Design goes "Green"

June 16, 2005
An American architect and a German chemist offer "green" guidelines that just might save the planet from the effects of flawed design.

Patrick G. Mahoney
Associate Editor

Herman Miller's "Mirra" office chair

All the recyclable components of a disassembled chair.

The 10.4-acre "living roof" of the Dearborn Truck Plant.

The four layers of the "living roof": On the bottom, a root-resistant membrane, followed by a drainage layer, fleece mat, vegetation blanket of semiorganic material, and finally the sedum plants.

In a maximum-security prison in Michigan, inmates tear office furniture apart. But the warden won't call out the National Guard. That's because the inmates are only doing their jobs — recycling obsolete and broken furniture. They probably never heard of "cradle-to-cradle" design, but so-called C2C might be nothing less than a blueprint for preventing ecological disaster.

A world without birds. C2C isn't new. It dates back to at least 1962 and Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, which envisions a world without birds, the result of manmade chemicals such as DDT. It took about 10 years before the U.S. and Germany banned DDT. The environmental movement added toxic waste and pollution to the vanishing wilderness and diminishing resources as areas for concern.

Upcycling. A key step in the cradleto-cradle protocol involves "upcycling," in which products can be easily disassembled, sorted, and returned to the manufacturing stream without a loss in value to the ingredients. The inefficient process of recycling typically involves a loss of value. This loss of value occurs in what is called an "open-loop" cycle. The processing of Styrofoam packaging into park benches involves such a loss: when a park bench reaches the end of its useful life it has less value (for making new products) than did the original packaging material. It can't be remade into Styrofoam packaging and will most likely end up in a landfill. Upcycling occurs in "closed-loop" cycles in which it is theoretically possible to produce an unlimited number of products from the same resources.

Designing from nature. William McDonough, an architect, and Michael Braungart, a German chemist, cowrote the movement's handbook, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, in which they say industry could learn much from the cherry tree.

McDonough and Braungart use a tree to show how industry must operate if it is to stop squandering nonrenewable resources and wrecking the environment: The cherry tree, say the authors, litters the ground with thousands of blossoms in the process of producing fruit and replacing itself. But it produces blossoms and fruit without depleting the environment. This, in a nutshell, is what C2C is all about: producing goods and services without the destructive extraction and downcycling (reduction of a material's value over time) of resources.

Cradle to grave. McDonough and Braungart are not espousing a return to the Stone Age. Rather, they see a world in which industry provides even greater abundance for man, while assuring the health of the ecosystem and eliminating waste. To better understand the cradleto-cradle system, consider the cradleto-grave designs that define modern manufacturing.

"By some estimates more than 90% of the materials extracted for the production of durable goods in the U.S. become waste almost immediately," say the authors. And the products themselves seldom don't last much longer. In general, the disposed item represents only 5% of the raw materials consumed in its production and transportation: The item we toss in the landfill is only 1/20th of total wasted resources.

Historically, industrial problem solving meant applying engineering strategies to make wasteful or hazardous processes more sustainable. The C2C system holds that maintaining a fundamentally flawed system only guarantees a decline in quality of life — a leveraging of the Earth's future.

The outdated concept of environmentalsustainability focuses on reducing environmental damage. From an engineering perspective, sustainability too often means making industrial processes cleaner and more efficient while ensuring economic growth. This kind of efficiency may reduce consumption and pollution in the short term, but it fails to repair fundamental design flaws. It addresses symptoms, not causes. Environmental sustainability fails to eliminate waste.

C2C design represents a paradigm shift, say McDonough and Braungart, abolishing a system that depends on toxic, one-way cradle-to-grave material flows. In a cradle-to-cradle system, powered by renewable energy (solar and wind), materials would flow in safe, regenerative closed-loop cycles. These closed-loop cycles involve either technical or biological nutrients. Technical nutrients are materials such as steel and aluminum, which do not biodegrade. Biological nutrients biodegrade.

