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05/29/2002 03:07 PM     print story email story         Page: 1  | 2  

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things

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 The following is an excerpt from the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things



by William McDonough & Michael Braungart

Consider the Cherry Tree "McDonough
Consider the cherry tree: thousands of blossoms create fruit for birds, humans, and other animals, in order that one pit might eventually fall onto the ground, take root, and grow. Who would look at the ground littered with cherry blossoms and complain, "How inefficient and wasteful!" The tree makes copious blossoms and fruit without depleting its environment. Once they fall on the ground, their materials decompose and break down into nutrients that nourish microorganisms, insects, plants, animals, and soil. Although the tree actually makes more of its "product" than it needs for its own success in an ecosystem, this abundance has evolved (through millions of years of success and failure or, in business terms, R&D), to serve rich and varied purposes. In fact, the tree's fecundity nourishes just about everything around it.

What might the human-built world look like if a cherry tree had produced it?

We know what an eco-efficient building looks like. It is a big energy saver. It minimizes air infiltration by sealing places that might leak. (The windows do not open.) It lowers solar income with dark-tinted glass, diminishing the cooling load on the building's air-conditioning system and thereby cutting the amount of fossil-fuel energy used. The power plant in turn releases a smaller amount of pollutants into the environment, and whoever foots the electric bill spends less money. The local utility honors the building as the most energy-saving in its area and holds it up as a model for environmentally conscious design. If all buildings were designed and built this way, it proclaims, businesses could do right by the environment and save money at the same time.

Here's how we imagine the cherry tree would do it: during the daytime, light pours in. Views of the outdoors through large, untinted windows are plentiful -- each of the occupants has five views from wherever he or she happens to sit. Delicious, affordable food and beverages are available to employees in a caf that opens onto a sun-filled courtyard. In the office space, each of them controls the flow of fresh air and the temperature of their personal breathing zones. The windows open. The cooling system maximizes natural airflows, as in a hacienda: at night, the system flushes the building with cool evening air, bringing the temperature down and clearing the rooms of stale air and toxins. A layer of native grasses covers the building's roof, making it more attractive to songbirds and absorbing water runoff, while at the same time protecting the roof from thermal shock and ultraviolet degradation.

In fact, this building is just as energy-efficient as the first, but that is a side effect of a broader and more complex design goal: to create a building that celebrates a range of cultural and natural pleasures -- sun, light, air, nature, even food -- in order to enhance the lives of the people who work there. During construction, certain elements of the second building did cost a little more. For example, windows that open are more expensive than windows that do not. But the nighttime cooling strategy cuts down on the need for air-conditioning during the day. Abundant daylight diminishes the need for fluorescent light. Fresh air makes the indoor spaces more pleasurable, a perk for current employees and a lure to potential ones -- and thus an effect with economic as well as aesthetic consequences. (Securing and supporting a talented and productive workforce is one of a CFO's primary goals, because the carrying cost of people recruiting, employing, and retaining them -- is a hundred times as great as the carrying cost of the average building.) In its every element, the building expresses the client's and architects' vision of a life-centered community and environment. We know, because Bill's firm led the team that designed it.

We brought the same sensibility to designing a factory for Herman Miller, the office-furniture manufacturer. We wanted to give workers the feeling that they'd spent the day outdoors, unlike workers in the conventional factory of the Industrial Revolution, who might not see daylight until the weekend. The offices and manufacturing space that we designed for Herman Miller were built for only 10 percent more money than it would have cost to erect a standard prefabricated metal factory building. We designed the factory around a tree-lined interior conceived as a brightly daylit "street" that ran the entire length of the building. There are rooftop skylights everywhere the workers are stationed, and the manufacturing space offers views of both the internal street and the outdoors, so that even as they work indoors, employees get to participate in the cycles of the day and the seasons. (Even the truck docks have windows.) The factory was designed to celebrate the local landscape and to invite indigenous species back to the site instead of searing them away. Storm water and waste water are channeled through a series of connected wetlands that clean them, in the process lightening the load on the local river, which already suffers serious flooding because of runoff from roofs, parking lots, and other impervious surfaces.

An analysis of the factory's dramatic productivity gains has shown that one factor was "biophilia" -- people's love of the outdoors. Retention rates have been impressive. A number of workers who left for higher wages at a competitors factory returned in a few weeks. When asked why, they told the management they couldn't work "in the dark." They were young people who had entered the workforce only recently and had never worked in a "normal" factory before.

These buildings represent only the beginnings of eco-effective design; they do not yet exemplify, in every way, the principles we espouse. But you might start to envision the difference between eco-efficiency and eco-effectiveness as the difference between an airless, fluorescent-lit gray cubicle and a sunlit area full of fresh air, natural views, and pleasant places to work, eat, and converse.

Peter Drucker has pointed out that it is a manager's job to "do things right." It is an executive's job to make sure "the right things" get done. Even the most rigorous eco-efficient business paradigm does not challenge basic practices and methods: a shoe, building, factory, car, or shampoo can remain fundamentally ill-designed even as the materials and processes involved in its manufacture become more "efficient." Our concept of eco-effectiveness means working on the right things -- on the right products and services and systems -- instead of making the wrong things less bad. Once you are doing the right things, then doing them "right," with the help of efficiency among other tools, makes perfect sense.

If nature adhered to the human model of efficiency, there would be fewer cherry blossoms, and fewer nutrients. Fewer trees, less oxygen, and less clean water. Fewer songbirds. Less diversity, less creativity and delight. The idea of nature being more efficient, dematerializing, or even not "littering" (imagine zero waste or zero emissions for nature!) is preposterous. The marvelous thing about effective systems is that one wants more of them, not less.

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