Eternal Optimist

Architect William McDonough has witnessed China’s rapid modernization and sees hope for sustainable development.

For the past several years China has been modernizing at a frightening, almost unfathomable pace. It is not an exaggeration to say that there is no precedent for it. As China has plunged headlong into the twenty-first century, American architecture and planning firms have followed, more than willing to assist government officials and newly “privatized” developers in the massive effort. China is still, for the time being, where the action is—and the scramble for work by Western firms resembles an architectural gold rush.

All this raises serious questions: What are the long-term consequences of this feverish activity? Can the Earth survive a gas-guzzling (Americanized) China? Is it already too late to develop ideas that would help China realize a more ecological future? Not surprisingly, architect William McDonough—a man whose solution to the SUV was a sustainable SUV—is cautiously optimistic on China. Like countless other American firms, William McDonough + Partners has an active presence there. Recently Metropolis executive editor Martin C. Pedersen talked to McDonough about his work in China, the future of sustainable development, and the gifts China might bestow on us.

What are you doing in China, and who’s the client?
We’re working with the China Housing Industry Association (CHIA) and a group of developers to create templates for cities based on the cradle-to-cradle protocol. What we do is examine sites—some of which are as big as 20 square kilometers—through a different set of lenses. We look at them, for example, as if we were a migrating bird: What would we want to see there in terms of evolution? We also look at it from the ground: What am I doing here? That’s one lens. Another lens would be hydrology. What if I’m groundwater, or a raindrop? So we work from the sky into the earth. We’re the master planners for seven sites. And the basic point is that if you look at the world through a new set of lenses, suddenly the ecosystem becomes your infrastructure.

Who hires you?
The government asks private developers if they would be interested in working with us. They give out the properties and work with CHIA, which is the consortium of private developers charged with building housing. It used to be central government planning, but it’s been turned over to regional authorities as well as developers because there’s so much to do. The Chinese are going to house 400 million people in the next 12 years. It’s the largest migration of humans in history. Essentially they’re rebuilding the housing stock of two Americas—in 12 years.

Is there any precedent for this pace of modernization?
Of course not, except for, say, rebuilding Chicago after the fire or Tokyo after the war.

You grew up in Hong Kong. When you returned to China in 1994, were you appalled at the environmental situation there?
I’ve never been appalled. When you see how much can happen so quickly, it’s very frightening; but at the same time, it is what it is. Our job is to work with reality, start on the ground, and then imagine what a future might look like. A number of years ago someone asked me, “Mr. McDonough, how long is this sustainability stuff going to take?” I said, “It’s going to take forever. That’s the point.” And it will take forever. Can I turn it around tomorrow? No. Nobody can. What I’m simply looking at is how we can chart a course.

These Chinese projects are huge. Where do you start?
We look at the existing situation. Everything in China is under way at a fierce rate, so it’s not a tabula rasa. Some of these projects have been master planned, and we haven’t reworked them yet. We adjust some existing plans as best we can. Others we do from scratch. What we’re looking at is developing planning templates that people can take and use for their own projects. We want to spread the word as fast as we can because this is a fierce commotion. CHIA did a mass-energy study on what would happen if all 400 million units were built with brick. They’d lose all their soil and burn all their coal. You’d have cities, but you wouldn’t have any food or energy. That’s how big this is. In fact, 174 jurisdictions have made brick illegal.

In addition to planning, your firm is also involved in the countryside.
Yes, we’re looking at how to upgrade rural housing so that we can maintain the historical farm villages. There’s a movement in China to move everyone into cities. We’re looking at how people can stay in the country and still afford to live there, where now there’s abject poverty. We want to design a house for $3,500, which represents ten years of income to a family. We’re working with BASF, the world’s largest chemical company, to develop a way of using toxin-free polystyrene foam. We’d put thin concrete skins on both sides. It’d be like big foam-core board, which we’d run on the outside of the house, like putting a big sleeping bag over it. It’s a one-time use of natural gas to make a building that’s superefficient and doesn’t need natural gas. That’s the strategy to replace brick on the large technological scale.

Can China modernize at this pace without causing long-term consequences for the planet?
This is the same as asking, Can we continue to operate the way we do without creating long-term consequences to the planet? We recognize now that no large-scale system that has deleterious effects can produce anything other than long-term tragedy. For me, we’re all dust, so the question becomes, What can we do—given the information we have—to celebrate the abundance of the planet? China offers unique opportunities as well as grave concerns. It will be the first country to do massive solarization, and that will be a gift to us because they’ll bring the price down. This has to happen because coal is the default resource for future energy use.

And that would be a doomsday scenario.
Yes, as far as I’m concerned, the discussion about coal and hydrogen is all talk. The real question is, When do we become solar? With China and India coming online, and us still trying to grow our fuel-fed economy, coal and solar are the only forms of energy available widely enough to meet soaring demand. Clearly we must create something that is cheaper than coal. Everything else is noise. It’s not a public-policy question, it’s an economic question. Don’t forget that solar energy is a form of nuclear power—nuclear fusion. It’s just that we have our reactor exactly where we need it: 93 million miles away. That’s one of the things I’m working on most vigorously in China. When I explained this to the White House, they said, “Oh no, the Chinese will get all the jobs again.” But for every job produced making a solar collector, there are four local jobs created. The Chinese will never be able to capture an American kilowatt. They can’t capture our photons; they’re inherently local. So there can be huge amounts of job creation implementing this stuff.

