Who is William McDonough?

8 10 2013

A follower of DTM left a comment underneath that nuclear energy post of Dave Kimble’s overnight.  Graham pointed me to this architect called William McDonough whom I had never heard of before.  So I did some follow up, and found he was on Ted Talk about six years ago.  Here is the talk in question…….

Now you have also watched this video, I wonder what you think of it?  He is a cool speaker, no doubt about it.  About half way through, I started thinking of the days when I got swept up by Amory Lovins, whose similarly styled optimism had me all sucked in, believing in hydrogen powered fuel celled ‘hypercars’, none of which, after more than ten years, ever made it to the pavement….. now I’ve discovered why: they actually worked together on that carpet project which I remember well from Lovins’ book ‘Factor 4’….

For those who came to know McDonough from within the environmental and design movements — those whose labors rarely reach the ears of Laurie David — an alternative narrative exists about him. Until now, it has been shielded from the mainstream for two reasons: First, McDonough has done more than most to popularize the very idea of cleaning up the world, and for that, even his detractors agree he deserves thanks; second, if word gets out that he may not be all that he appears, the overall cause of sustainability could suffer. “He’s been incredibly important and valuable in this role as visionary,” says Auden Schendler, executive director of sustainability at Aspen Skiing Co. “The problem is that sometimes the theorists like McDonough will represent themselves as practitioners, and that’s where the guys in the trenches get frustrated.”

The carpet company Interface was in the trenches far earlier than most. Way back in 1995, it decided to pull together an Eco Dream Team of the most influential thinkers on the environment who believed business could be a force of change; it included Lovins and her Rocky Mountain Institute cofounder (and then-husband) Amory Lovins, Smith & Hawken cofounder Paul Hawken, and McDonough, then the new dean of UVA’s architecture school. The group was hired to advise on Interface’s environmental transformation, which included recycling — a radical move in a famously dirty industry.


There was a time, writes A.K. Streeter from that infamous Tree Hugger website, “when I scoured the Internet for info about the Chinese villages of Huangbaiyu. That’s because I was writing articles about eco-cities of the future, and amazingly enough, Huangbaiyu, design child of William McDonough, and its housing project was an eco-city contender. I wrote my stories, aided immeasurably by a (then) graduate student named Shannon May. Other stories critical of the project surfaced. The hype was over and the Huangbaiyu houses ended up as empty uninhabited shells. What exactly happened? A partial picture emerges from May’s new web site story about the village.  Master Plan crumbles.  As May explains, McDonough’s Master Plan for the Huangbaiyu village was ambitious, and the housing was supposed to be a model of “Cradle-to-Cradle” innovations.  Two model homes would show off systems that handled “biological nutrients” and “technical nutrients” 40 further homes would showcase integrated potable and grey water community systems, and a biomass gasification facility for homes’ heating and cooking.  And that was just Phase 1! But as May says:

“Conflicts of interest, desire for rapid scale, personal aggrandizement, a persistently global perspective, technical inexperience, faulty materials, lack of oversight, and poor communication, amongst other things, ensured that the promise of a model ecological development in Huangbaiyu never came to pass.”

Now the shells of the Huangbaiyu houses sit empty, and McDonough has moved on.”

Has he………  It’s a real bummer to discover a visionary, and on the same day find out he’s “moved on”…

But for me, this comment left on the Ted Talk website beneath McDonough’s talk encapsulates how I felt about the lecture….

Jan 6 2013: McDonough introduces the honourable goal, “How do we love the children of all species for all time?” He then focuses on design for humans, assuming we need carpet and cars.

He asks anthropocentric questions relating to human quality of life, and leaves an equity gap. Bunny’s live in a hole and eat local plants. Three hundred and fifty pound auto workers in the U.S. live in houses, commute to work, surf the web, and eat processed food.

One building is a liability for birds, the other an asset because it provides a nesting ground. This disregards the disappeared natural habitat, ecological footprint, and modification of the bird species by the human one.

Where’s the love?

The paradigm remains expanding living environments for humans, attempting to mitigate the impact.
His work in China, housing 400 million people in twelve years is gigantic. And the next twelve years? Assuming this type of urban living facilitates happiness lacks humility. Is humanity’s design to continually adjust our happiness criteria to an ever more crowded and unsustainable world?

All nutrient cycling aside, this city will destroy another natural environment for humans. Then, another set of cities? Closed loop systems mean biological or technological nutrients no longer need to be introduced. Meeting the needs of a growing population would require more resource.

Earth is finite. This diverts from determining need and responsibly honouring the earth’s biological carrying capacity. This work is about amending the planet with technology to improve our existence, products, and lifestyles. BAU. Humans as dominant species remains to be seen.

Indigenous need based cultures understand the sacred aspect of humility. Our happiness deficit is a symptom of not understanding our place in the web of life, and our disrupted spiritual connection with nature. That deficit won’t be cleared by efficient buildings or engineered wetlands. When we stop calling “it” the “environment” we can applaud.

Thank you Dennis Duckett, whoever you are….  McDonough doesn’t ‘get it’ any more than Amory Lovins.  Here we are starring in the sixth global extinction, and all these visionaries want is more of the same only different.  Maybe it’s just what people do when they can’t handle the truth.  it’s a shame really, because the solution simply lies in doing nothing…..  and how hard is that?