Nonprofit journalism dedicated to creating a Human Age we actually want to live in.

Note: This article is from Conservation Magazine, the precursor to Anthropocene Magazine. The full 14-year Conservation Magazine archive is now available here.

Born Again

July 30, 2008

William McDonough, a radical architect, dismisses traditional recycling as tired and inadequate. Instead, he’s invented “industrial ecoystems” in which substances and machines are infinitely recycled.

By Jim Robbins

Illustration ©Michael Gibbs

From his perch atop the gleaming observation deck at Ford Motor Company’s Rouge River complex, William “Bill” McDonough, in a black shirt, black pants, and a black beret, looks out over a sun-drenched 4-ha meadow, enthusiastically describing the hummingbirds and butterflies that use it. Nothing unusual in that, except the fact that the sprawling meadow sits atop the cavernous assembly plant that turns out dozens of new Ford trucks each day.

McDonough takes obvious pride in the “living roof,” the 10 cm of soil and grass that filter rainwater and smokestack emissions, give off oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide, and help insulate the factory. McDonough is proud as well of the fact that he is chief architect for the 20-year, US$2 billion rehabilitation of the entire Ford Rouge Center, a heavily polluted 500-ha industrial site started by Henry Ford in 1917 to build the Model A. When the massive reconstruction project here is complete, the rusty, hulking steel buildings will be replaced with modern, airy, and sun-lit buildings that perform ecological functions. Many of the hottest polluted sites will be remedied.

But even a mammoth project like this is a tiny cog in the very large wheel that is McDonough’s vision, which he calls the Next Industrial Revolution. He wants to turn the world’s industries from creators of toxic waste into an “industrial ecosystem,” in which everything that comes out of the manufacturing process, product or waste, is either used by another industry in a closed cycle or is so benign it can be composted: cradle-to-cradle rather than cradle-to-grave. Henry Ford’s motto was “earth to assembly,” and to that McDonough would add “to earth again.”

Companies need also to think about future generations of consumers. “That means stop making cancer,” McDonough says. “What part of that don’t you understand? We honor the fact that businesses have to grow. Anything alive has to have growth. Growth is good. But they have to grow health instead of sickness.”

Welcome to the world of William Mc-Donough, an environmental radical who has been adopted by the titans of industry. The former dean of the University of Virginia School of Architecture, he is now the head of a 30-person architecture firm and a product design firm, both in downtown Charlottesville, Virginia. He has designed highly touted green corporate headquarters for furniture manufacturer Herman Miller and for clothing chain The Gap. He is designing the European headquarters for Microsoft. He has a completely recyclable car on the drawing board for Ford. His client base has over 1 trillion dollars in annual revenue, and he is advising the likes of William Ford, Jr., and Warren Buffett on adopting his cradle-to-cradle philosophy. All of this happens because he understands their needs. They can continue to grow, enhance their profits, reduce regulation and liability, and become pollution free if they play by the rules-of nature.

Has McDonough found the perfect marriage between environmentalism and business? In addition to laudatory statements from the corporate world, McDonough has been hailed as a hero of the planet by Time magazine and was named Designer of the Year in 1999 by Interiors magazine. Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have given him top awards for sustainability. Many environmentalists also find that there is much to like in what McDonough says. Just like his corporate clients, they describe him as a genius, one of the most original environmental thinkers in a long time.

“He’s partly little boy, charming, affable, and utterly brilliant,” says David Orr, Chair of the Environmental Studies Program at Oberlin College, Ohio, where McDonough designed the environmental studies center. “Bill has defined green design and high-performance building in a very compelling way. And he asks the only intelligent questions we can ask now: How do we make a civilization that is informed by, and conforms to, natural systems?” There are some holes in his theory, Orr says, but cradle-to-cradle is the real deal.

The 50-year-old McDonough says his environmental philosophy is rooted in an upbringing in Hong Kong, where 6 million people are crammed into 100 km2. Resources were scarce and carefully apportioned-his family had just four hours of running water every fourth day. “When I came to the States to go to high school [in Connecticut], I arrived in a place where 16-year-olds had Porsches,” he said.

