What does it take
to support and celebrate life on an industrial site? In 1999, thats
the question Ford Motor Co., William McDonough + Partners, and McDonough
Braungart Design Chemistry asked as we began working together on
the $2 billion restoration of Fords 600-acre Ford Rouge Center
manufacturing complex in Dearborn, MI.
It was not an unprecedented question in the history of Ford. Founder
Henry Ford thought using agricultural products to build cars could
support farming and preserve the rural landscape. He pursued his
vision vigorously, developing natural textiles and other soy-based
materials for use on the assembly line. Over the years, however,
the industrial might of his own factories overwhelmed even that
remote connection to the landscape.
But what if an industrial site itself could be a fecund place? What
if a 600,000-square-foot automotive assembly plant could create
habitat, filter stormwater with a living roof and natural swales,
and restore life to its surroundingsall cost-effectively?
Company history aside, that was a challenging question for Ford
Motor Co. Fords engineers were skeptical, its executives quizzical.
There were raised eyebrows all around.
Tim OBrien, vice president of real estate at Ford, recalls
sitting through long meetings in the Rouge Roomour design
think-tank near the sitewondering, Oh my God, what have
we gotten ourselves into? His colleagues would corner him
in his office after a particularly challenging design exercise.
Tim! theyd say, Do you know what they want
us to do now?
The engineers were vexed, too. The traditional engineering
approach, said the Rouge project manager Jay Richardson, is
to build a box, put the tools in, and worry about how the factory
functions. For most engineers, sustainability just isnt
a big item on the agenda.
I was skeptical, Richardson said, recalling the early
days of the project, as to whether or not we could find sustainable
solutions that added value. At that point, a green roof just didnt
make good business sense.
The Design Process
Ford persevered. Chairman and CEO Bill Ford had declared that the
restoration would transform a 20th-century industrial icon
into a model of 21st-century sustainable manufacturing. He
was committed and optimistic. Fords Rouge team was committed
too, though perhaps not as flushed with optimism. But with wild
ideas ricocheting off the walls of the Rouge Room, they rolled up
their sleeves and brought their can-do spirit and healthy
skepticism to the table.
We made sure we didnt dismiss ideas simply because they
were unconventional, OBrien said. On the other
hand, we had to evaluate them against recognized business criteria
and principles. That was an interesting challenge.
Indeed it was. As the Rouge project teamrepresentatives from
a number of Ford divisions, along with WM+P, MBDC and local architects
and engineersworked through the design process, every element
of the factory and landscape plans had to survive rigorous questioning.
Cost effectiveness and shareholder value mixed it up with worker
safety and ecological health. Each issue inspired debate and revision,
and asked that every member of the team approach the process with
imagination and flexibility.
Rather than trying to balance concerns to reduce the negative impacts
of the site, the project team aimed to maximize economic, social
and environmental value with every design decision. The teams
inquiries extended to the manufacturing processes used to make new
cars, exploring everything from the chemistry of automotive materials
to the disassembly and recovery of auto parts. Ultimately, the intention
was to make the Rouge a place that celebrates human activity and
creates a wide variety of delightful, positive effects. More habitat,
more clean water, more natural light on the factory floor, more
productivity. In short, we were all coming together to create a
new way of understanding and generating value.
That was not always a comforting proposition.
Just the fundamental premise that we should determine the
soil conditions on the site was untraditional, said OBrien.
There is no legal requirement to assess soil conditions or
remediate them. For an environmental administrator trained to do
what is minimally required by law to deal with a problem, thats
a very unconventional thing to do. Nevertheless, OBrien,
Richardson and the rest of Fords Rouge team eventually did
a lot of unconventional things.
The Rouge site was begging for new ideas. Built between 1917 and
1925, the Rouge is one of the largest manufacturing facilities in
the world. In its heyday, it was an enormously productive complex
of blast furnaces, stamping mills, warehouses and assembly plants
capable of chewing up raw materials and spitting out automobiles.
The Rouge River and the 90 miles of railroad tracks crisscrossing
the grounds were the plants supply lines. Deliveries of ore,
sand and every other material that went into a car or truck arrived
every day via barge, while finished components were ferried from
factory to factory on the rails. During the 1930s, more than 100,000
Rouge employees worked in 15 million square feet of factory space.
They produced airplanes, cars, tractors and trucks by the millions.
There was nothing quite like it in the world.
By the 1980s, however, the plant had fallen into disrepair. The
aging facilities were rusting and out of date and decades of manufacturing
had taken a heavy toll on the soil, the landscape and the waters
of the Rouge River. Thats usually the point where a manufacturer
closes up shop and moves its flagship factory off shore. But Ford
Motor decided to re-invest in the Rouge. From our perspective, the
company was declaring itself native to Dearborn, taking responsibility
for making the Rouge a healthy, productive, life-supporting place.
