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A New Green Coat For An Old Grey Factory

Ford invests in jobs, nature, quality of life

December 27, 2002 | By Keith Schneider
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Ford Motor Company
  The new green roof is one of the prominent features of an innovative and potentially risky $2 billion modernization of Ford’s 84-year-old Rouge River manufacturing complex in Detroit.

DEARBORN, MI – Almost no one would mistake the Ford Motor Company for anything other than what its own chief executive, William Clay Ford, Jr., calls “an old line industrial company” with a stirring century-old history that includes design innovations, manufacturing breakthroughs, and lately, economic gloom.
Henry Ford’s great grandson, though, is intent on transforming Ford into “a model company for the 21st century,” which explains why an odd and enlightening bit of horticultural news this fall had his colleagues smiling and the auto industry buzzing. Last October the first thin rolls of sedum, a water and heat-absorbing, low-growing ground cover, were installed on the roof of Ford’s new 1.1 million-square-foot truck assembly plant in Dearborn, which is scheduled to open in 2004. More than 10 acres of sedum – 454,000 square feet – are being rolled out, watered, and encouraged to thrive on the world’s largest “living” roof.

Until this year, Detroit residents were a lot more familiar with Ford’s tumbling stock price – the company lost $5.4 billion in 2001 – than with sedum. Now the rugged low-growing plant is a bit of a rage. That’s not only because of what sedum does to cool the interior during the summer, keep things toasty in winter, and cleanse rain water flowing off the building, but also what it represents. The green roof is one of the prominent features of an innovative and potentially risky $2 billion modernization of Ford’s 84-year-old Rouge River manufacturing complex that Mr. Ford insists will be an epoch-setting model of the economic benefits of environmentally-sensitive industrial design. The roof also is a testament to Mr. Ford’s commitment to the region and his own conviction that Detroit can improve its quality of life and be economically competitive.

“This is not environmental philanthropy,” said Mr. Ford in November 2000 when the first steel beam was installed for the new plant. “It is sound business, which for the first time balances the business needs of auto manufacturing with ecological and social concerns.”

In 1999, when Mr. Ford announced his vision to “transform a 20th century industrial icon into a model of 21st century sustainable manufacturing,” few people outside of the company’s front office really knew what to make of it. Would building contaminant-cleansing wetlands to store millions of gallons of storm water, draping exterior walls in oxygen-producing ivy, and filling plant interiors with natural light from immense skylights, do anything more than confirm Mr. Ford’s quixotic reputation as an executive who says he is committed to environmental progress but oversees a company that popularized the gas-guzzling SUV?

But as the Rouge factory’s modernization — which includes the new assembly factory and updates on some existing buildings — evolves from ambitious concept to actual construction, the plant’s 7,000 workers, and millions of Detroit-area residents are coming to recognize its significance beyond the factory walls.

The entrance to the Rouge complex is turning into a 1.5-mile-long green boulevard with 22 acres of wetlands, trees, and shrubs. Some 1,500 trees and other plantings are starting to surround the new assembly building and several others. Thousands of feet of shallow drainage canals, and multiple manmade wetlands have been constructed and seeded with indigenous plants. To control rainwater and pollutants, the assembly plant's 15-acre parking lot is covered with a porous surface through which water is filtered, cleansed and stored in underground basins to be slowly released into canals and wetlands. The plant's walls will be covered with ivy to cool the building and to produce oxygen.

The exterior greenery is designed not only to suggest a park-like setting, but also to use nature’s ability to soak up and cleanse storm water that drains into the nearby Rouge River. The ``green'' approach is designed to save Ford $35 million, when compared with the cost of installing a conventional treatment system.

Inside the new assembly building, Ford is preparing to install state-of-the-art manufacturing equipment capable of interchanging three vehicle platforms and producing up to nine different vehicle models. This “flexible” factory is designed to save money, and significantly reduce waste by making it much easier to retool to manufacture different models. Ford says the new plant will use space more efficiently because parts will be installed very soon after they arrive and 90 percent of vehicles will be shipped the day they are completed.

Bill McDonough, the Virginia-based architect who Mr. Ford tapped to lead the design team,, said in an interview that the company has hired consultants to evaluate the factory’s performance. “People are going to be astounded at how well these systems work,” adding that the immense scale of Ford’s reconstruction project could elevate green manufacturing principles from a useful niche to a mainstream industrial movement.

