1/1/2003 | 7 MINUTE READ

Green by Design

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William McDonough envisions a seemingly contradictory world where manufactured products are plentiful and the environment is clean and healthy. His method to get there is equally shocking: eco-effective, profitable companies free from regulation.


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William McDonough is nothing if not ambitious. An architect by trade and a visionary by nature, McDonough wants to fundamentally change the way product design and manufacturing are viewed. Though he is known in the automotive world chiefly as the moving force behind the greening of Ford’s Rouge complex, even that massive project represents only a tiny component of McDonough’s self-imposed design brief. With his partner, German chemist Michael Braungart, he has developed a sophisticated model for re-making industry in a way that enhances profitability while eliminating waste and regulations.

Food In, Food Out. McDonough posits that the world has two distinct metabolisms: biological and technical. The biological metabolism consists of the complex cycles of nature in which biodegradable materials are continuously recycled: one organism’s waste is another’s food. The technical metabolism is the industrial system of product design and manufacturing where resources are extracted, transformed into products and eventually discarded. McDonough sees the current technical metabolism as a cradle-to-grave system that is both environmentally hazardous and inherently wasteful. Although there are recycling programs, what he proposes is a fundamental redesign of manufactured goods from the molecular structure up, in such a way that valuable materials are designed to go back into high-quality products without being degraded.

McDonough thinks that both biodegradable materials, “biological nutrients” in McDonough-speak, and metals and synthetic polymers (“technical nutrients”) can be used by industry in an environmentally friendly way as long as the two streams aren’t mixed. “We’re not just going back to nature; we also see huge value in synthetic products. The world will need highly intelligent synthetic polymers,” he says as he prepares the punch line, “because if everybody wore cotton and Birkenstocks the planet would dry up and we would run out of cork.”

Closing the Loop. McDonough outlines a closed-loop system in which manufacturers maintain ownership of products and simply lease them to customers for specified periods of time. What sets this “eco-leasing” concept apart from current leasing programs is that once the manufacturer has gotten the used product back it is seamlessly used as raw materials for new models. McDonough says this approach would not only keep untold tons of valuable materials from landfills, but would greatly reduce virgin material costs and strengthen the relationship between producers and consumers.

Of course, it would mean embracing design-for-disassembly methods on a grand scale, but McDonough doesn’t see this as an insurmountable obstacle. In fact, he thinks it is an opportunity for better product design. “The mental model has to be expanded beyond the idea of disassembly being tedious and destructive,” he explains. “Once you design for disassembly you find that the assembly becomes easier, because when you realize you are going to take it apart the whole protocol shifts. You often end up with larger assemblies of one material that don’t have to be disassembled to be reused.” To facilitate the process, McDonough says parts must be tagged with the appropriate information. To make this work cost-effectively companies will have to understand and alter the basic chemistry of their products to eliminate contaminants and hazardous materials. But this can–and has–been done. McDonough cites a BASF-developed formulation of Nylon now being used to make commercial carpeting that is a true technical nutrient. That is, it can be used to make new carpet of the same quality when its useful life is over.

One of the problems raised by engineers to the technical nutrient approach is that from the point of view of energy, it can be very demanding when it comes to changing a polymer to a reusable monomer. But McDonough points out that there are materials like polyolefins that can be readily melted and reused at a low energy cost. Still, he acknowledges that conversion to a technical nutrient system will not be simple. “It’s not just enough to have the one molecule as your base material. You have to develop the auxiliaries–the dyes, the finishes, the adhesives. It immediately gets complicated because you do want to go down to that level.” To help companies do that McDonough and Braungart formed the eponymous consulting and training firm McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry (MBDC).

MBDC is already making a mark in the automotive industry. It is working with Visteon to develop a comprehensive sustainable materials and systems protocol that can be shared with its vast customer base. And it has consulted with Ford on the development of its sustainable vehicle concept, “Model U” (See “It’s All About ‘U’,” pp. 28-30.). McDonough says of Model U, “It is what we call an ‘essay of clues.’ It will contain our strategy in its incipient form. It is not perfected yet but it’s got the clues. In other words, Model U contains technical and biological nutrients. We have not been able to go into every molecule yet but we will. Model U sends that signal.”

