Ford merges environmental design with industry icon History is being rewritten at Ford Motor Co.'s manufacturing icon, heretofore known as The Rouge.

That name is out. Now it's officially called the Ford Rouge Center.

This poster child of the industrial revolution will be replaced by an eco-factory with air and natural light skylights, meadows and a 454,000-sq-.ft. (42,000-sq.-m) roof sprouting groundcover complete with songbirds.

The Mustang, produced at the Dearborn Assembly Plant since 1964, will end its run at the Rouge in about three years. The next- generation Mustang will be produced at AutoAlliance International Inc. in Flat Rock, MI.

The new Dearborn assembly plant will have the flexibility to interchange three vehicle platforms (Ford Ranger pickup, a miniature version of the Explorer Sport Trac known as U260, and a third configuration that could be another crossover), and produce up to nine different models.

In October, Ford's board gave the project the green light by approving the centerpiece: a new 750,000-sq.-ft. (70,000-sq.-m) assembly plant that accounts for about half of the $2 billion project.

It would have been cheaper to do a brownfield renovation on a site not requiring so much remediation. It might even have been cheaper to do a greenfield site, says James Padilla, Ford group vice president of global manufacturing, but that is not the point. When the rejuvenated Rouge goes into operation in about 30 months, it will signal a new era for Ford.

Helping fund the transformation is a $222 million package of tax breaks and incentives from the governments of Dearborn, Wayne County, and the state of Michigan ($156 million). It weighs in at just under the $256 million package given to General Motors Corp. to build two plants outside Lansing, MI, and is substantially less than the $300 million package Mercedes-Benz (owned by DaimlerChrysler AG) accepted to build its plant in Alabama.

Even before the details of the Rouge project became public, rumors were circulating that Ford was building a factory "full of light and air and air conditioning, and the union didn't have to strike to get it," says renowned environmental architect William A. McDonough. After being hired by Ford Chairman William Clay Ford Jr., he pressed the company to consider radical alternatives.

Employees will enter by overhead walkways, pass an employee mall and arrive at a central mezzanine complete with offices, lockers and showers. They will walk downstairs and then spread out to their work areas, minimizing traffic on the plant floor.

The floor is lean: reducing by nearly 40% the number of workstations normally found in an assembly area. It will feature an electric monorail system and power-roll lift tables to adjust line speeds. Ergonomically designed conveyors will adjust to the worker.

Little space is devoted to component and finished vehicle storage. There will be a two-hour maximum on line-side parts inventory and 10 hours for off-line inventory space, compared with an industry average of a day or two.

Parking for finished vehicles will be cut in half; 90% will be shipped out the day they are produced. The stringent just-in-time demands will require 500 inbound and 200 outbound shipments daily.

The new paint shop went into production in September with one-third less paint emissions than the one it replaces, and plans are to further improve those numbers.

Amenities include a food court with a patio and rooftop eating space.

The Rouge, built in 1917, is part of the Ford heritage, says Mr. Padilla. "Every major country's head of state has visited the Rouge." It stood as a 20th century pinnacle of modern manufacturing and an icon of efficiency. It was, and remains, the carmaker's largest single industrial complex. In its peak in the mid-1930s the complex employed 103,000 workers, in sharp contrast to 10,000 today: 7,000 employed by Ford and 3,000 at Rouge Steel.

Its rejuvenation is designed to define the new Ford, setting a new theme for corporate initiative for the next 80 years. It speaks to the carmaker's commitment to its employees and home plate in Dearborn, MI.

"Ford is declaring itself native to Dearborn and not abandoning Flint like General Motors did," says Mr. McDonough.

The goal was to create a modern workplace in a sustainable environment, at the urging of Chairman Bill Ford.

The decision was made to leave the ordinary behind and pursue alternative means to an economic solution, says Mr. Padilla. "Bill has been behind it as a sincere, genuine environmentalist. He's challenged us to embrace these new concepts while providing shareholder value."

"While most companies would rather move than invest in an 83-year-old site, we view this as an important reinvestment in our employees, our hometown, and an American icon of the 20th century," says Mr. Ford.

The Rouge room, a planning hovel in the basement of Ford World headquarters, has been frequented by Chief Executive Jacques Nasser and UAW President Steve Yokich, to name a few. "It hasn't been a perfect sale," says Mr. Padilla, but it is a go.

