Ford Plans $2 Billion Greening of Old Rouge Complex

Ford Plans $2 Billion Greening of Old Rouge Complex

Ford Motor Co. is spending $2 billion to transform its 83-year old Rouge manufacturing complex, a sprawling, concrete-covered icon of the industrial age, into a new symbol of environmental responsibility, the automaker said on Tuesday.

At the center of the revitalized Rouge, a marshland outside Detroit which Henry Ford converted to a 1,100 acre industrial site in 1917, will be a new assembly plant, topped with nearly half a million square feet of foliage and located next to an open meadow of berry bushes to attract migratory songbirds.

Behind the greening of the Rouge is Ford Chairman William Clay Ford Jr., grandson of founder Henry Ford, who is quickly changing the automaker's image from a traditional smokestack industry by addressing groups such as Greenpeace and promoting environmental initiatives within the company.

"This is not tokenism," James Padilla, Ford group vice president of global manufacturing, told reporters in the "Rouge Room," where plans are formulated for the new complex. "This is about merging the values of the economic system, which pretty much we've been dedicated to in our hundred years of existence, and bringing in the environmental side of that."

The Rouge was once the largest private manufacturing complex in the world, employing more than 100,000 people at its peak in the 1930s, where iron shipped up the Rouge River went in one end, and cars came out the other.

The Rouge has been at the center of many key events in the automotive industry, including the bloody 1937 confrontation between Ford security and United Auto Workers officials trying to organize the company. And in 1964, it was also the birthplace of the popular Mustang sports car.

In the 1990s, Ford began examining the future of the aging complex, now 500 acres. Padilla said Ford could have closed the Rouge and built a new vehicle assembly plant on a "greenfield" site for less money, but the company decided against abandoning its home base and its history.

Ford signed the revolutionary architect William McDonough to rejuvenate the Rouge. McDonough's projects have included redesigning the Environmental Defence Fund headquarters in New York with a tree-lined interior and daylight illuminating interior offices.

"Ford is declaring itself native to Dearborn," McDonough said. "They're not getting up and abandoning Flint like General Motors did."

The sad demise of Flint, Mich., the birthplace of General Motors Corp., was documented by Flint native Michael Moore in the off-beat film "Roger & Me." Last year, GM closed the historic Buick City Assembly Centre, 95 years after the first Buick was manufactured in the city.

Ford plans to spend $1 billion on the environmental initiatives and the new 750,000-square-foot assembly plant, where the automaker eventually plans to build up to nine vehicle models on three different platforms.

To manage stormwater and keep pollutants from washing into the Rouge River, McDonough came up with the idea of the assembly plant roof covered with a groundcover plant rooted in a naturally-absorbant material able to soak up one hour worth of rainwater. The green roof will also save energy by regulating the factory's temperature.

Other initiatives include swales, or shallow ditches, with native plants to regulate water flow, and the nearly 1 million square foot meadow, which will help decontaminate the soil from decades of abuse.

Roadways and parking lots will be covered with a three-to-five-foot thick porous pavement, which allows rainwater to naturally filter into the earth.

Ford is also spending $400 million to upgrade its Engine and Fuel Tank Plant at the Rouge, and its new Paint Shop on the site opened in September.

Padilla said the environmental initiatives make sense both from an economic and environmental perspective. Traditional methods to meet future U.S. government stormwater regulations would cost $50 million, but McDonough's initiatives cost a third of that.

Initiatives which prove to be successful at the Rouge will be used at other Ford plants, Padilla said.

"We're just taking the first steps," McDonough said. "But the compass needle has swung around to a new strategy."

Story by Michael Ellis for Reuters News Service, © 2000 Reuters Limited. All rights reserved.