With the project well underway, it might be hard to appreciate the
importance of that decision. But it was the bold first step that
preceded all others. No investment in industrial restoration happens
TURNING VISION INTO
Wed like to honor the efforts of all those who have
contributed to the historic Rouge restoration. Though we cannot
mention each person by name, the following firms have played
a crucial role in making the project teams vision a
- Arcadis Giffels
- BRC Imagination Arts
- Cahill Associates
- D.I.R.T. Studio
- Expert Building Products
- Harley Ellis
- Michigan State University, Dept. of Crop and Soil Sciences
- Professional Supply Inc.
- Quinn Evans/Architects
- Susan Nelson-Warren Byrd Landscape Architects
- Tilton & Associates
- University of Michigan
- URS Corp., Michigan State University
- Walbridge Aldinger
- Wolfgang Behrens Systementwicklung
- Xero Flor
Water, Water Everywhere
After a year of rigorous design meetings, a strategy for restoring
the site began to emerge. Right from the start, storm water run-off
was one of the key areas of concern at the Rouge complex.
Henry Ford, like other Detroit industrialists, built his factory
along the Rouge River. Early in the 20th century, rivers were the
industrial corridors, and the Rouge River, up to Fords plant,
was more of a dredged canal than a living stream. The plants
proximity to its namesake, along with the sites shallow water
table and the high clay-content of its soil, made the natural drainage
system more of a wide-open sluice than a slow, percolating flow
of water. When heavy rains fell, storm water washed toxins and cinders
off all the impervious surfacesvast parking lots, buildings,
chimneys, gas towersand carried them swiftly away. There was
little between the rooftops and the river to slow the water down.
A green roof was the most compelling solution to the storm water
problem at the Rouge. At first, the idea fell into the unconventional
category and turned the Rouge Room into a tableau of wrinkled brows.
But not for long. The idea made intuitive sense: The soils and grasses
that comprise functional living roofs absorb water just like the
soil and plants in a healthy landscape. Why not a living roof on
The 10-acre roof on the Rouge assembly plant could be blanketed
with a thin layer of soil and growing plants. On the grounds, new
green spaces could naturally absorb storm water and impervious paved
surfaces could be replaced by porous paving, which allows water
to seep into underground retention beds and percolate slowly into
the soil or into swales. Swales are channels cultivated with wetland
plants that absorb and filter water. In many places on the site,
particularly along roadways, the project team believed the swales
could be lined with hedgerows to create green breaks in the landscape
and even greater capacity for storm water retention. The natural
storm water system would also create new and revived habitats on
the site for native birds, butterflies, insects and microorganisms,
generating a larger biological order.
After lots of discussion and several visits to buildings with green
roofs, Richardsons skepticism began to give way. The U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency was developing new storm water regulations
and Ford had estimated that the conventional technical controls
required to comply with the new rules could cost almost $50 million.
The natural storm water management system was estimated to cost
only $15 million. The math was simple and compelling: The living
roof offered millions of dollars in savings, with the landscape
thrown in for free. Kind of gets your attention.
It certainly got Richardsons. Managing storm water with
a green roof and swales made sense on an intellectual level,
he said. This is something you can do to save money while
responding to regulatory issues on the horizon. But I had to prove
to myself that we could figure out how to offset costs such as the
structural steel needed to handle the extra load on the roof.
The Rouge design team did indeed figure that out, discovering a
host of cost-effective benefits. In addition to absorbing storm
water, soil and vegetation on the roof would also:
* provide extra insulation
* protect the roof membrane
from wear and thermal shock
* create habitat for native
* contribute to mediating the
urban heat island effect
* capture harmful particulates
At the end of the day, said Richardson, we engineered
some solutions and now we have facts that say if were as successful
as we think were going to be, these systems can be replicated
at other Ford facilities.
An array of storm water management elements are now nearly in place.
The porous paving system, which was designed for the site in collaboration
with the water resource planning firm, Cahill Associates, has already
gone from a wild idea to a standard practiceone that Ford
may replicate at other sites. The living roof will be completed
this autumn and the installation itself will be a wonder. Near the
Rouge site, 15 acres of thin, soil mats have been planted with sedum,
a drought-resistant flowering succulent. The sedum, which absorbs
water like a sponge, has been taking root and growing for about
six months. In late September, the mats will be rolled up, trucked
to the Rouge factory and unrolled on the roof. When its completed,
the 10-acre living roof will be the largest in the world. Next summer,
the roof will bloom with scarlet and yellow flowers.
