Fast Company does demo job on McDonough

Happy times at Stanford University by UVA's former "Green Dean."

In a recent article in Fast Company magazine, "Green Guru Gone Wrong: William McDonough," staff writer Danielle Sacks goes to great length–- over 6,500 words, actually–- to dismantle locally-based architect William McDonough's nearly mythic status as a visionary green architect. As Sacks points out, UVA's former "Green Dean" was Esquire's 2005 "Big Thinker of the Year" and one of Time's "Heroes for the Planet," but then she proceeds to do a "demolition job" on McDonough, as characterized it.

At the start of the piece, McDonough is seen palling around with the likes of Cindy Crawford, Goldie Hawn, Universal Studios president Ron Meyer, fashion designer Tom Ford, and billionaire Richard Branson, while he makes everyone swoon with his theories of a waste-free world. By the end of the piece, however, Sacks has McDonough struggling like a dolt to put up a patio umbrella at a mansion in Maine that one of his famous friends has let him use.

"Sweaty and breathless, McDonough finally flips the umbrella upside down onto the deck. "Snap this until it snaps into that," he instructs me, pointing to a wooden lever. He is crouching over as if he were inspecting some kind of beached specimen, his hair like a tuft of grass atop a windswept rock. It's hard not to wonder, even with Al Gore's Hollywood engine behind him, whether this is really the man to lead the next industrial revolution. Or whether, as McDonough says, rising with a gasp, "there's an easier way to do this."

In between, Sacks does a considerable amount of shoe-leather reporting in an attempt to show us that that the green emperor has no clothes. For instance, when McDonough describes his work helping Nike develop an environmentally friendly materials list for its shoes as "incredible" and "inspiring," Sacks finds a Nike exec who explains that the company parted ways with McDonough because, in addition to the large consulting fees he'd collected, he claimed his materials list was proprietary.

McDonough participated in the planning of Monticello High School.

"He wanted to charge us for every supplier we rolled it out to. We didn't own it after we paid all this money, which made no sense," said the exec.

As McDonough touts a building at Oberlin College  that "we designed that makes more energy than it needs to operate," Sacks finds a Oberlin physics professor who has been monitoring the building's energy use and says it's drawing over 80 percent of its power from local power plants.

When McDonough explains his work with the Chinese government in Thomas Friedman's 2006 documentary Addicted to Oil, describing specially designed "eco-cities" that will house "400 million people in 12 years," Sacks gives us Rob Watson, founding chairman of the LEED certification program, who has worked in China for years.

"That just made me blow a gasket," Watson is quoted, "because when that was being filmed, things were starting to go south, and [McDonough] knew it–- they knew it! And they still put it on film! The whole experiment was touted as a success long after it failed. Nobody's living there, nobody moved in. It's sitting there, literally, rotting."

Closer to home, McDonough's involvement in the design of Monticello High School, which was completed in 1998, would have fit nicely into Sack's story.  In 1996, Albemarle County agreed to pay McDonough around $200,000 (which included $45,000 for a design Charrette) for his ideas on sustainable design strategies for the new $23 million high school. But when McDonough submitted the analysis, it was rejected by county schools and public works officials. "We felt the document contained too many inconsistencies and that many of the cost estimates were suspect," said Al Reaser, director of building service, in a letter to the Albemarle County school board, according to an 1996 story in the Daily Progress. "Although a preliminary analysis has been completed, it is not acceptable. "

So is McDonough an eco-shyster? Sacks doesn't go quite that far, pointing out that McDonough's Cradle-to-Cradle manufacturing theory is something the green community has universally embraced. But she strongly suggests that the architect's desire to save the planet may be driven as equally by a desire for fame and fortune, and that those in the green community have been reluctant to call McDonough out for fear of losing one of the movement's most influential figures.

In many ways the article is an attempt to unmask the green movement, which has created fortunes for those touting and promoting it as a way to save the planet. For instance, Fast Company reported last year that Al Gore, who founded a startup called Generation Investment Management (which invests only in green companies) and won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work on climate change, had a net worth of $100 million, compared to a net worth of $1 to $2 million before his run for the presidency in 2000. That's alot of green for going green.

So what does McDonough think of the job done by Fast Company?

Although McDonough was unavailable for comment, his communications director, Kira Gould, responded by saying, “Obviously, we’re disappointed that Danielle Sacks decided to turn a profile of Bill into a personal attack."  Gould also said there were "several incomplete stories and inaccuracies" in Sack's story, but did not elaborate. When asked in a follow-up email if she would elaborate, Gould said she first needed "to understand the context" of the story the Hook was working on. This reporter explained that he wanted to know what parts of the Fast Company story were incomplete and inaccurate. By press time, Gould had yet to respond.

Updated 10/30/08


The Fast Company article never said McDonough was a crook. The article did portray him as greedy, incompetent and egotistical but those aren’t crimes. The metaphorical tale of the umbrella demonstrated McDonough's incompetence and his inability to actually bring his visions to fruition. He couldn't put up the umbrella just like he couldn't design and build the green village in China to meet the real needs of the rural Chinese villagers. He fumbled with the umbrella the same way he fumbled with the building at Oberlin College. The umbrella story was appropriate and telling.

I'd like to read an update of some of the local projects that he was involved with. How has Monticello High School performed? Has it done well enough to justify the huge consultant’s fee paid McDonough? The building was supposed to be designed as a model of sustainable design. Has it worked out the way it was promised to? It would be wonderful if it has.

