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Business and Sustainability

Reading

William McDonough on Designing the Next Industrial Revolution


(Originally appeared in Timeline #58 July/August 2001)

Last October, the Collective Heritage Institute held its 11th Bioneers Conference, a gathering of biological pioneers from diverse fields and cultures "who are providing pathways to a future environment of hope an alternative scenario to the destruction depicted daily in the news a revolution from the heart of nature.

The following address at the conference by architect William McDonough is reprinted with permission from the Bioneers. McDonough is the founding principal of William McDonough and Partners. In 1996, he received the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development, the nation's highest environmental award, and in 1999 he was named "Designer of the Year" by Interiors magazine and one of the "Heroes for the Planet" by Time.

I'm a designer and I want to talk briefly about the concept of design itself. Design is the first signal of human intention. As we look around at the tragedies that we see in the making, we realize that we have to ask: Did we really intend for this to happen? Is this something we designed? Perhaps it's time for some new designs.

I'm going to ask you to join me as a designer. I'm going to present the problems we work with and ask you to help me solve them, so you can see what we have to deal with every day. The fundamental questions we find ourselves asking ourselves over and over again while we're designing are these: How do we love all of the children of all species for all time? When do we become native to this place? When do we all become indigenous people? Why do we leave the things we leave plutonium, global warming, endocrine disrupters?

If we really realized that we have to love all of the children of all species for all time, why is it that in Germany today, no mother's milk would be legal to sell on a store shelf? How do you love all the children if you toxify mother's milk? You can't say it's not part of your plan that these things happened, because it's part of your de facto plan. It's the thing that's happening because you have no plan. And planning is most effective when it's practiced in advance. We own these tragedies. We might as well have intended for them to occur. Once you realize that our culture has adopted strategies of tragedy, perhaps it's time to have strategies of change.

First we have to start with great humility. We don't know what to do. We have indigenous traditions we can draw from, but we don't know what to do. If anybody has any problem with the concept of design humility, reflect on the fact that it took us 5,000 years to put wheels on our luggage.

So as an assignment, let's design an industrial system for world culture that treats nature as an enemy to be evaded or controlled; that measures prosperity by how much natural capital you can cut down, dig up, bury, burn, or otherwise destroy; that measures productivity by how few people are working; that measures progress by the number of smokestacks (if you're especially proud, put your names on them). It is a system that destroys biological and cultural diversity at every turn with one-size-fits-all solutions, requires thousands of complex regulations to keep us from killing each other too quickly, and while you're at it, produces a few things so highly toxic that it will require thousands of generations to maintain constant vigilance while living in terror. Can you do this for me? Welcome to the first Industrial Revolution.

It's time for a new design assignment. In 1991, I was commissioned by the city of Hannover, Germany, along with my firm and friends, to write the Hannover Principles. The same culture that created the worst of human intention in the '40s was now asking what the best of human intention would look like. Here are some of the principles we wrote in 1991-2:

Insist on the right of humanity and nature to coexist. Recognize inter-dependence. Expand design considerations to recognize even distant effects. Respect the relationships between spirit and matter. Accept responsibility for the consequences of design. Create safe objects of long-term value. And eliminate the concept of waste, which might be the most crucial principle. Not minimizing waste that's not real efficiency. We must eliminate the entire concept of waste and learn to rely on natural energy flows. Nature doesn't mortgage the past or the future. We shouldn't either.

More principles: Waste equals food. Use current solar income. Respect diversity. The big debate between commerce and environmentalists today is growth/no growth. Business says we have to have growth for the benefit of commerce. Environmentalists say growth is destroying the world. Well, isn't the real question, "What do you want to grow?" Wouldn't we rather grow prosperity, not ignorance? Wouldn't we rather grow intelligence, not stupidity? Wouldn't we rather grow health, not sickness? What do we want to grow?

The design criteria we use are different than most people's. We start with cost/performance/aesthetics, the same ones everybody uses: Can I afford it? Does it work? Do I like it? At architecture school, we obviously reverse that order. But we add: Is it ecologically intelligent? Is it fair? And is it fun?

If waste equals food, everything's a nutrient. If everything's a nutrient, it belongs in a metabolism. What are the metabolisms of the world? Well, there's life itself, which we call the biological, and there's the human-made technical metabolism. Design should fit into both these cycles. A biological product is something that you can consume. It goes back to soil.

Technical products we call products of service. You really want the service, not necessarily the ownership. If I had a TV hiding behind this podium, and I said, "I have an amazing object that provides incredible service, but before I tell you what it does, let me tell you what it is, and you tell me if you want this in your house. It has 4,360 chemicals; it's full of toxic, heavy metals; it has an explosive glass tube; and we think you ought to put it at eye-level with your children and encourage them to play with it." Do you want this in your house?

