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Prophet of Bloom

The future of manufacturing will be built on industrial-strength ecology, says architect William McDonough. The first step: Turn Ford's legendary River Rouge plant into a lean, green profit machine.

By Florence Williams

A sign up ahead reads WARNING: SLAG HAULER CROSSING. Sitting in the back of a sedan, architect William McDonough is riding through Ford's aging River Rouge factory complex in Dearborn, Michigan. At 1,100 acres, it's the largest industrial site of early- to mid-20th century America, a testament to the scale of Henry Ford's vision. The Armani-clad McDonough surveys the ruins strung along the dark, slack river, cruising past eye-level piles of black, powdery ash heaps, a spindly gas tower, and the proto-industrial blast ovens. A red oxygen furnace belches as it haltingly refines coke into steel.

It hardly looks like the site of the next industrial revolution, yet that is exactly what McDonough intends to make it. In late 2000, the Ford Motor Company hired McDonough, a designer cum environmentalist, to blueprint the site's 20-year, $2 billion redesign. The centerpiece will be a vast but energy-efficient truck assembly plant, not far from a new low-emission paint plant. Company CEO William Clay Ford Jr., Henry's great-grandson, says that the goal is nothing less than transforming River Rouge into "the model of 21st-century sustainable manufacturing."

Green architecture is an emerging field, and McDonough, who was trained at Dartmouth and Yale, spent most of the '80s experimenting with it. His highly lauded Herman Miller factory in Zeeland, Michigan, and Gap corporate offices in San Bruno, California, are designed to maximize natural lighting and air circulation. At Oberlin College, in Ohio, he built a solar- and geothermal-powered facility for the environmental studies department designed to generate more energy than it uses.

In 1995, the architect teamed up with a German chemist, Michael Braungart, to found a research and consulting firm called McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry. The company specializes in environmentally safe manufacturing processes and materials. The MBDC message is that "regulations are signals of design failure" and that everything from cars to computers to urban centers can be designed so that they never pollute.

"Regulations are signals of design failure," declares McDonough: Everything from cars to urban centers can be designed to never pollute.

With the fuel-injected charisma of a motivational speaker, McDonough frequently tells seminar attendees, industry groups, and clients like Intel, Nike, IBM, Monsanto, and Wal-Mart that we can all be rich, happy, and free from liberal guilt. He sees no inherent contradiction between greening the world and profit-making, and once riled the hemp-shirt crowd for stating that he would like to be a billionaire primarily "as an inspiration to other people."

For McDonough, who is 50 and a part-time professor at the University of Virginia, River Rouge is a mighty feather. The scale of the Ford project - and the potential reach of the global company - represents all-new opportunities, both in terms of fame and influence. Rouge will, he hopes, be his Bilbao, or better. "Frank Gehry can apply his principles at the level of a museum, but can he apply them to the level of an urban context? No. Can he apply them to furniture? Yes. Can he apply them to the material in the furniture? No," McDonough declares, tousling his brick-colored locks. "I'm developing an operating system for sustainability."

McDonough's grandiose plan extends far beyond architecture. He wants to remake the Ford Motor Company and then make over everything else. He's prone to statements like "I want to solarize California" and "What if a car were a buffalo? Now wouldn't that be interesting?" He says he wants to change the way Americans think about mobility, energy, communications, synthetic materials, and even nature itself.

In some ways, Ford's Rouge facility couldn't be a better test bed for McDonough's happy new world. It was once the most studied and admired manufacturing complex anywhere. In the 1930s, the Rouge employed 100,000 workers and encompassed 15 million square feet of factories scattered across a site the size of New York's Central Park. Outside, an entire fleet of ore freighters idled along the dredged Rouge River, and inside, 100 miles of railroad tracks knotted the grounds. Industrialists from all over the world came to witness the only physical plant where wood, sand, ore, and rubber went in one end and finished vehicles - everything from tractors to Mustangs - spilled out the other. The facility made Ford's every engine, windshield, and tire, but over time the company shifted its manufacturing operations, spreading them across more than 100 sites worldwide. By the 1980s, much of the complex was obsolete and fearfully contaminated with carcinogens. Even so, it limped along, never shutting down entirely. Then a boiler exploded in 1999, killing six workers and injuring two dozen more. The Rouge needed serious help.

McDonough saw an opening. Using a few well-placed contacts, he wrangled a meeting with the company's recently appointed 43-year-old chair, Bill Ford. "I went up to his office and he said, 'Why are you here?'" recalls the architect. "I said, 'What interests me is that you can change the world. With $80 billion of purchase orders, all you have to do is say you want a different way, and things start to move.'"

The meeting, scheduled for half an hour, lasted all afternoon. The two men talked about McDonough's radical - some would say kooky - ideas for the future of industrial manufacturing. The tenets of this new world are laid out in McDonough's provocative new book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, due out in April. In it, he envisions a technically advanced world of zero waste, where nothing ever hits the trash bin and all materials, under a kind of karmic destiny, can be recovered to lead productive lives over and over again.

McDonough argues that traditional recycling is tired and inadequate. We need, he writes, to move beyond merely sorting our trash. That might help us reuse some tin and plastic but just postpones their inevitable trip to the landfill. He dismisses the familiar plastic bottles-to-fleece shtick altogether: The bottles are made with antimony, a heavy metal. Why use hazardous materials at all? Why not design a productive afterlife into materials at the outset? So MBDC created a wool-and-cellulose upholstery textile that can, when composted, serve as garden mulch. It's an example of what McDonough terms a "biological nutrient," able to biodegrade completely.

Florence Williams (flow@initco.net) lives in Montana and has written for Outside, The New Republic, and The New York Times.

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