Summers spent living in his grandparents’ log cabin among the old-growth forests of Puget Sound in the Pacific Northwest of the U.S. also shaped his thinking. Despite living in the midst of extreme natural abundance, he says, they were frugal and lived carefully off the bounty, harvesting clams and picking raspberries.

McDonough later became active in the environmental movement but came to realize the movement was part of the problem. Although certainly well-intended, he says, environmentalism has failed to solve environmental problems because it has settled for partial solutions-reducing rather than eliminating mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, for example, or advocating inefficient recycling strategies. Such fixes are illusions, he says, for they only slow, rather than solve, the decline of the planet. “It’s not good enough,” he says, “to be less bad.”

What was needed was a new and radically different approach. That approach was born in the 1980s when McDonough met a philosophical soul mate in Michael Braungart, a German chemist. Like McDonough, he is something of a Renaissance man-a musician, a poet, a big-picture thinker willing to go well outside his area of expertise. Braungart is one of the founders of Germany’s Green Party and once camped out on the smokestack of a polluting chemical company. Together they came up with the idea of the industrial ecosystem that would function like a natural one and give both the public and industry what they want. They spelled it out in ten short principles (see box) for a sustainable world that they created for the 2000 World’s Fair in Hanover, Germany. They go into greater detail in their book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. In keeping with McDonough’s ideas, the book is printed on pages made from a plastic resin that can be endlessly recycled with no toxic components.

This talk might send your antenna up. It sounds like an “eat all you want and still lose weight” line from an infomercial for diet pills. And it has a whiff of libertarianism. But McDonough has a wry way of making absurdly optimistic ideas seem reasonable. He unabashedly espouses his true bottom line: “to love all the children of all species, for all time.” And that is done, he says, by creating a “delightfully diverse, safe, healthy, and just world with clean air, water, soil, and power-economically, equitably, ecologically, and elegantly enjoyed.”

“That’s it,” he says to me, smugly. “It’s all there. So what’s not to love?”

Whatever one thinks of such McDonoughisms, almost everyone seems to agree that, although it is not the be-all and end-all, cradle-to-cradle could be a giant step in the right direction. And it may be coming at a propitious time. With the current administration’s attitude toward everything from global warming to smokestack emissions to endangered species, government regulation seems more tenuous than ever.

The simple essence of the Next Industrial Revolution is that everything manufactured should be one of two things: completely and safely biodegradable or completely recyclable into a new product with no waste or toxic emissions-something McDonough calls a “technical nutrient.”

The “revolution” is still in its nascent stages, and products that fully fit this principle are still in the design phase. One early corporate adopter was Shaw Industries, a US$5-billion-a-year, Georgia-based floor-covering manufacturer with 30,000 employees that is part of Warren Buffett’s giant Berkshire Hathaway holding company. Among the changes they’ve made is the plastic used to make their business-carpet tiles. Instead of a polyvinyl chloride (PVC)-based plastic suspected-though not proven-to be carcinogenic, they use a much more benign polyolefin. It needs no chemicals to make it flexible, and it can be put down with a water-based adhesive. And it is completely recyclable. “No part of the carpet ever goes to the landfill,” says Steve Bradfield, corporate director for environmental affairs. “We recycle it forever.”

That’s a big deal. Right now, only a tiny portion of used carpets can be recycled, and 2 billion kilograms of carpeting go to the landfill every year. And the bottom line? He estimates that one division of the company has improved its profitability by 12 to 15 percent because of cradle-to-cradle practice.

In effect, says McDonough, manufacturers like Shaw will no longer sell carpeting but the service of a carpet. They keep responsibility for the material, just like the milkman who picked up the empty milk bottles every week and left filled ones. The production and destruction of carpeting becomes an efficient, endless loop in which nothing is thrown away.

Green buildings are at the heart of McDonough’s work, and he is one of the pioneers of the form. Here, too, he says, we should take our inspiration from nature and build our buildings like a tree. “Design a building that makes oxygen, sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen, distills water, provides habitat for thousands of species, accrues solar energy as fuel, builds soil, creates microclimate, changes with the seasons, and is beautiful.”

