Thursday, October 23, 2008

The 'Bill Gates of Sustainability'

There is little doubt that the reputation of William McDonough (WMD) and that of green design are somewhat synonymous. As one of the fore-fathers of this modern 'green boom' we are in the midst of, and one of the thought leaders of our time, WMD has occupied a spot near the apex of this architectural and sustainable design subsets. Is this elevation to near-royalty status deserved? Fast Company offers begs to differ.

:: image via Fast Company

Titled 'Green Guru Gone Wrong' along with a url subtext of - 'the mortal messiah'... this comprehensive article by Danielle Sacks outlines a number of critical beefs with WMD... such as the celebrity hob-nobbing, the poor record as Dean of UVA, the half-realized ideas, misleading claims, the lack of adoption of Cradle-to-Cradle certification, and the down and out failures of design and planning. But to fall from such heights - it requires an equal and previous rise to the top.

This meteoric rise has been notable, as Sacks states in the article: "No one has migrated from the fringes of enviro-geek design to the soft spotlight of pop culture as gracefully as McDonough. Long before the word "sustainability" was part of the average CEO's vocabulary -- and before, as McDonough puts it, "LEED [the green building standard] was even a twinkle in somebody's eye" -- he had begun postulating a third industrial revolution, one with the potential to transform how goods are made, cities are built, and literally everything is broken down and reused. His radical cradle-to-cradle philosophy demands that every product be designed for disassembly at the end of its lifetime, either returning harmlessly to the soil or going back into a "closed-loop industrial cycle" to be reused. With mainstream America beginning to see that we may have a planetary problem on our hands, McDonough has come to be seen as both a prophet and a savior. If only it were that simple."

But the real question is, who exactly is the author of these mind-blowing ideas...? As mentioned in the article: "Harrison S. Fraker Jr., dean of the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley, demurs: "Sustainable design started long before McDonough even opened his office... . McDonough gets credit for everything because he is such a good promoter of all the good things he has done... . I hate to see false myths perpetuated." Even the term cradle to cradle, for which McDonough has applied for a trademark, isn't his at all. According to Hunter Lovins, cofounder of the Rocky Mountain Institute think tank, "Walter Stahel in Switzerland actually coined the phrase 25 years ago, long before Bill started using it."

So is it a valid criticism, or the inevitable pot-shots at the man on top of our green world. Here's some of the highlights. "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 resume is definitely there, with a career of good quality green design that has pushed the envelope (Ford River Rouge Plant, 901 Cherry GAP Headquarters, Oberlin's Lewis Center, the EDF offices . Is the label of messiah justified? It's not for me to say. I don't know what to think really... as I've been very influenced by both Cradle to Cradle and McDonough's other writings (i.e. Buildings like Trees) and work around innovative sustainability. Part of me raised hackles at this criticism, but the other half relishes the toppling of individual names and figures in what is always and significantly a collaborative endeavor. I've discussed this many times - the lionization of the figure vs. the applause for the lowly concept or ugh, team. We love individuals that we can place on pedestals... things don't fit and groups are too big for our pedestal - it must be a person (see here for further rant on this subject).

There is definitely something of a vision at play versus vision in action. One of the major flaws is that a number of the concepts proposed by WMD are downright visionary. Although visions are powerful and often able to create excitement, they sometimes fail when one attempts to realize them in a concrete form. It's a paradox, one that WMD mentions in the article as a benefit to his multi-faceted toolbox. "McDonough points to a rendering he created of an ecologically correct Chinese city. It is a utopian image of a skyline that looks more like a sugarcane field, he says, with lush foliage in place of conventional roofs. A mother and son are farming on one. "That's what's so great about having an architecture firm," he says. "We can render ideas visible -- it's really fun."

Visible is one thing. Successful visions are another, as there has been ample criticism (see Frontline documentary) of the failure to develop a viable community in China's Huangbaiyu region, which was aimed at creating a model eco-village, and became a poster-child for Western brio causing cross-cultural failure. Rob Watson is quoted simply: "...Nobody's living there, nobody moved in. It's sitting there, literally, rotting."

