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An Environmental Problem Slipping Through the Quacks

"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 design.

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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