Unregulated. Creating a disassembly infrastructure and reformulating products at the molecular level sound time-consuming, expensive and hardly a path to higher profits. Not so, says McDonough. “The fundamental thing to point out about our work is that what we do is hugely profitable for companies. If it isn’t, we don’t think they should do it.” The main way that the cradle-to-cradle approach enhances profits is through the elimination of the billions of dollars that industry spends to meet environmental regulations, something most environmentalists–and industries–seemingly can’t do without.

“Regulation is a sign of design failure,” he says, “If you bump into a regulation, clearly something is not optimized, because the state feels compelled to make you stop or slow down, or fill out paperwork or do something that is otherwise wasteful. We would rather see commerce act in a way that is totally unregulated because it didn’t need to be regulated. Companies like what we do because we remove regulations from their worries.”

Eco-effectiveness. What sets McDonough apart from many environmental thinkers is his belief in “eco-effectiveness,” which takes cues from nature on how best to design systems. It isn’t about reducing the use of energy and materials. It is about intelligently applying energy and using the right materials. His cradle-to-cradle protocol is eco-effective in that it, like nature, doesn’t set artificial limits on growth. In an eco-effective world consumers can indulge themselves with new products on a regular basis, safe in the knowledge that their old possessions will be recycled and not end up as hazardous waste. Still, McDonough sees an important role for increased efficiency, but as a secondary objective. “The question is not: ‘Am I doing it right?’ It is: ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ Then you have to do it right.”

Greening the Rouge
For most people in Detroit, plants growing from the roof of a factory are a sure sign of industrial decay. For William McDonough, they signal industrial renewal. At least when they are the ones growing on the roof of Ford’s new Dearborn Truck Plant. The plant is the first step in a massive re-making of the Ford Rouge Center, a complex that was once the epitome of vertically integrated productivity, but is now becoming a showcase for McDonough’s eco-effective design approach. When it is done, the Rouge Center will be transformed from a blighted brownfield to a green sanctuary for less cost than traditional assembly plant designs–and that economic component is the key to the project’s very existence. As McDonough recalls, “Bill Ford [Ford’s chairman and CEO] told me, ‘The critical issue is can you produce shareholder value by implementing your ideas? If you can’t, you won’t get to do it.’”

Although he “bumped into all sorts of entrenched methodologies,” McDonough was given the freedom to prove the effectiveness of his ideas. Among them:

  • That green roof. More than just an ecological statement, the plant-covered roof greatly reduces the thermal shock and ultraviolet degradation that destroys standard industrial roofing. (A roof in Dearborn in the summer might be 160°F during the day and 70°F at night. The expansion and contraction tears roofs apart. In contrast, the green roof is expected to maintain a standing temperature of 75°F.) It also regulates interior temperature decreasing air-conditioning and heating loads.
  • Natural storm water treatment. Instead of installing an expensive storm water system of pipes and treatment plants, rainwater will be channeled into plant-filled swales that will slowly clean the runoff before depositing it into the Rouge River. Estimated savings over a traditional system: $35 million.
  • Porous parking lots. McDonough suggested removing the fine elements from the parking lot asphalt so that rain and snow could be absorbed into the ground. Ford project managers were wary, but approved a small test lot. Soon, car marshallers from the nearby assembly plant began independently parking their newly manufactured Mustangs in the test lot. Why? The lot had no standing water or ice, and didn’t need road salt–all of which kept the new cars cleaner. Ford now has plans to pave the entire Rouge site this way.

McDonough credits Bill Ford with the vision to open the door to eco-effective ideas at the Rouge re-development, and says the CEO’s commitment to the environment transcends Detroit’s typical competitive boundaries. “Bill Ford said, ‘I want you to help with leadership not ownership. If good ideas come up we want to share it with others in industry.’” And that’s exactly what McDonough has in mind. Though he is grateful for Ford’s leadership role, he is also anxious that he not be labeled a Ford-exclusive property. “We want to work with all of the car companies,” he says, so that his design blueprint can encompass far more than just the immense Rouge Center.