A New Era for Manufacturing (2004)

By William McDonough, FAIA


The reopening of the Ford River Rouge plant as the Ford Rouge Center, and its availability for public tours, represents more than just the rebirth of a cultural opportunity in Detroit; it hearkens a sea change in the future of manufacturing in America, and indeed, throughout the world.

Since the River Rouge was unveiled by Henry Ford more than eighty years ago, the site has always been the icon of industrialization, and it is no less so today under Ford’s current leader, William Clay Ford, Jr. With features that put the plant at the forefront of sustainable manufacturing and architecture, the Rouge Center is a magnificent example of American industry’s ability not only to learn from the lessons of the first industrial revolution but to set an innovative, hopeful new course.

The first industrial revolution, which began in the textile business and picked up steam in America with the mass production of Civil War firearms, reached its apex at the Rouge, where vertically integrated production and the fast, efficient assembly line made it a model of progressive industry. Winston Churchill noted its profound influence when he called the Rouge and its American brethren the “arsenal of democracy.”

But the benefits the first industrial revolution also had some unintended consequences—the environmental problems with which we have all become familiar. And so in May of 1999, when Bill Ford asked my firm to lead the splendid Rouge design team, he charged us with creating “a model of 21st century sustainable manufacturing.”

It was a challenge appropriate for the Rouge. And Ford has risen to the occasion. Working within a conventional budget and schedule that never wavered from its strict, bottom-line value proposition to Ford shareholders, amazing things have happened.

First, what Bill Ford has done is declare Ford Motor Company “native” to Dearborn, Michigan. Rather than abandoning the Rouge, Ford has invested in its revitalization; Ford is here to stay. In an age of “off-shoring”, this is great news for Detroit, and for America.

The new Rouge has also broken the mold on industrial architecture. The storm water management system, comprised of the world’s largest green roof (a matrix of vegetation that absorbs water and provides thermal insulation), porous parking lots that draw water into underground retention beds, and an industrial-scale working landscape of water-filtering trenches full of native plants, has set a new standard for functional effectiveness, while saving Ford millions of dollars.

Yet the building is just the prelude of things to come, for the fact of the matter is, what Ford does is design, manufacture and market cars and trucks. This is where the rubber meets the road. And that’s what is so inspiring about the Rouge: It represents a shift toward a strategy of sustainable manufacturing that will enable a wide spectrum of industries to produce goods and services that generate environmental health and social well being as well as robust economic growth.

The shift is underway. My companies work with some of the biggest industries in the world to integrate this vision into mainstream business practice, including giants such as BASF, Shaw Carpets, Nike, and Herman Miller as well as leaders in textiles, consumer products and agriculture. These companies are not seeking to minimize the impacts of industry; they are making industry a positive, regenerative force.

Ford is doing the same. The company showed its hand at the auto show in Detroit in 2003 with the Model U concept car, the first car designed as a “cradle-to-cradle” vehicle. While a conventional “cradle-to-grave” vehicle is not designed for true, safe recycling, a cradle-to-cradle car is designed for quick, economic disassembly so that its high-tech materials are re-used by the auto industry and its bio-based materials are returned to agriculture to regenerate soil. The widespread adoption of this system of continual manufacturing, disassembling, and re-manufacturing, a real possibility in flexible new plants, would ensure that Dearborn, and America, will always provide jobs for autoworkers.

Remember this: the letter U comes after the letter T—an important designation at Ford—and it is also the twenty first letter of the alphabet. If the Model T was the icon of industry in the twentieth century, Bill Ford is sending a signal that the Model U and the Rouge can be seen as icons of the twenty-first.

It is my hope that someday soon vehicles like the Model U will be produced at the River Rouge by American workers. This would signal that American manufacturing can once again provide leadership and inspiration. Indeed, Bill Ford’s maxim “leadership not ownership” suggests that we can look forward to a time when American manufacturing means sustainable manufacturing. In this century, however, rather than providing an arsenal of armaments to protect democracy, we will be offering the world a vehicle for peaceful, just, and sustaining prosperity.


William McDonough, FAIA, an architect, educator and industrial systems designer, led the design team for the Ford Rouge Center.

A New Era for Maufacturing © William McDonough 2004

Detroit Free Press