The Green House. When office furniture-maker Herman Miller, Zeeland, Mich., decided to build a "green" factory, it chose McDonough's firm, William McDonough & Partners, Charlottesville, Va. The goal was to design a workplace where workers would feel less cut off from nature. For about 10% more than the cost of a standard prefabricated-metal factory building, the architects delivered: a factory with a treelined, daylit interior "street;" work stations illuminated by skylights; a manufacturing floor with views of both the indoor street and the outdoors; and a water-treatment system that cleans storm water and wastewater by channeling it through wetlands before discharging into the local river. The company even credits a portion of recent productivity gains to the factory's ability to satisfy the employees' love of nature. The Herman Miller factory represents only the beginnings of eco-effective design, but it is a good example of the benefits that go hand-in-hand with responsible stewardship of the environment.

The Rouge Center. In another part of Michigan, Ford Chairman Bill Ford faced the difficult task of revitalizing the historic Rouge Center.

Since the time of the Model A and Henry Ford, the Rouge Center in Dearborn, Mich., had been a symbol of American ingenuity and industrial might. But the Rouge was in serious decline, even declared a brownfield site. Today — $2 billion dollars later — the Rouge Center has a new "green" Visitors Center, the world's largest "living roof," restored natural areas, an extensive storm-water management system, and a test site where plants are used to clean heavily contaminated soil.

Built between 1917 and 1928, the Rouge Center was an automotive "ore to assembly" complex. It was here that Henry Ford implemented his dream of vertical integration, which depended on the idea of continuous flow. The Rouge initially produced submarine chasers (Eagle Boats), followed by torpedo boats, PT boats, and tractors. The Model A was the first car produced at the Rouge, beginning in 1927. At its peak, in the 1930s, the Rouge employed more than 100,000 people on 2,000 acres. Today, about 6,000 people work in its five manufacturing plants, one of which is highly unusual.

Up on the roof. The roof of the Dearborn Truck Plant's final assembly building is a 10.4-acre garden. A drought-resistant perennial ground cover, sedum, is planted in a specially layered bed. Virtually maintenance-free, this natural roof can absorb up to 4 million gallons of rainwater annually. It also helps insulate the building, creates oxygen, and more than doubles the life expectancy of the roof itself. The sedum grows on a four-layer, matlike system only 3-in. thick. The bottom layer is a root-resistant membrane, followed by a drainage layer, a fleece mat, a vegetation blanket of semiorganic material, and finally the sedum plants.

"The roof and other environmental initiatives we're implementing are cost effective," says Tim O'Brien, vice president, corporate relations. "Year after year, they will save us money, as well as conserve resources." The living roof and the restoration of natural areas and habitats are part of a complex storm-water-management system that will benefit the community by improving the quality of the runoff and the ground water flowing into the Rouge River. "What's happening at the Rouge will once again influence the whole world of industrial production," says McDonough, who led the design team for the Rouge's environmental innovations.

Another of the center's initiatives is the testing of a biological process called phytoremediation, which uses plants to remove polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a by-product of steel manufacturing, from the soil. These hydrocarbon pollutants from the Rouge steel coke oven, operational since 1917, accumulated in the soil over decades of coal processing. Now, research on a 1.6-acre test plot next to the facility focuses on breaking down PAHs in the soil biologically. If the process proves effective, it could eliminate hauling the contaminated soil to a landfill.

The Rouge Center is the country's largest industrial brownfield project using green technology. Ten huge window boxes and 60 overhead skylights bring daylight into the body shop and final assembly buildings. Three beehives and 20,000 bees were brought in to help restore the site to a more natural condition. Even a 16-acre porous parking lot helps control and cleanses storm-water runoff. The Wildlife Habitat Council recognized Ford's environmental initiative by designating the Rouge Center a wildlife habitat.

The Visitors Center at the Rouge boasts a 12,500-gallon cistern that collects rainwater for irrigation and nonpotable use, and photosensory cells convert sunlight to usable energy. The U.S. Green Building Council recognized the new building "as a facility that is energy efficient, good for the environment, and good for the people who work and visit there — in other words, a 'green' building."

Other green design features are vertical landscaping and the use of recycled and recyclable materials. Vegetation grows on trellises mounted to the sides of the building, providing shade and natural insulation. Recycled materials were used in more than 50% of the building's construction.