And Shannon May, a PhD student from Berkeley added a litany of charges: "...everything from the village's overall design to its construction was deeply flawed. The homes were suburban-tract style with garages, despite the fact that only four of the expected 1,400 villagers had cars. The backyards were too small for growing feed corn or raising animals, which the villagers needed to make their living. But most absurd to her eye was the plan to use agricultural waste to fuel the biogas plant to power the village: leftover corncobs and stalks were the winter food supply for the cashmere goats, the area's leading source of cash. Using them meant the goats would starve."

WMD is now chalking this failure to experience, which in a way is valid and constructive... but there's still some outstanding issues of what to do about it - and to acknowledge that failure is part of the game - something it sounds like is difficult for him to acknowledge. If everyone is telling you you're right and listening raptly to what you say - it's pretty hard to admit you were wrong. And there's been more failures for sure (read GreenBlue) and the overzealous policing of the term Cradle to Cradle. Or maybe it's just greed, as mentioned in a story... "One corporate sustainability chief, who asked not to be named, says that when McDonough pitched his company to consult, the architect said, " 'I want to be the Bill Gates of sustainability,' and [that] he wants to make a royalty off of every green standard and every green product out there." The company saw the statements as a red flag and decided not to bring him on board."

Amongst the many criticisms is the marking of territory and terminology, where every snippet of idea becomes the domain of an individual. As mentioned in the article during the famous Interface carpet transformation sessions with the Lovins', Paul Hawken, WMD and others: "At the time, Hunter Lovins says, "Bill was trying to gain the reputation as the thought leader in this field, going around trademarking terms." (McDonough has applied for more than a dozen trademarks, including "triple top line" and "ride the wind.")"

[Sidebar: As I evaluate this, I must conclude that Veg.itecture obviously needs to be trademarked, as well as the remainder of my poorly crafted versions of hyperbolic portmanteaux in the blending of Landscape+Urbanism. On second thought, perhaps the term L+U and it's variants should be trademarked as well - as the landscape urbanists lay claim to the general concept and term - the simple variation of the additional 'plus' gives it a new connotation and layered meaning that I must truly consider my own. WMD would appreciate that :)]

So do we respect the man for his contributions to sustainable design? 100 percent. WMDs contributions to the cause - and perhaps his making it a cause célèbre is worthy of admiration and respect. He's been put on this lofty pedestal - and perhaps he wanted to be put there. But as all of us who secretly want the notoriety and fame of a WMD - we sometimes forget that the higher one is held up, the harder one can fall. All in all, McDonough will still be considered one of the fathers of this important time... but he will also be joined by others on the pedestal - so I guess one thing we'll have to do is get to work making said pedestal big enough for everyone.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Great commentary on the WMD Fast Company article and pulling together some other written examples.

    We had a fairly vocal debate between a few people after work on friday on the article, some people found it troubling that WMD have in some ways portrayed the new green movement by not coming clean on failures and admitting that they did fail and that others should learn from their mistakes.

    Other were totally against the article and couldn't believe that Bill was this greedy and that he should be supported rather than attacked for the 'small' problems and that he probably made some oversights in not removing projects from his slideshow.

    Whilst others thought that there are real issues with some of these '(r)evolutionary' visions and the implementation is that they are often designed many thousands of miles away from the site by designers who don't understand the culture, haven't visited the site, and don't speak to the end consumers. and that the implementation of the visions needs to be just as rigorous as the debate and process of formulating the vision.

    The general consensus was that yes Bill has some great ideas and visions. Some of those are not his entirely his vision but he is a good mouth piece for the cause.
    All these visions should be supported and that there will be ups and downs especially in the current business environment but we should al try our hardest to use the visions as inspiration to design better cities from the macro to the micro scale.

    Good luck with the patents and IP protection. L+U at a minimum ;-)

  3. I agree with your collaborative assessment... indeed failures are definitely a part of innovation, but we seem to shy away from ever admitting any of them - particularly those of us (i.e. not myself :) in the high-profile starchitect roles).

    If we are not periodically failing (and then stepping up and fixing said failures) then we are not pushing hard enough. On the flip side, when we do 'fail' per se - it would be good to see who is impacted and how, and if these failures can be deemed saveable?

    Definitely a thought provoking article - as it sounds like your colleagues had similar reactions as I did. I continue to see merit in WMDs ideas and ventures - but thing a bit of critical assessment may make his, and all of our work, a bit better.


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