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An Environmental Problem Slipping Through the Quacks

By Linda Hales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 27, 2005

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 naturally.

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 wares.

"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 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.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company