What has to happen in China for them to modernize in a way that’s consistent with helping the planet?
If we look at the history of production since the beginning of the industrial revolution—which followed 4,000 years of agriculture, which followed a million-plus years of evolution—we can see that the first instincts, the hard-wiring of the human species, are as hunter-gatherers. We’re opportunistic people. Then we see, with the dawn of agriculture, that we become nurturers, because we’ve become settled in place and need to understand nutrient flow. We have to keep refurbishing the soil every year in order to perpetuate ourselves, and our population grows.

In the first industrial revolution there’s a whole new range of opportunism that arrives with fossil fuels. We make ammonia to get the nitrogen out of the air. We mine phosphates, we develop a mineral-based supplement to agriculture. Suddenly, within three generations—even in China, where agriculture has been going on for 40 centuries—we adopt chemical agriculture. Why? Because we’re an opportunistic species. If we can take it, we’ll grab it.

And this supersedes our other better, impulses?
Clearly, the nurturing instinct is soft-wired. We’re hard-wired hunter-gatherers; we’re programmed nurturers. The next opportunity is to run that out. Einstein said, “No problem can be solved by the same consciousness that created it.” If we look at the consciousness involved in the first industrial revolution, it was “take fossil fuels and burn them,” with the only design principle being that if brute force doesn’t work, you’re not using enough of it. That’s pure opportunism, hunter-gathering.

That’s playing itself out in China. We’re getting a huge quantity of haves against a huge quantity of have-nots. Everybody on the planet understands that’s not a tenable long-term relationship. The next consciousness we need is to merge opportunism with the nurturing instinct of ecological and social systems. What we want is a social market economy that honors both. What’s been missing is ecology, which is the famous triad of sustainable development: economy, equity, ecology. That’s what we’re bringing to our work.

So instead of a planner just coming in and drawing a grid like they typically do—and forget the contours, because bulldozers take care of that, pipes take away the water—what’s sewage treatment but a liability that you try to deal with? We look at sewage treatment as an asset. We’re going to auction [the rights] off to the highest bidder. They’re fertilizer factories that make gas. Who wants it? Who will pay the most for it? It’s a nitrogen phosphate factory that produces the cooking fuel for the city.

So I think the optimistic view would be that we come up with a way to understand opportunism and connect it to nurturing, which creates profit for business but also restores ecological systems. The pessimistic view would be that we continue with the present system—lean production producing dangerous things.

From your experience, where do you think we are now?
We’re at the very beginning of the next run. What’s fun is, I was just in Tokyo for Fortune magazine last week, giving a talk to senior business people. The positioning was really interesting, because what we were talking about essentially was our strategy in adopting the principles of Deming. Do you know Deming?

W. Edwards Deming was an American statistician who went into the factories during World War II to study how woman were doing, while the men when off fighting. They out-produced the men. They had no failures, no lemons, no rejects. When he looked he found that they sat in circles, they talked to each other. They didn’t accept the idea of inspection because they didn’t want to make anything flawed, they didn’t have hierarchies, they didn’t have quotas…

They had a different culture…
They said, “We’re going to make a perfect thing, and that’s as many as we can make.” The men came back and threw Deming out, saying, “We just won the war, we have quotas, get out of here.” So he went to Japan. The highest industrial prize in Japan is the Deming prize.

I’m really interested in total quality. Now Toyota’s production system, for example, is lean manufacturing. They’re lean, very smart. They talk to each other all the time. But it’s lean production of technologies that we’re discovering to be dangerous. They’re degenerative from a planetary perspective. So we have lean technologies—lean tech making dirty tech. What we’re looking at for the future is clean-tech.

Which would be lean tech, by its very nature.
That would be clean production: Lean vs. clean. Instead of dirty tech, clean tech. The question is no longer, “How efficiently can I make this and sell it in the marketplace?” The question is, “Am I making something the right way?” Efficiency has no value, per se.

What if you’re a Nazi, right? An efficient Nazi is worse than an inefficient Nazi. So the questions is not, “Am I doing it the right way?” The first question is, “Am I doing the right thing? Then I’ll go about doing it the right way.”

If we keep doing lean production of dirty technology…well, that’s why cars are so scary. What if we did clean production of clean technology? That’s where we’re focusing in China. What are the massive, large-scale, clean technologies that the rest of the world needs that would serve in China as well? What would benefit everyone? Because if they could come up with the technologies that allow us to capture our photons, purify our water, these are inherently sustainable strategies. Sustainability, just like politics, is local. It can be only be measured locally.

If China could use its ability to mass-produce things at very low cost, then allow local communities to access their abundance of resources in healthy, delightful ways, that’s a gift that China can give the rest of us, and we’ll be very happy to outsource the production.

Recent Programs