The Rouge complex houses about six plants on 600 acres (243 hectares) of land, adjacent to 500 acres (202 hectares) which Ford sold to the Rouge Steel Co. in 1989.

The hope is Rouge Steel will follow Ford's example. "We're hoping to prove to them there's a business case to make these improvements," says James Richardson, manager of Ford's Heritage 2000 Project.

Among the ecological highpoints: fuel cells and solar cells will augment the power grid.

The "living roof" with a special carbohydrate-based material in the soil and a groundcover known as sedum, can absorb an hour's worth of rain runoff, says Mr. Richardson.

Tim O'Brien, Ford director of environmental quality, says natural swales or ditches full of plants will provide drainage much like water hazards on a golf course.

Conventional asphalt is being replaced with porous pavement which is a surface that filters rain water through a bed of compacted stone. The idea is to meet more stringent storm water regulations expected in a few years with a natural drainage system that will cost a third of the roughly $50 million cost of a traditional sewer management system, says Mr. Padilla.

The plant will employ phytoremediation, the use of plants to rid soil of contaminants. Sunflowers are among the indigenous plants with an ability to absorb toxins.

The buildings will be surrounded by a 1.5 million-sq.-ft. (140,000-sq.-m) meadow, and vines will be encouraged to creep up factory walls, designed to meet the criteria that the site be safe enough for children to play there.

Ford would like to open selected parts of the site to the public and is working with the Automobile National Heritage Area Partnership to feature it as part of their tour.

It's a far cry from the boardroom discussions of 1992 when the Rouge's sole product, the Mustang, was about to be eliminated and the plant idled. The "Save the Mustang" campaign became synonymous with Save the Rouge. The company and UAW worked together to redesign the car and modernize its home.

That comeback was followed, in 1997, by the decision to invest in renovations to the complex, beginning with Dearborn Engine and Fuel Tank Plant, Dearborn Tool and Die plants, a new frame line for the Dearborn Frame Plant and a new power plant. Ground was being broken for the power plant when a boiler at the old power plant exploded in 1999, killing six workers and injuring more than 30.

The Dearborn Engine and Fuel Tank Plant has been upgraded to begin production of the new I-4 engine to go, initially, in the '01 Ranger and Escape.

But the plans remained conventional until May 3, 1999, when Bill Ford shocked employees by announcing plans to "transform the Rouge site."

"It was news to everyone," says Mr. Padilla. "Usually we would have spent four or five years planning, prior to such an announcement."

The plans call for preservation of a portion of Detroit architect Albert Kahn's original Dearborn Glass Plant. It may house a training facility. And the M-TEC training center will go on the nearby 5-acre (2 hectare) site that was once home to the Ford Rotunda.

What made the Rouge so unique in its day, was that it built a vehicle from scratch, on site. "There was no other place on earth where you could see the entire process in a single industrial complex," says Mr. Padilla of the largest manufacturing center owned by a single company.

"You could watch the giant freighters unloading; the ore and coal going into ovens to make coke, steel and, in another plant, glass; then see the materials formed into parts, panel stampings and engines; and finally see it all come together on the assembly line and watch the car start and drive away."

It had 120 miles (193 km) of conveyors and its own railroad with 100 miles (160 km) of track, half of which will be ripped out in the renovation. It was a monument to the concept of vertical integration: self sufficiency by owning, operating and coordinating all the materials and means needed to make a vehicle.

Before Henry Ford's Rouge River property was earmarked for any particular use, Undersecretary of the Navy Franklin D. Roosevelt contracted Mr. Ford to build Eagle Boats or submarine chasers. World War I ended before the boats went into action, but the widening of the Rouge River made it possible to accommodate ore boats to supply Henry Ford's other venture: the Highland Park Plant that assembled the Model T.

The Rouge eventually made every component of the Model T.

The first vehicle assembled at the Rouge was the Fordson farm tractor in 1920, and the Model A was built from 1927 to 1931.

It was at the Rouge, May 26, 1937, that Walter Reuther and a group of union organizers tried to enter and were beaten by Ford security. The "Battle of the Overpass" became a pivotal event for the UAW and the labor movement. The overpass of the new Rouge Center will be built on that site, standing as a symbol of how far the two sides have come, says Mr. Padilla.