With China facing enormous pollution problems, and an insatiable thirst for energy, the government is of necessity having to embrace green ideas. They plan on moving 400 million people into urban centers by 2030, which would require a major urban expansion, including the creation of new cities out of scratch.
American architect and industrial designer and author of the book "Crade to Cradle," William McDonough, co-chair of the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development, has taken on the job of transforming the farming town of Huangbaiyu into an urban center and as a result freeing up more farmland in the surrounding area.
It's a challenge, to say the least. McDonough's team can spend only $3,500 per house. To pull it off, they're using local labor and local materials, all of which will either biodegrade safely or be completely recyclable. To avoid the pollution that is released during the firing of bricks, the walls are made of pressed-earth blocks. Between the blocks is straw, a byproduct of the local rice harvest that would otherwise go to waste. Walls are a half-meter thick, so houses are well insulated and won't need a lot of heating. Solar panels on the rooftops provide electricity and heated water. "We're doing everything with nothing," McDonough says.
Given China's situation, McDonough's philosophy of designing cities from the ground up with ecological principles in mind instead of taking shape piecemeal, has been given the perfect oportunity for a test run. This notion would be impractical in most countries but could work in China, where the government has the wherewithal to impose its plans on citizens.
Energy efficiency will be maximized through new types of building materials and a solar-powered energy grid. McDonough has begun by developing a polystyrene made by BASF without ozone-depleting chloro-fluorocarbons but with excellent insulating qualities. "Buildings can be heated and cooled for next to nothing," he says. "And they'll be silent. If there are 13 people in the apartment upstairs, you won't hear them." He's also working on new toilet bowls that are so slippery you can flush them with a light mist. Bamboo wetlands nearby would purify the waste, and the bamboo could be harvested and used for wood.
As with everything in China it is a race against time before the shear weight of the Chinese footprint destroys the environment that supports it. But McDonough's approach will be an exciting experiment that the rest of the world should be watching.