Plants With an Appetite
As weve seen, 85 years of 20th-century manufacturing has a
heavy impact on the land. Nowhere is that more evident than in the
soils of the Rouge, which are contaminated with hazardous chemicals.
Typically, industrial sites with toxic earth are cleaned-up
by excavating the topsoil and hauling it away. The project team
had a different ideait decided to do on-site remediation instead.
Along with landscape architect Julie Bargmann, the team has been
working with Dr. Clayton Rugh, a professor in the Department of
Crop and Soil Sciences at Michigan State University, who is doing
pioneering research in phytoremediation.
Phytoremediation is a process that uses plants to neutralize toxins
in the soil. Dr. Rugh has been testing phytoremediation at the Rouge
for the past year. He has cultivated 20 native plants in contaminated
soil and is monitoring them to test how well each breaks down and
purifies polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), a prevalent on-site
toxin. So far, big bluestem and green ash seem to have the biggest
appetites for PAHs. With other native plants, which will be monitored
by Rugh and a group of scientists, big bluestem and green ash are
being planted in phytoremediation gardens along the Rouges
main thoroughfare. The researchers will continue to systematically
test which plants are the best long-term toxic avengers. These industrial
strength plants, adding luster to the landscape as they purify the
soil, may be the most productive living things at the Rouge.
On the Factory Floor
And indoors? Weve tried to bring as much of the outdoors into
the Rouge factory as possible. Our work with other manufacturing
companies has shown that job satisfaction increases measurably when
workers are able to experience a relationship to nature from the
factory floor. At Herman Miller, in Zeeland, MI, where the companys
furniture assembly plant provides fresh air, sunlight and ample
opportunities to observe the outdoors, researchers have credited
our building design with elevating both worker productivity and
The design team aimed for the same sensitivity to worker satisfaction
at the Rouge. Our first goal was to bring sunlight deep into the
building so workers could sense the changing light and weather and
have visual contact with the outdoors. To achieve this, the factory
design includes 10 25- by 100-foot rooftop monitorsessentially,
pop-up roofseach glazed on all four sides. Skylights of this
scale are unprecedented in an automotive assembly plant, which as
Richardson pointed out, are typically boxes filled with tools. In
addition, the roof is sloped to the north to allow more northern
light to enter the building and to block some of the strong, direct
sunlight from the south. The glass is frosted to cut glare and thermally
insulated to mediate heat fluctuations. Thirty-five smaller skylights
establish an even, well-tempered level of light.
Worker safety was an important consideration, too. How would people
safely and conveniently traverse the building in the midst of heavy
forklift traffic? The design includes a mezzanine to get people
up and away from the busy factory floor. The mezzanine level also
houses services for workers, office space and employee team rooms,
all open to the skylights and bathed in natural light.
The factorys state-of-the-art manufacturing processes are
designed for flexibility. The assembly lines will be capable of
handling three different vehicle platforms and nine different models.
Thats impressive, but were especially interested in
manufacturing flexibility for the opportunities it provides for
disassembling cars and trucks.
Building a truly sustainable automobile industry means developing
closed-loop systems for the manufacturing and re-utilization of
auto parts. In Europe, the End-of-Life Vehicle Directive, which
makes manufacturers responsible for automotive materials, is pushing
companies to consider design for disassembly and effective resource
recovery more seriously. Cradle-to-cradle systems, in which materials
either go back to industry or safely back to the soil, are built
for effective resource recovery. American automakers, with a glance
over the pond, have an opportunity to see the future and prepare.
It is our hope that Ford will lead the way to effective cradle-to-cradle
manufacturing by developing profitable closed-loop systems in which
cars are assembled from safe, healthy materials and disassembled
at the end of their useful lives. In such a system, each part of
every car is either returned to the soil or recovered and reused
in the assembly of new cars, generating extraordinary productivity
and consistent employment in the transportation industry. In other
words, just as Henry Ford was the father of the assembly line, we
hope Bill Ford will become the father of the re-assembly line.
As Ford nears its centennial celebration, that sounds like a very
apt way to honor the heritage of the Rouge River complex and close
a century-long historical loop. Why not encourage and celebrate
both restorative facilities and restorative manufacturing? Though
the engineers in the Rouge Room might be little skeptical, we think
they might come around. After all, theyre putting a flowering
living roof on a vehicle assembly plant. Could cradle-to-cradle
manufacturing be far behind?
William A. McDonough, FAIA, and Michael Braungart
are founders of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, a consultancy
that works with a wide variety of companies to implement eco-effective
design and commerce strategies. For more information, visit www.mbdc.com.