Monstrous hybrids. The growing number of landfills, as unsightly and unsanitary as they are, is not the biggest problem of cradle-to-grave designs. What is more critical is the loss of nutrients. These are lost not only because of a lack of adequate systems of retrieval, but because of what are called "Frankenstein products" or monstrous hybrids — mixtures of technical and biological materials that cannot be salvaged when their useful life is over. Shoes are a good example.

For the past 40 years, leather has been tanned using chromium, a rare, valuable, and sometimes carcinogenic metal. Shoe leather is often tanned in developing countries where little or no protection from chromium exposure is provided for the workers or for the ecosystem. Conventional rubber-soled shoes usually contain lead and plastics. As the sole wears, these particles, which do not safely degrade, escape into the atmosphere and the soil. Finally, the shoe's valuable biological and technical materials are usually lost in a landfill.

Cradle to cradle demands ecologically intelligent design. "An industrial system that takes, makes, and wastes," say McDonough and Braungart, "can be transformed to one that produces ecological, social, and economic value." The historic conflict between industry and environment, they say, is largely the result of opportunistic design. The long-term goal of engineers must be the design of an ecologically intelligent industrial system that is commercially productive and socially beneficial.

Designers can choose safe materials, creating products that travel in safe, sustaining closed-loop material flows. Materials designed as biological nutrients decompose safely and restore the soil. Materials designed as technical nutrients, such as carpet yarns made from synthetics, can be repeatedly depolymerized and repolymerized. Maintaining these nutrients in closed-loop cycles could produce unlimited generations of goods.

Renewable energy sources. Cradle-to-cradle design is inspired by the natural world, and natural systems depend on the free, renewable energy of the Sun to sustain regenerative biological systems — with zero waste. Designers can use current solar income, similar to the way trees and plants manufacture food from sunlight. Human energy systems must strive to achieve that efficiency, collecting current solar income directly, or through passive processes. The best sustainable designs suit local natural systems and make use of local energy and material flows.

The historical relationship between industry and the environment has been adversarial, nonproductive, and ecologically disastrous. As the authors of Cradle to Cradle caution, "Now that we know it's time for a change, negligence begins tomorrow."

The Cradle-to-Cradle design protocol

To assist companies in (re)designing eco-effective products, MBDC uses the Cradle-to-Cradle Design Protocol to assess materials used in products and production processes. The Protocol is founded on the "Intelligent Products System" developed by Michael Braungart and his colleagues at EPEA.

In applying the protocol, materials in products are first inventoried and then evaluated according to their characteristics within the desired application, and placed into one of four categories (Green, Yellow, Orange, or Red) based on human health and environmental relevance criteria. After all chemicals are assessed, replacing Red chemicals with Green chemicals optimizes the materials in the product.

The four categories are:

  • Green: Little or no risk. This chemical is acceptable for use in the desired application.
  • Yellow: Low to moderate risk. This chemical is acceptable for use in the desired application until a green alternative is found.
  • Orange: There is no indication that this is a high risk chemical for the desired application, but a complete assessment is not possible due to lack of information.
  • Red: High risk. "Red" chemicals (also sometimes referred to as "X-list" chemicals) should be phased out as soon as possible. Red chemicals include all known or suspected carcinogens, endocrinedisruptors, mutagens, reproductive toxins,and teratogens. In addition, chemicals that do not meet other human health or environmental relevance criteria are "Red" chemicals.

Human-health and environmental-relevance criteria used to rank chemicals are listed below.

Human Health Criteria

  • Carcinogenicity
  • Teratogenicity
  • Reproductive toxicity
  • Mutagenicity
  • Endocrine disruption
  • Acute toxicity
  • Chronic toxicity
  • Irritation of skin/mucous membranes
  • Sensitization
  • Carrier function or other relevant data

Ecological Health Criteri

  • Algae toxicity
  • Bioaccumulation (log Kow)
  • Climatic relevance/ozone-depletion potential
  • Content of halogenated organic compounds (AOX)
  • Daphnia toxicity
  • Fish toxicity
  • Heavy-metal content
  • Persistence/biodegradation
  • Toxicity to soil organisms (bacteria and worms)


Ford Motor Co.
(800) 392-6373
Herman Miller Inc.
(888) 443-4357
William McDonough & Partners
(434) 979-1111

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