Artist's computer rendering Ford River Rouge plant
Historic River Rouge auto factory, once the worlds largest is getting a green makeover, courtesy of Bill Ford, Jr. and Bill McDonough + Partners.

Cradle to Cradle - Part 2

Conclusion of interview with author, architect and designer, William McDonough.

By Bill Moore

To Part One

Perhaps the ultimate challenge for Bill McDonough, who was chosen in 1999 by Time magazine as one of nine "Heroes of the Planet," is to find ways for the automobile manufacturing business to apply his "cradle-to-cradle" concepts. But, surprisingly, that's exactly what he is doing for the world's second largest automaker, Ford Motor Company, among others.

As McDonough explained in part one of our interview, the "cradle-to-cradle" concept means that materials and their consequent waste ultimately provide "nutrients" to either the biological system or to the industrial system. For example, a plastic bag could serve its function as a vessel of carrying groceries or new shoes home from the store. But instead of ending up in the landfill where it will remain for hundreds of years, it will decompose within weeks, providing valuable nutrients to soil life.

Interestingly, the cover of "Cradle To Cradle" features an sport utility vehicle, clearly indicating McDonough's interest in this culture-shaping industry.

"The reason [the SUV] is on the cover is because the car is such an icon of manufacturing," he explained. "You'll notice that the blue part of it talks about technical nutrients and the green talks about biological nutrients right on the cover."

Unlike many author's whose views remain largely in the realm of theory, McDonough finds himself "deep in the auto industry working at the level of detail", especially with Ford Motor Company, as the artist's computer rendering above shows.

Here McDonough + Partners are helping Ford renovate the massive River Rouge auto assembly plant, once the pride of Henry Ford.

Intriguingly, before discussing his work with Ford, McDonough alluded to several, self-funded "offline" projects related to the auto industry that he isn't at liberty to discuss, at least until next year. He said these projects will "astonish" us and will "turn the industry on its head."

"Jaws will drop!"

He promised that EV World would be among the first to learn of these projects when he announces them in a little over a year, making it sometime early in the Fall of 2003.

"The idea is that the materials that go into the vehicle should be either biological or technical nutrients. So, if something abrades like a tire or a fabric on a chair, rather than releasing toxic heavy metals or particles that are potentially dangerous, those should release things that are safe to inhale and ingest or put into the air. So tires should abrade and become safe food for worms," he explained.

"The metals and the coatings, the polymers and the paints and the gaskets, all of those should be seen as technical nutrients. And so we design those in a protocol that allows the car at the end of its useful life to be taken apart very easily. We design for disassembly so that it can come apart and the material can go back into technical flows.

The wonderful thing about this is, details get kind of interesting. You end up with all kinds of new adhesives. We end up with new fastening techniques. It's actually hugely effective once you go through the exercise, for the actual manufacturing of the vehicle. It turns out that in order to take [the car] apart you simplify its going together which is a big benefit. You find out that a lot of these assembly processes have accrued all sorts of inefficiencies and ineffectiveness pieces."

McDonough points to the example of automotive steel, which he says at present cannot be recycled again into automotive steel, "because the coatings render the steel too low a quality. It ends up becoming building steel."

"When people talk about the steel of a car being recycled, that's not what's happening," he contends. "It's being downcycled."

His firm is working with BASF and Thyssen Steel in Germany to develop very strong, light-weight steel that will be able to compete with aluminum, one example being a new "foam" steel.

"The steel is then connected to coatings in a way that when it gets re-smelted, the coatings become nutrient for the steel. It gets better."

He noted the various types of steel would be recycled by their type so that ductile, stainless and cast steels are all recycled separately instead of being turned into what he calls a "mush."

The Car As Buffalo
McDonough uses the analogy of the native peoples of North America who found a way to use every part of the bison upon which their Plains culture depended.

"Every piece gets used," he said. "So we see this as a buffalo. Every little part; this is the loin, that's the shank, that's the hoof. . . We understand every piece of [the car]...

"The nice thing about this is when you see an SUV riding around in our protocol, which will ultimately be powered by the sun, probably by hydrogen in the long term, and electricity. . . You'd look at it and instead of thinking 'Oh, there goes the world', you'd say 'Oh look at all those technical nutrients that family is enjoying for this period of time while they drive around on the sun. Isn't that a wonderful thing.' Instead of bemoaning our existence and . . . our limits, we'd celebrate the abundance of the natural world."

Ford's Green Roof Habitats
Unlike most factory buildings in America that are ecological wastelands of tar and noisy ventilation systems, the renovated River Rouge plant outside of Detroit boasts its own ecological habit of drought-tolerant grasses and shrubs and soil system to support them. Increasingly popular in Europe and slowly becoming so in North America, these "green roofs" offer a number of important benefits.

