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Green saviour or eco-maniac?

US architect William McDonough is touring the world with a message of how top business leaders can go green

Imagine a list of firms that you would be least likely to see on the books of a committed environmentalist: Ford Motor Company, Nike, IBM, Monsanto, Wal-Mart, Gap. The list of multinationals reads like an anarchists' hit list. But all form part of the portfolio of William McDonough + Partners, an environmentally based architectural and research practice from Charlottesville, US.

While his client base is reputed to be worth more than half a trillion US dollars and includes some of the biggest names in global corporatism, McDonough is hailed by Time magazine as one of the 'heroes for the planet'. A man who says that 'we must begin to look at the modern world and develop habitats that are intrinsically connected to nature.We need to redesign our lives to be part of the natural flow of life on Earth'.

His partner, Michael Braungart of McDonough-Braungart Design Chemistry, a spin-off chemical research company, is the ex-founder ofGreenpeace's chemical division. A very useful poacher-turned-gamekeeper? McDonough does not see things that way.While all of his clients are regularly criticised as the very emblems of an irresponsibly capitalistic world, he is unrepentant in saying that green might be good, but profitability is what business is all about.

When it seems that many cultural commentators claim to be anti-capitalist, it is almost refreshing to see someone making a good oldfashioned business case for the market mechanism, albeit a green one.

Although McDonough is much in demand on the world's conference circuit, on this occasion, we were at a guest presentation at the offices of Gazeley Properties in Milton Keynes.

After the main presentation, there followed a closed business strategy meeting with his hosts, where McDonough was undoubtedly hoping to increase his portfolio further. He is not averse to developing his own business case.

Waste banned

His speech was a mixture of relentless business sense and Walton's mountain home-spun philosophy. Where else could you be told that the central organising principle of design is that 'we must love all children, of all species, for all time'. The audience in Milton Keynes politely kept smiling.

In his seminal pamphlet, 'The Next Industrial Revolution', McDonough argues that we need to eliminate the concept of waste; that everything 'manufactured by industry must, after each useful life, provide nourishment for something new'.

'There used to be something called 'away', ' he says.We let that sink in. Just as the expressions of concern, that McDonough had said something weird again, were forming on the faces of the audience, he launched into the punch line: 'We used to throw things 'away', but now we all know that whatever we discard has consequences.We can't throw things 'away' anymore.'

He criticises mainstream eco-efficiency for restricting industry and curtailing growth - recognising that it tries 'to try to limit the creativity and productiveness of humankind'. This is what allegedly sets McDonough apart from other radical proponents of environmentalism - his refutation of eco-efficiency. Instead of designing for recycling and all that, he wants a world in which waste ceases to be waste.

Unfortunately, his is an almost mystical vision and one that is not all that different to eco-efficiency when you get down to it. His ideal production system is the cherry tree; a system of regeneration that, no matter that only a few seeds out of many thousands germinate, the 'wasted' seeds become part of the earth, not alien to it.

In the process of challenging the poverty of ideas within the sustainability industry, he dismisses one of its more positive by-products, namely the desire to 'do more with less'. At the end of the day, while he has a new spin, he is still wedded to Amory Lovins' resource productivity model in wanting productivity measured by 'how many people are gainfully and meaningfully employed'. In the final analysis, and in the name of progress, this is comparable to celebrating the productivity of pre-industrialism.

William's Bill

A polished performer, McDonough has a great line in name-dropping and self-effacement - all at the same time.

Slides of poor shanties in China where he was brought up sat alongside the fact that his father was president of Seagram Overseas division. Last week he was chatting to Michael Dell (you know, of Dell computers), next week he is meeting President Bush.

He lives in a house in Virginia designed by his hero Thomas Jefferson, and has tried to update the third President's Bill of Rights as a model for his work, one which he labels the Bill of Responsibilities. 'Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and freedom from remote tyranny' in the original US constitution, becomes translated into 'ecological intelligence, justice, fun and freedom from intergenerational remote tyranny'. What he calls a Declaration of Interdependence rather than a Declaration of Independence.

Don't try this at home

His ability to convince clients to adopt his philosophy is legendary.

When he arrived for the presentation of his proposals for an international competition for the design of Nike's European HQ in Hilversum, Holland, he did not bring any drawings or models; not even a proposal. His explanation to the waiting jury was that it would have been 'stupid and arrogant' to have turned up with a scheme for a site he had never seen and a client he had never met. He got the job. By continuing this naive, non-arrogant position with planners, with whom he developed his proposals 'by listening', the 150,000m 2project was approved in three weeks, whereas the client had programmed for one year's haggling.

Among proposals to make Chicago the greenest city in the world, building IBM's European headquarters and developing a bio-degradable shoe, he is currently working on a $2 billion, 20-year scheme to upgrade and refurbish Ford's Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan. The 45,000m roof of one of the buildings will be a green habitat specifically engineered and researched with local naturalists to encourage previously indigenous species to return. Species, that is, that were believed to live there before the plant was built a century ago.

His business sense carries the day on many of his suggestions. For example, Ford was set to reject his proposals for $13million-worth of storm water drainage around the site, until he pointed out that, to comply with updated local by-laws, they would have to spend $48 million on chemical water treatment and pipework. The storm water proposal by McDonough comprises an open ditch, meandering around the site, self-cleansing in the manner of a stream, 'which means', he adds, 'that the client gets landscaping for free'.

His lateral thinking is one of the reasons he succeeds. He has eliminated all but four air-con units on the massive body shop roof and replaced the huge internal ductwork with local ground level air-cushion carpets.

'Why spend energy and money ventilating such a massive space when the people occupy such a narrow movement path?'Now air is directly wafted up at workers along their production line and automatically cuts out on breaks for even higher efficiency. In this way, he has reduced the heating load by 600 per cent.

Soft soap, hard sell

When railing against the problems of modern production, he looked forward to the day when enterprises will produce, say, soap, locally; reducing costs by cutting down on delivery distances, selling it without packaging.

Maybe he has not been in the country long enough to visit Beamish Museum, but that is what he is describing.

This parochialism would, he argued, help other similar small businesses flourish in proximity. Admittedly, he wants to reinvest the savings made from selling basic goods, back into the next round of production, but I do not think that it is going to be feasible to try and relive the last 100 years of capitalist production over again in this way. Even if it was possible, would life turn out any differently?

In the midst of all his great ideas, there is the recurring theme in McDonough's presentation of how life could be simpler. Apple pie cooked on a solar stove. With apologies to Sean O'Hagan, McDonough is 'old-fashioned and visionary, traditional and groundbreaking'. In the meantime, business is good and President Bush is certain to be very receptive to the southern philosophising.

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