Architect William McDonough claims he first heard about Ford Motor Co.'s $2-billion makeover of its River Rouge production plant in Dearborn, Mich., on May 4, 1999, the same day that Ford CEO William Clay Ford Jr. called a press conference to announce that McDonough would lead the design team. Picking McDonough, a wry Charlottesville, Va.-based iconoclast who preaches environmentally benign, sustainable design, was a bold move for the automaker. McDonough believes in not only fundamentally altering buildings, but also changing the way things are made, to make the planet a better place.

MASTER PLAN Complex covering 1,100 acres will have a 20-year buildout, but
stormwater system is already in place. (Rendering courtesy of Ford Motor Co.)

River Rouge is Ford's flagship plant, where Henry Ford bought 2,000 acres nearly a century ago to implement his vision of streamlining mass production. By the1930s the Rouge had grown into the world's leading automobile manufacturing center. Parts and supplies moved within the complex on more than 100 miles of railroad track. At its peak, the work force numbered more than 100,000.

William Clay Ford Jr. first began thinking of the makeover in 1997. Henry Ford's great-grandson and Ford's chairman at the time, "Billy" Ford has an environmentalist bent that often put him at odds with the company's corporate leaders. Still, he is the family's choice to lead Ford into the 21st Century and Rouge is where Ford wants to begin.

In all, 1.7 million sq ft of buildings over approximately 1,100 acres will give the carmaker the ability to produce a wide variety of models at the same site–eventually, a car and a truck side by side. The goal is to build a modern, versatile assembly line that will produce vehicles efficiently, profitably and safely, in an environmentally friendly manner.

GREEN TEAM From left: Kroczolowski, Richardson, McDonough and Haller. (Photo by Janice L. Tuchman for ENR)

Some 10 acres of roof will literally bear McDonough's "green" influence (ENR 4/29 p. 61). Covered with soil and planted in sedum, a low-maintenance per- ennial, the organic roof is designed to provide insulation and never need painting. Gutters are unnecessary; the plant cover filters rainfall and snowfall.

The entire site is engineered to treat stormwater naturally. Permeable surfaced parking areas and engineered swales will force runoff through plant-based filtration to remove contaminants. Stormwater returning to the Rouge River should meet Clean Water Act standards, says William A. Kroczolowski, project architect for team member ARCADIS Giffels.

The realities of manufacturing have forced McDonough to scale down his initial concept. "I envisioned an opportunity to make some sort of grand architectural statement. But it quickly became apparent that with our budget there was no room for anything too grandiose. This is, after all, an industrial site and function drives everything. Still, I think that we are very much on track for the original goal of creating a 21st Century manufacturing environment that respects the earth, air and water of the site."

Though McDonough comes from outside the Detroit norm, other first string players are all veterans. Ford project manager James L. "Jay" Richardson II has worked for the company for 28 years. To lead design and construction, Ford tapped the Michigan-based offices of two firms with long track records in the automotive industry: ARCADIS Giffels LLC, Southfield, and Walbridge Aldinger, Detroit.

BIO-BUILDING Organic cover filters contaminants, insulates. (Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Co.)

When McDonough suggested using a cavernous workspace covered by fabric, instead of steel or concrete, "We pointed out how much weight the overhead crane system would bear," says Kroczolowski. Fabric structures would not handle the loads. Instead of a massive room with a 500-ft span, work space will be a series of 50x50-ft bays configured in an L-shape covering 735,000 sq ft.

But McDonough did foster a collaborative approach. "Everything was on the table," says Richardson. "There was no such thing as a bad idea. Bill McDonough got us to think in terms of what he called a sustainable triangle. Everything would be tested to see how it fit within the triangle: as a business case, on an environmental basis and in a social sense, or for the effect on people. We'd balance the business case against the environmental cost and use the social effect as a tie-breaker."

The stakes are high. Ford, already embroiled in legal battles over Firestone tires fitted to its SUVs that may be tied to rollover accidents, is under intense pressure. The company lost $5.5 billion in 2001, prompting Standard & Poor's to downgrade Ford's long-term debt. (Like ENR, S&P is a unit of the McGraw-Hill Cos.)

But Ford, who became CEO in 2001 at 42, is staying the course. He says Ford will make $7 billion in operating profit by 2005 and has not cut back on his plans for the Rouge. The paint shop, a 330,000-sq-ft structure, was commissioned in October 2000. It can accommodate every Ford model except two of the larger vans and SUVs.

Other energy-efficient measures include daylighting and jumbo heating, ventilation and air conditioning units in the assembly plant. Ten 25x100-ft "monitors" admit natural light and 10 big HVAC units handle a load that would traditionally fall to 40 to 50 smaller units, according to Haller. "Temperatures in big spaces tends to fall within different strata. These units can heat and cool the air by layers. It's much more energy-efficient," he says.

The assembly plant design features three activity levels: shipping/receiving, assembly and employee activities. Administrative offices will be on the mezzanine level, in an effort to break down barriers between management and labor.

Detroit's next generation of workers, Richardson says, will use "smart" tools that can rapidly change output and configuration to meet market demands. Adjustable conveyors and ergonomic tools are scheduled to be fitted into the assembly plant and the 250,000-sq-ft storage and retrieval system building early next year.

Ford is as competitive as ever, and will continue to be, says Richardson. The Rouge reconstruction incorporates ideas that the company expects the other automakers to implement. "As Bill Ford says: It's not about ownership, it's about leadership," says Richardson. Target date for completion of the first phase is June 16, 2003, to coincide with Ford Motor Co.'s 100th anniversary.