"The marvelous thing is that when Bill Ford [Jr.] asked us to lead this project,he gave us license to really think outside the box." McDonough stated that the only stipulation was that it had to enhance shareholder value and had to be economically effective and not just ecological.

McDonough and his team, which was made up of members of his consulting firm, and what he calls some of Ford's best and brightest people, applied what he called "triple bottom line accounting" to the project. He said they didn't want to be content with just being a little better economically and a little less worse ecologically. Instead they wanted to make this project "fabulous ecologically, fabulous socially, and fabulous economically."

It would cost Ford an extra $13 million to put in the plant's green roof and to install porous paving in all the parking lots, McDonough explained. Instead of immediately dumping the runoff into storm drains as is the usual practice, it gradually makes its way into a constructed wetland where it is further purified by natural processes and from there find its way, some three days later, into the Rouge River.

Not only did this approach help reduce the cooling load on the building and attractive native birds, it turns out that when Ford looked at the cost of complying with the Clean Water Act using more conventional storm drains, the green roof project was a huge money saver.

Ford had originally planned to spend up to $48 million on storm water systems to meet its obligations under the Clean Water Act. So, by spending $13 million on the green roof and parking lots and the attendant wetlands, Ford saved $35 million dollars.

"And they got their landscape for free," McDonough notes with a pleased sense of irony. "And so the board only took a couple minutes to approve this thing," he added.

"That's what I think is exciting about this strategy." He credited Bill Ford, Jr. for his leadership in letting his people think outside the proverbial "box" to come up with new and innovative ways to enhance shareholder value.

Opening Minds Is the Hardest Sell
When asked what is the hardest aspect of his job when talking to Fortune 500 CEOs, he replied that it was getting them to consider doing something different than what they had done for the last thirty to forty years.

"A lot of senior managers in companies like this have risen to the top and they are at the end of their careers, in effect. They are like five or ten years from retirement. They've gotten there by doing something a certain way. They've been rewarded for their success at a certain strategy.

"And all of a sudden, someone like a Bill Ford [Jr.] comes along, or the other major leaders that we work with, and say, ŒI'd like to go somewhere else now. I'd like to strategize a new alternative vision. I am not saying what you did is wrong, I am simply saying I'd like to consider something new, as well.'

"For a lot of people, it's tough to change at that point. . . But you learn [that] in modern commerce, the only constant is high-speed change. The real leaders understand that."

McDonough noted that even when senior executives are reluctant themselves to change, the "smart ones" give him the company's "thoroughbreds" to work with. "We say to them, who is going to be your successor? Who is your brightest star? We want her. We want the person who wants to get [the CEO's] job.

Apparently this approach works because all of the people McDonough has worked with inside these companies have been promoted, "right to the top levels," he noted

"We insist on it being highly profitable, whatever we do. We know that is a criterion of commerce. So, what we do is very successful, otherwise it won't be adopted."

Changing Titanic's Direction
"Humans, I think, are by nature optimistic and by nature inventive. I think it's ironic to think that [EV World] has developed such a sophisticated understanding of so many sophisticated strategies that are being proposed as alternatives to our conventional vehicle. And yet when you look at it, the questions are really cultural and not technological.

"We also have to think about what does it means to have mobility. What about the fact that in this country, fifty percent have no mobility. How about everybody under the age of sixteen who are treated as some sort of incipient criminal and they have not mobility? And what is it about people over sixty with bad eyesight who can't get around?

"I think that we ought to be thinking as we watch our population age, and they are very vigorous in their old age, why don't we have our elders driving community mobility vehicles picking up the kids and taking them to soccer, and communicating the culture while the parents, who are earnestly trying to make a living, get on with it?, McDonough asks.

"But don't just leave the kids and abandon them to these jobs. How about you abandon them to their grandparents or to other elders who can instruct them in the ways of the world? There are all sorts of opportunities that are waiting for us and aren't just fix up the car and make them get better mileage or plug it in somewhere."

McDonough also thinks it is time for our society to become humble again. "We see all these tragedies in the making: global warming, persistent toxification, endrocine disruption, heavy metal contamination, water pollution, air pollution. . . It's not acceptable for us to say its not part of our plan at this point because its clearly part of our defacto plan. It's the thing that is going to happen because we have no plan.

"So we need a plan. And that's what we're proposing. Now the humility comes in. Look at [EV World]. You're dealing with highly sophisticated new technologies for mobility and this culture took five thousand years to figure out how to even put wheels on its luggage. I mean, how smart are humans? You're siting here talking about electric vehicles that are very sophisticated and we just put wheels on luggage. So, let's relax folks. We've got to get on with this thing now."

Times Article Viewed: 12151
Published: 14-Jul-2002


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