A (Well-Intentioned) Green Failure: Huangbaiyu

(Image credit: Apartment Therapy)

We’re so glad that Frontline is telling the story of Huangbaiyu, a small village in China where an international coalition, including renowned American sustainability expert William McDonaugh, tried to create a model green village — and failed spectacularly.

To us, it’s a lesson about how difficult it is to design for sustainability. Shannon May, the UC Berkeley PhD student who lived in Huangbaiyu for six months, visited one of our classes last year. Here are a few highlights from our notes that we didn’t see in the Frontline piece.

  • Traditionally, people build their own house in Huangbaiyu. Young families live with their parents and save money until they have enough to buy land and build a house. By that time, as you can imagine, they have a very good idea of what their house is going to look like, where every window will go, and where they are going to get the materials. So the houses are even less suitable than they’re made out to be in the Frontline video: because they are all the same, the new houses can’t begin to meet the symbolic needs of the people they are supposed to house.
  • People were expected to sell their old home to the state in order to afford to buy a new home. Problem: the new homes cost far, far more than they would be paid for the old home. The second problem is that selling the old house, where their family may have lived for generations, resulted in it immediately getting torn down. Imagine how that would feel!
  • The developer was provided with a western machine to make bricks out of compressed straw. Thinking he could do something less expensive and more environmentally friendly, he switched to fly ash, a waste product from China’s numerous coal power plants. The resulting bricks contributed to the structural failures visible in the new houses. May fears that the bricks made of industrial waste could have negative health consequences for their residents.
  • Most shocking: May claims that the designers spent mere hours in Huangbaiyu: not even an entire day. Her research shows the kind of deep experience that’s needed to design for true sustainability.
Watch the
Frontline video, then come back and let us know what you think.