William McDonough's buildings touch the ecosystem with the lightest of hands, with solar panels, grass roofs, skylights, copious inflows of fresh air - elements that bring the structure into an aesthetic and environmental friendship with the natural surroundings.
In simpler times, when the battle lines of the environmental movement were clearly drawn, his ideas, his architecture, and probably his commissions would have remained on the fringes. But today, Mr. McDonough's clientele includes such corporate powers as The Gap, Nike, Ford Motor Co., and myriad smaller firms, for which he has built eco-friendly offices and factories and lectured on the catastrophic consequences of the architecture of the industrial age.
"The fundamental design principle that seems to have been at work is if brute force doesn't work, you're not using enough of it," he said in an interview with the Monitor, following the Boston premier of "The Next Industrial Revolution," a documentary film about his work.
"We make things and throw them away. We burn the oil and forget what happens to it.... I don't think the earth has the capacity or even the inherent structural design to accommodate human activity at this rate in this form."
McDonough is the brains behind the $2 billion overhaul of Ford's River Rouge factory, a smoking, groaning 1,000-acre hulk atop the Michigan mud flats. In its heyday, in World War II, 120,000 people worked there.
It was a scene in shades of industrial gray; even color photographs taken from the air in the old days looked like black and white.
But the principal color on McDonough's palette is green, and it has been applied lavishly to the Rouge. Birds have flown back to nest in the 1,500 trees that have replaced large tracts of asphalt. A 454,000-square-foot carpet of native grasses is draped over the roof, soaking up rainwater and cooling the building as the water transpires, while cutting down on runoff. As a result, stormwater treatment is expected to cost only $13 million a year for the plant, compared with $48 million for a conventional system of pipes, according to McDonough.
"[The Rouge] is sending a signal that we wish to engage propitiously with the natural world. Another factory might have changed its plumbing and its pumps to save 15 percent on energy as an environmental gesture. But they are simply trying to be less bad. They aren't making oxygen."
McDonough, who holds a research chair at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, is well aware that feel-good talk of a sustainable Utopia doesn't cut much ice with corporate financial officers. He says the key to getting business to go green is to make the sustainable technology so profitable that cost-conscious executives can't afford not to change.
"Capitalism must honor ecological intelligence, the natural world, and the need of commerce to prosper," he says. "We need examples that are attractive so people can say, 'Why can't I have that?' "
According to management at Herman Miller Inc., for whom McDonough designed a manufacturing complex, the award-winning design pays for its cost and then some by increasing worker productivity.
"Commerce is the engine of change. We need business people to rally behind this change to make it happen faster," says McDonough.
That statement encapsulates his efforts to bring about a rapprochement between corporate America and the environmental movement. One colleague in the environmental movement calls him "our great translator," because he can defend the dreams of the environmental movement with arguments that an MBA can understand. The goal should be, McDonough says, "[for us] to reintegrate ourselves with the natural world," which can be accomplished by exploiting " solar income," for instance. By doing so, he adds, "we're honoring a strategy of hope."
His polished yet folksy appearance works the same way. His bow tie distinguishes him in a sea of neckties at corporate gatherings, while lending him an air of prudent conservatism. When asked about his spiritual and architectural influences, he cites the Aborigines of the east coast of Australia, but also the Founding Fathers of the United States, particularly Thomas Jefferson.
McDonough has a theory that Jefferson anticipated the circulation technology of contemporary sustainable architecture by placing a skylight over his bed to facilitate the flow of cool air from the basement. "He cooled himself in a duct. Unbelievable! That's exactly what we're doing at the [River] Rouge."