What about the addition to UVa's School of Architecture building, Campbell Hall, that was supposed to be built in 1998? According to articles in the local papers in 1995 the addition would be a ââ?¬Å?net exporter of energy.” What happened to that? A new addition to Campbell Hall was just dedicated yesterday, 10-25-08. Was the addition that was to be finished in 1998 never built? If not, why not? If it was built, how has it performed? The promise that the building would be a ââ?¬Å?net exporter of energy” brings to mind the story of the Environmental Studies Center at Oberlin. According to Fast Company, McDonough claimed the Center was a net exporter of energy but a professor at Oberlin did an analysis that showed ââ?¬Å?it was consuming more than twice the energy projected and drawing 84% of its power from local power plants, rather than renewable sources.”

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A well written tribute with humor and nostalgia fit for music tainted Mark Twains. Sadly and I mean regretfully so, life ends at the wrong time in the pulse of life. Carpe diem to all and thanks for the tunes Rob and Renee. The beat goes on...

What a story! I am friends with Rob's parents, Mary and Bob. I am also a published writer. What I know about this book is this: When a writer writes something that puts you there; allows you to know the writer or person they are writing about, then the writer has performed his most important task. I got to know Rob through this writing. He allowed me the most private knowledge, the knowledge of him. Well done! Well done!

Renee's huge personality was so apparent to anyone that knew her for any amount of time. She was so nice to me even though I was just some goofy kid from Nowheresville, Virginia. Maybe she remembered what it was like. Once I figured out that she wrote for my favorite music magazine at the time (Option) I never quit pestering her about it. I'm glad I got a chance to know her, even if it was just for a little while.

I was at that Sleater Kinney show (and I remember Jeanine throwing her bra onstage), but what sticks in my mind was seeing Carrie Brownstein reach up with her hand to gauge the the height of the ceilings were in the Tokyo Rose basement. She was checking if she had room to windmill, Pete Townsend-style.

I just read the book this last week on a road trip from Texas to Florida and loved every second of it. It's inspired me to make mixes for all my friends (both old and new). While I have never meet Rob or Renee (or too young to have ever made a mix on a TDK) I'm glad to know them in this slightest of ways.

And Rob, I'm sure she'd be proud.

i remember reading Option back in the late 80's and early 90's and listening to Rob's show on TJU when I was an ex-punk girl living somewhat musically isolated in VA. i learned so much from the DJs at WTJu in those days.
Just reading some of Rob's book in Borders here across the country, Central Coast of Cali. Love and strength to all music geeks!!!

Well, now I'm going to have to read the book. I met Renée during the summer before our senior year in high school. We dated a few times during college. Her personality always shines through, even in the retelling.

One evening were walking back from a movie to my dad's '68 Ford station wagon. In the parking lot next to us, a muscle car was revving its engine. Without missing a beat, she chimes in, "Boy, I wish I had a REAL man like that!"

She was a keeper.

When I was depressed, she made me a cup of Earl Gray with milk and sat me down in front of Monty Python's Holy Grail.

What a good friend to have. I'm so happy to hear she had such fun, excitement and romance in her life. Thank you, Rob, for taking good care of her. She will be missed.

I wish this book was longer- I enjoyed it sooo very much!! I read it in 2 days and I predict I will be re-reading it again shortly.

This book was heart-breakingly sad and heart-warmingly wonderful.

I found this book in a bookstore this week and read it in one sitting. Its been a long time since a book resonated with me in this way.
I am a few years older than Rob, but remember clearly the allure of the mix tape and how it played in the culture of our generation.

In 1987, a guy gave me a mix tape called "Summer of 1987". I said "yes" when he asked me to marry him on our second date. Twenty years later, we are still together, making and listening to music. And we still drag out that mix tape and listen to it and remember.

Kudos Rob, and I wish I could have met Renee.

I just finished reading this book (I picked it up in Boston, read it on the ride back to New Jersey) and I loved, very much, Rob Sheffield's voice. I hope he writes several more books in the future, though this one, in particular, will always have a place in my heart and in my china cabinet.

THIS BOOK IS AMAZING. i don't even know what to say. i read it last week and i am still at a loss for words. you will never forget all the things this book makes you feel.

Your book was the best book I have ever read! I am not kidding. I am so happy you found love again too. I am Irish Catholic from Boston/ CT as a kid and I can relate to you on so many levels. The love you two shared is motivating to all us nice girls out there. Mix tapes are my favorite and they are signs of love no doubt.

I just finished the book and I can't stop crying. It was beautiful. Wonderful and musical in every word.

God he loves her.

I looked forward to reading this book, it brought back many memories of the 90's and also of my best friend who died young also and made great mix tapes. But what a beautiful tribute to Renee, and nice, the descriptions of Cville and its surrounding areas. Thanks for the book, Rob.

I am the survivor of PeggyandDave, another couple who became a single word. She was short and an elf; I'm tall and geeky.

I lost her to cancer almost two years ago after 34 years of marriage. Rob's book is the only one that has even come close to capturing the sorrow I feel. I cried reading it in the Toronto airport.

Many thanks, Rob. It's had an impact.

Hey I read your review on Bon Jovi "Crush". You regarded those guys as has-beens, big-in-Japan, with It's my Life as a "Britney" tune?? Really, you didnt give those guys any credit. 11 years on, and Jovi and the boys are just as rockin during the 80s and 90s (oh, which wasnt a kind decade to them, right... I think you meant Poison, LA Guns, Motley Crue, etc). SO whats your take on Bon Jovi now?