The living roof, for instance, cost roughly the same as a conventional roof but will last twice as long because it won’t expand during the heat of the day and shrink at night. It will store four million gallons of rainwater while eliminating pollutants that ordinarily would pour off the roof and straight into the river. Skylights will fill the new vehicle plant with so much natural light that Ford engineers anticipate being able to turn off half of the interior electric lights during the day, saving nearly $50,000 annually in energy costs. And the roof provides insulating capacity that helped Ford reduce 40 percent of the heating and cooling duct work that a conventional building would ordinarily need.

Environmental leaders say they admire what Ford is doing at the Rouge plant —  renamed the Ford Rouge Center —  but call for the same pollution-reducing principles to be applied across the company’s policies and product line. Several environmentalists noted, for instance, that Ford fought hard earlier this year to block Congress from enacting higher fuel economy standards. “The environmental impact of cars comes in three stages – manufacturing, use, and disposal,” said Lana Pollack, the president of the Michigan Environmental Council in Lansing. “Ford is making great strides in the first. We’ve yet to see any tangible progress in the second and third, and that’s where it really counts.”

Industry analysts say they are waiting for the plant to begin production before making a judgment. ``Internally, Ford thinks this project will help them,'' said Bruce Belzowksi, a senior research associate at the University of Michigan's Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation in Ann Arbor, Mich. ``But the industry and the analysts will judge this after it's been in action for a while.''

There is little dispute, though, that Ford’s bid to boost production of vehicles with new, energy-efficient technology, while reducing air and water pollution to near zero, now represents a realistic thought in American industry. Mr. Ford also is reaching for greatness in the very same place that his great grandfather invented the concept of “vertical integration” and set the worldwide standard for manufacturing innovation that endured for more than 50 years.
Ford’s 1,100-acre Rouge River plant opened in 1918 and began to turn iron and other basic raw materials into completed cars. To the relief of most people in southeast Michigan, the factory is still open and among the largest employers in the Detroit region. That is not taken for granted in a city and a state numbed by companies that closed obsolete plants and sent tens of thousands high-paying auto jobs to the South and overseas. “While most companies would rather move than invest in an 83-year-old site,” Mr. Ford said two years ago, “we view this as an important reinvestment in our employees, our hometown.”
Ford officials say that the River Rouge plans are a notable exception to the deep retrenchments caused by the company's money troubles. ``When we started this, we were flush with money and it was easy to get going,'' said Donald Russell, the company's manufacturing sustainability manager who is overseeing the assembly plant's ``living'' roof. ``The chairman is 100 percent behind us and we haven't left off anything that we wanted to do. The main components are all intact.''

The decision put Ford at the top of the heap among a group of environmentally-minded  local business and civic leaders who have set out on a similar path to improve Detroit’s economic competitiveness by cleaning up and restoring the region’s rivers and waterways, especially the Rouge River. Ford’s plant, which sits on a bend just upstream from where the Rouge River empties into the Detroit River, is essential to the restoration project and the region’s economic health, say city officials.

More than $535 million in federal, state, and local grants have been invested in making the Rouge River, once one of the continent’s dirtiest, clean enough to swim in and beautiful enough to attract new neighborhoods, businesses, and visitors. The work is slow and expensive, but after nearly a decade of planting trees, controlling storm water, restoring wetlands, and improving parks, the Rouge is now clean enough to support a small sport fishery and its banks are much greener. Bill Ford Jr. is the chairman of one of the committees that oversees the cleanup.

“This is an evolutionary concept,” said Detroit Federal District Judge John Feikens, an expert in water pollution and river restoration who asked Mr. Ford to participate in the region’s environmental restoration. “People are becoming more aware that you can’t have any quality of life if you don’t have clean water. You cannot have any world-class industries in southeast Michigan, like the Ford Motor Company, unless the area itself has a very definite concept of quality of life and a very definite idea of what’s necessary to have quality of life.” (See Liquid Assets.)

Still, even as Ford’s new and cleaner factory attracts national attention, Mr. Ford acknowledges that his work is viewed skeptically in another arena critical to the company’s success: Wall Street. Analysts have no means to evaluate the economic success of environmental principles that are likely to take 5 or 10 years to pay off, he says. Nevertheless, Mr. Ford says he’s convinced the green manufacturing measures he embraces will reduce costs, help make his products more competitive, and rejuvenate a city that has lost so much.
“It’s still a tough sell,” he said in an interview published on the company’s Web site. “I do believe that I’m building a stronger Ford Motor Company for my children and my grandchildren.”
Keith Schneider, a regular contributor to the New York Times, the Detroit Free Press, and Gristmagazine.com, is an environmental journalist and program director of the Michigan Land Use Institute in Beulah. Reach him at keith@mlui.org. A version of this article was published by the New York Times on October 23, 2002.

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