There is no building that even comes close to being a tree or ever will. But the US$7.5- million Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies building at Oberlin College, for which David Orr raised funds and which he, McDonough, and others designed, is a step in that direction. The building purifies its own waste-all wastewater is filtered through a series of settling tanks and vegetation and emerges clean. It is designed with the goal of producing more energy than it needs. It hasn’t achieved that yet, but by June it will generate all of its own electricity with photovoltaics. The emission of toxic by-products (e.g., carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide) is 75 percent less than that of other buildings and will eventually be zero.

Of course, other green builders have done similar things. McDonough’s real genius, says Orr, is partly his ideas but mostly his considerable charm, vision, and intellect. “I needed his eloquence to persuade the board to go with this project,” said Orr. “With the magic of language he conveyed the magic of design. He’s one of the most gifted communicators of our time.” John Todd, an expert in water systems for green buildings and part of the team that designed the Oberlin building, says many of McDonough’s ideas have been maturing for a generation. By dint of his personality and intellect, he gives them a new and original life. “College students feel like they are chronicling Armageddon,” Todd says. “Bill comes along and gives them a sense of hope. He says, ‘We can have our cake and eat it too.'”

Oberlin College and McDonough’s projects at The Gap headquarters in Modesto, California, and at the Rouge Center in Michigan are not just green showpieces, “corporate green-washing.” McDonough’s ideas make hard-headed business sense. That’s essential to their appeal. Most of the water that washes off a factory roof or a parking lot picks up particulates and chemicals and therefore needs treatment. At Ford’s Rouge Center, the water soaks through porous pavement or runs off the grass roof and is channeled through man-made wetlands, native trees, and grasses before it makes its way to the river-clean. It cost Ford a piddling US$13 million, whereas a chemical treatment plant would have cost US$48 million.

McDonough takes great issue with the environmentalism most modern corporations embrace. It’s based on something called “eco-efficiency”-reducing, reusing, and recycling-that was promoted by the World Business Council. It’s eco-nonsense, according to McDonough. True recycling needs to be designed into the system. What we’re doing now is forcing materials that weren’t designed for reuse into a new product that could be equally as toxic or end up in the landfill eventually. It’s not going to save the world-it’s just less bad.


The Hanover Principles were commissioned by the city of Hanover, Germany, as the general principles of sustainability for the 2000 World’s Fair. McDonough and Braungert believe these general principles should be adopted by planners, designers, and governmental officials all over the world that are involved in any planning efforts.

1. Insist on the right of humanity and nature to co-exist in a healthy, supportive, diverse, and sustainable condition.

2. Recognize interdependence. The elements of human design interact with and depend upon the natural world with broad and diverse implications at every scale. Expand design considerations to recognizing even distant effects.

3. Respect relationships between spirit and matter. Consider all aspects of human settlement, including community, dwelling, industry, and trade, in terms of existing and evolving connections between spiritual and material consciousness.

4. Accept responsibility for the consequences of design decisions upon human well-being, the viability of natural systems, and their right to co-exist.

5. Create safe objects of long-term value. Do not burden future generations with requirements for maintenance of vigilant administration of potential danger due to the careless creation of products, processes, or standards.

6. Eliminate the concept of waste. Evaluate and optimize the full life cycle of products and processes to approach the state of natural systems, in which there is no waste.

7. Rely on natural energy flows. Human designs should, like the living world, derive their creative force from perpetual solar income. Incorporate the energy efficiently and safely for responsible use.

8. Understand the limitations of design. No human creation lasts forever, and design does not solve all problems. Those who create and plan should practice humility in the face of nature. Treat nature as a model and mentor, not an inconvenience to be evaded or controlled.

9. Seek constant improvement by the sharing of knowledge. Encourage direct and open communication between colleagues, patrons, manufacturers, and users to link long-term sustainable consideration with ethical responsibility and re-establish the integral relationship between natural processes and human activity.

About the Author

Jim Robbins is a freelance science writer in Helena, Montana, where he has written about western environmental issues for 25 years. He is a frequent contributor to the Science section of The New York Times and has written for Discover, Audubon, The New York Times Magazine and others.

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