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China: Green Dreams (Finally)

China Green Dreams

Last August I went to northeast China and for the following five months I’ve been putting together a story about an eco-village in China. Or, rather, an attempted eco-village.

Here’s how Frontline/World described it: “The village of Huangbaiyu in rural northeast China was supposed to be a model for energy-conscious design. The initial project was to build 400 sustainable homes, a collaboration between U.S. architect William McDonough and the Chinese. But something went awry. Frontline/World reporter Timothy Lesle traveled to the region to investigate.”

I’m glad I got to do this project and look forward to any responses it may get. No doubt they’ll range from positive to negative. Frontline does something different with this slideshow from a web-tech perspective, which is to stream the images and sound like video rather than through Flash.

If you get a chance, let me know what you think. And if you are inspired, let Frontline/World know what you think.


4 thoughts on “China: Green Dreams (Finally)

  1. adrian says:

    Nice piece, tim! I mean rather depressing, but worth knowing. Has McDonough come out with their article on the project?

  2. Thanks, Adrian. Yes, it was an interesting project, and a lot of work. I’ve not seen or heard any response from McDonough and his people or the China-US Center for Sustainable Development. When I talked with them during the fall, they told me that they were doing some reports and evaluations. But they didn’t give me anything concrete. I look forward to it.

    After all, McDonough’s Hannover Principle #9 states: “Seek constant improvement by the sharing of knowledge. Encourage direct and open communication between colleagues, patrons, manufacturers and users to link long term sustainable considerations with ethical responsibility, and re-establish the integral relationship between natural processes and human activity.”

  3. Peter says:


    This is a very interesting piece. I do have a couple of questions regarding this project. Most of your story highlights the fact that this village was delveloped based on the requirements of a sustainable city project and not those of the villagers. Did you get any insight regarding poor project management. It does seem there was some scope-creep and changing requirements (i.e. building materials, the lack of solar power, no southward facing houses), but what about the cost? Was there any clues leading to why the cost of the homes were so much higher than their planned cost? What happened to the businesses that were eager to donate technology to this project?

  4. Peter,

    Thanks for the comment. I would have liked to have included more about the on-the-ground construction, and especially more on Dai Xiaolong, the local developer. I did communicate with people present for that stage, including Dai. The bulk of the material related to Dai was cut before the final story came out, though, due to concerns over length and relevance.

    Shannon May addressed the issue of project management best when she noted that the Chinese builders did not have the proper expertise to make sure the plan was realized as designed. While she has said that Dai deserves a great measure of responsibility for the outcome, she points out there was a more fundamental responsibility on the part of the Americans to make sure it worked. After all, she notes this whole effort started with the China-U.S. Center for Sustainable Development and its partners—and they’re the ones who selected Dai to build this. What an observer like May has pointed out is that the Center and people like McDonough wanted the credit for an innovative project but didn’t want to invest as much as was needed to see it through.

    The cost issue was one of the stickiest I encountered. Did McDonough and the others undershoot in their estimations? Did Dai miscalculate or, through inexperience or bad planning, simply add to cost overruns? Hard to say, although people I’ve talked with tend to put the blame for that more on Dai. There was talk about all kinds of payment plans, transferring land ownership for home ownership–a lot of noise, but nothing concrete. As I recall, Dai was especially reluctant to discuss the cost aspect of the houses with me. It seems that nobody expected the houses to cost as much as they did, and so there was no real plan for addressing that.

    While McDonough’s plans were attractive and innovative—and while Dai must have thought that a successful development would enrich the village and, especially, himself—the missing link here was an effective strategy to execute the ideas.

    It’s hard to say why the corporations didn’t continue to support the village project, despite having donated materials and technology for the first house built, the demonstration house. My understanding, is that corporate involvement was coordinated by the Center, where they were often donors or supporters. If I recall correctly, one person involved with the Center claimed that its commitment to Huangbaiyu extended only through the construction of the first demonstration home, and the rest was Dai’s responsibility. If so, that would suggest that corporate support of the village would also have ended with the demonstration house. May really nailed the relationship between corporations and the Center in a 2007 article from the Far Eastern Economic Review. Her web site hosts a PDF of the piece, provocatively titled “A Sino-US Sustainability Sham.”


    It was not easy to get an interview with Dai Xialong, and I only really managed to do so through with the tenacity of my translator and the intercession of a retired county bureaucrat. During our interview, Dai was charismatic and well-spoken. But it was clear in our limited time that he was only willing to answer the questions he wanted to answer. He was more interested in selling us on his next project, which was the biogas plant constructed in the village. (Thus the concerns mentioned up top about length and relevance.) Maybe I’ll salvage the parts that were cut; it makes for a colorful addendum to the story, if a little out of date at this point.

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