinking.

McDONOUGH: What I'm talking about is a positive agenda that allows us to get up in the morning and say I'm only 60% sustainable, I'd like to be more sustainable. It's a positive view of the world, which gives assistance in what we should do. It's not a question of just what we shouldn't do. To spend our lives being told what not to do in the end is a world that is focusing on waking up in the morning and feeling terrible and then trying to be better by being less bad. And I think it's much better to wake up in the morning feeling that one has to become highly creative and start to imagine what perfect might look like.

CURWOOD: William McDonough: architect, green designer, Dean of the School of Architecture and Design at the University of Virginia.



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