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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Jan/Feb 2000 :Transforming an Icon

Transforming an Icon

The sprawling Ford Motor Co. Rouge facility in Dearborn, MI, is a 1,200-acre industrial complex that is home to six plants as well as the Rouge Steel Co. and the Double Eagle steel company. At one point in its 84-year-history, it employed 90,000 workers. The Rouge plant currently stands as “an icon of 20th-century manufacturing,” says Ford. “It is the most copied and most studied manufacturing plant in the world. It was copied by government, it was copied by companies. It really stood for industrial America in the 20th century.”

But Bill Ford has even greater aspirations for this behemoth industrial symbol: he wants it to become the icon of 21st-century sustainable manufacturing.

To accomplish this, Ford has allied himself—and the company—with an architect whose environmental ambitions and energy rival his own. William A. McDonough, FAIA, has a history of monumental environmental firsts, including being the first and only recipient of the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development and the author of the Hannover Principles: Design for Sustainability, written for the 2000 World’s Fair. The past dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Virginia (he resigned the post in June 1999) and co-founder with Michael Braungart of McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, his alliance with Ford Motor Co. represents a new avenue for McDonough. While previous ground-breaking sustainable projects had been completed for The Gap headquarters in San Bruno, CA, and the Miller SQA headquarters in Zeeland, MI, his work at Ford Motor Co. places him center-stage in the industrial arena. It also provides the perfect platform for achieving his long-dreamed-of goal: “The Next Industrial Revolution.”

The irony is that as evenly matched as Ford and McDonough are in their zeal, Ford resisted a meeting with McDonough repeatedly until a trusted staff member finally wore him down.

“I kept thinking, ‘Why do I want to meet an architecture professor from Virginia? I just couldn’t see how it would be terribly relevant to what I was trying to do.”But within five minutes of the start of the meeting, Ford says he recognized that McDonough offered him something special.

“He’s got a hell of a sales pitch. Bill is very persuasive and we were on the same wavelength immediately—to the point where, by the end of the meeting, we were finishing each other’s sentences. I was exceptionally energized by that meeting. But I still didn’t know if what he was saying was practical. So I did a little due diligence. I spoke with Bob Fisher at The Gap. And he said this guy is terrific and he delivered everything he said he was going to deliver to us. And then I started snooping around at Herman Miller and found out that they were very pleased.”

Ford Motor Co.’s manufacturing staff had similar thoughts at their first meeting with McDonough. “When I first introduced them to Bill, you could tell there was no joy in going to that meeting,” Ford recalls. “These guys have been building manufacturing facilities for a lot of years and I think the first half hour was a little rough.

“But two events really pushed it over. One was Bill himself, who basically didn’t come in to sell them anything. He said, ‘Look, you tell me your problems and let me see if I can help you solve them.’ And he did on the spot.

“The other was when they went up to Herman Miller and talked to their manufacturing people. They said, ‘Tell us, does this stuff really work?’ And these people said, ‘Wow, does it work.’ Now, our manufacturing people are his biggest cheerleaders within the company. And that’s a tough group to win over.”

The idea for what has now grown into the Rouge Project—complete with its own war room in the basement of Ford Motor Co.’s world headquarters, a $2 billion price tag and a 20-year time frame (although Ford admits he wishes it could be done in about six months)—took root during a conversation he and McDonough had about what the 21st century was going to look like. “It was always in terms of ‘if we build a new plant, we’re going to do this’,” Ford says. Then one day, as Ford and McDonough were standing by a window with a view overlooking the Rouge complex, they wondered, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we could transform that?’ “And we started talking about what that would entail and what we would do and pretty soon it became the Rouge Project,” Ford says.

Remaking the Rouge is an enormous undertaking, in large part due to its massive size and the variety of plants located there, including assembly, engine, glass, tool and die, frame and stamping. Plans also call for restoration of the surrounding waterfront area and the creation of new public green spaces.

“If we do this right, we really will do nothing less than transform the icon of 20th-century manufacturing into the icon of 21st-century sustainable manufacturing,” Ford continues. “And make manufacturing not just a clean experience, but humanize it . . . make it a space that people like to be in. And I think that will be in and of itself a real transformation.”And, he adds, “We’re just getting started. Who knows where this is all going.”

 


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