Why are we selling people hazardous waste? What you want to do is watch TV, not own hazardous material. These should be products of service. You want to design them so they go back to the same industry from whence they came. The idea of designing for durability is insane at this point. If I took my computer and said, "I've got this computer I just bought. It's going to last me for 25 years." You would say, "You are an idiot." What I want is its service until its chips are obsolete in two years. It should be designed to go back and back and back forever instead of destroying the world.

What we're looking at is the idea of celebration of abundance instead of the bemoaning of limits. We're using too much stuff over time. We have to use less stuff over time. We're saying, let's change time to stuff, and stuff to intelligence. We'll get smarter and smarter and smarter and use less and less stuff because we'll learn to sequester materials for human use in technical and/or biological cycles, and then we can leave the rest of the world alone and still prosper.

We're designing a building for Oberlin College which will make more energy than it needs to operate. It's a building that's like a tree. It pays back its energy mortgage. This is using nature as a human tool. Our goal was to design a building that makes oxygen, sequesters carbon, fixes nitrogen, distills water, accrues solar energy as fuel, makes complex sugars and food, creates micro-climates, builds soil, changes with the seasons, and self-replicates. In the building we built, sewage is treated in a living machine, designed by John Todd, at the entrance to the auditorium.

We're applying these ideas to the carpet industry. Yesterday, one of the largest carpet companies in the country joined some other companies that have adopted our protocol. Carpets will become products of service. When you buy a carpet, what you want is acoustics, comfort, and so on, but the product should be designed to go back to the industry, not to a landfill.

We're also doing work with Nike, postulating that the future of a shoe should be that the soles would abrade, and instead of being terrifying for worms, it would be healthful, and the uppers are new polyesters that are infinitely recyclable. We're designing a shower gel that makes fish happy when it hits the water. We're looking at automobiles and studying their materials flows to understand how many materials are going through the actual recycling. We're positing that the materials in cars will become cars again forever. We're hoping to be able to issue environmental statements which track every molecule moving through a company and show how we're using the tool to create constant improvement.

For buildings, we've designed factories for Herman Miller. One won Business Week's Design for Business Award for the best building in America for business. That factory's performance is up 24 percent with the same number of people, and they're delivering $30 million to the bottom line every six months. The building cost $15 million to make. We gave everybody fresh air and daylight. They wear aloha shirts and make furniture and performance is up. Go figure.

For The Gap in San Bruno, California, we designed their corporate campus and we said, "Wouldn't it be wonderful if the roof was an ancient landscape of grasses of this area so if the birds were flying overhead, they would look down and say, 'Oh, it's our people.'" The roof undulates so that the people inside feel like they're working under a cloud all day. We use nighttime air to pre-cool the building so that everybody can use 100 percent fresh air and daylight all day long. It just won an award from PG&E as one of the most efficient buildings in California, but we never designed it to be efficient. The building it was competing against was a building that was designed to minimize daylight and minimize fresh air. This is 100 percent daylight, 100 percent fresh air. Why are we designing buildings? For the building? Or for people?

For Nike, we've done a new corporate campus that's the largest geothermal system in Holland. It's designed for photovoltaics and grass. It recirculates its water.

Our most recent project, the Rouge plant, has been approved by the board of Ford Motor Company. It's a $2 billion project over 20 years, the first vertically integrated industrial facility in the world. Coal and iron ore come in at one end, cars come out the other. We're redoing it based on a new vision for the chairman, Henry Ford's great grandson. The basic strategy is to go back seven generations and take a look at the site and see where we started. Take a look at it when the first Henry Ford got there and take a look at it today, and then ask ourselves what the next seven generations of this site will look like? Our goal will be for the factory itself to get integrated into the ecology of the place. The surest way to heal an ecosystem in ill health is to connect it to more of itself.

Humans as tools for nature. This idea of humans making smaller footprints is ridiculous. We need bigger footprints, but we should leave behind wetlands. We can celebrate the abundance of the natural world. We can celebrate what makes us special: our intentionality. We have creativity and we have hope. We celebrate the wonders of nature and allow our children's children's children's children's children's children's children to celebrate life and the pursuit of happiness, free from the intergenerational, remote tyranny of bad design.

The 2001 Bioneers Conference was held October 19-21. Contact: Collective Heritage Institute toll-free at 1-877-BIONEER; website: www.bioneers.org. McDonough's website: www.mcdonough.com

THE WORLD CHANGED TODAY: Bill McDonough and the Birth of the Sustainable Economy

This is a video about the revolution Bill McDonough is leading to transform the relationship of nature and commerce, featuring McDonough's projects at Ford Motor Company, Herman Miller Furniture, Nike Corporation, DesignTex/Rohner Textil, Oberlin College, and Volvo. It can be valuable for business, schools, groups, and discussion forums.

Produced by Earthome. $35.00, including shipping and handling. To order or for more information contact: Shelley Morhaim P.O. Box 212 Stevenson, MD 21153; (410) 419-3012; E-mail: filmwork@earthome.org

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