by  Eric  Lubell '76




"Consider the cherry tree. It makes thousands of blossoms just so that another tree might germinate, take root, and grow. After falling to the ground, the blossoms return to the soil and become nutrients for the surrounding environment. Every last particle contributes in some way to the health of a thriving ecosystem. "Waste equals food"—the first principle of the Next Industrial Revolution.

"Human industry, on the other hand, is severely limited. It follows a one-way, cradle-to-grave manufacturing line in which things are created and eventually discarded, usually in an incinerator or a landfill. The waste from human industry is not 'food' at all. In fact, it is often poison.

"There is an alternative—one that will allow both business and nature to be fecund and productive."

- William McDonough
              The Next Industrial Revolution


 n the spring of 1999, Ford Motor Company CEO, William Clay Ford, Jr. '79, faced a critical decision: Close the aging Rouge River Plant—the Company's former flagship—and move manufacturing out of Dearborn, Michigan? Or stay? Complicating the decision was a mandate by the Clean Water Act requiring Ford to install at the site storm water reclamation systems to reduce toxic runoff, a cost of some $48 million. This would have to be done whether Rouge was shut down or not.

 n deciding to stay, Ford made a commitment as bold and visionary as his great-grandfather Henry's decision to build Rouge in the first place.


Henry and Edsel Ford study a model of the Rouge River Plant



"Henry Ford was the father of the assembly line. We want William Clay Ford to be the father of the disassembly line."

- William McDonough


 n June 16, 2003, Ford Motor Company will celebrate its 100th anniversary. This occasion will coincide with the completion of Phase One of the Rouge River Plant Rehabilitation, a 20-year, $2 billion redesign, the first fruits of Ford's recommitment to Dearborn. What Ford and his lead architect, William McDonough, will unveil on this day—to the public, the press, and, not least, to shareholders—is the transformation of an environmental and financial catastrophe into "the model of twenty-first century manufacturing." The new Rouge Plant will establish new standards for material flow, waste reduction, and other lean manufacturing processes. And it will celebrate a partnership between Ford and McDonough that earlier this month on January 18, 2003, introduced the world's first recyclable car. More on this in a moment.


Rouge River Plant, 1952



"This is not environmental philanthropy."

 - Bill Ford


 he centerpiece at Rouge includes a new 600,000 square-foot assembly plant, featuring skylights to brighten the factory floor and a "flexible" assembly system. Ford will now be able to build nine different vehicle models on the same assembly platforms, allowing quick response to changing markets, potentially saving millions in replatforming costs.

 he plant's most pungent feature is its "living roof"—a full 10.4 acres of sedum, whose unique absorption properties provides natural storm water management. Gutters are unnecessary; the plant cover filters rainfall and snowfall; and the roof will never need painting. Sedum also insulates.



 he parking areas are a second component of the water system, made with a specially-fine permeable asphalt. The contoured ground is the third component, engineered in swales that force runoff through plant-based filtration to remove contaminants. According to the architects, storm water returning to the Rouge River should meet Clean Water Act standards. Water may take months to be naturally purified and recycled, but the system works. And it cost just $13 million. Compared to what Ford had intended to spend originally—on three chemical treatment plants and extensive excavation to install concrete pipes—this approach seems more than sensible. And these same features will restore habitat to the site, with orchards, a forest, and natural watercourses.


"The birds flying over the Rouge will look down
and say, oh, it's our people, they're back."

- William McDonough


 hat kind of practitioner did Bill Ford hire to help save Rouge?

 illiam McDonough was relatively well-known by the time Ford picked him, having designed several ecologically sensible buildings around the country. At the corporate campus for Gap, Inc., in San Bruno, California, McDonough had the roofs insulated with six inches of soil and planted with native grasses and wildflowers. For the environmental studies department at Oberlin College in Ohio, McDonough's solar- and geothermal-powered building scheme generates more energy than it uses. And in nearby Holland, Michigan, McDonough designed an office and furniture manufacturing facility for Herman Miller, Inc., which incorporates earth berms that insulate and a newly created landscape of wetlands that purify storm water runoff.

 hat was also known about McDonough—which made Bill Ford's decision that much more controversial—was his heretical enviromental philosophy, which combines equal parts of Rachel Carson and Ralph Nader. He would like to change the way you, I, and corporate executives think about everything— transportation, energy use, communications, synthetic materials, and even nature itself. He's prone to make grand provocative statements, like "If growth doesn't follow nature's laws, we call it bad. If growth is for the sake of itself, it's like cancer." "Where in the Bill of Rights does it give an individual, a community, or a company the right to pollute? It doesn't!" "The two questions we're asking as designers now are: 1) How do we love all the children of all species for all time? And 2) When do we become indigenous people again?"

Yet along with his evangelical ardor, McDonough understands the culture of business. He has an uncanny knack of talking about the most radical environmental principles using the bottom-line language of the boardroom. Employing the simplistic graphics of a PowerPoint presentation, McDonough plots his philosophy in a triangle (and calls it "the Fractal Ecology of Sustaining Design"), with economic returns (equity), social good (economy), and environmental benefits (ecology) at the corners. He explains that there need not be a trade-off of one for the other, that all three "indicators" can be maximized through creative architecture and design. What's most impressive is that people are listening. Not only did he make a believer in Bill Ford, several other top executives—at Nike, DuPont, British Petroleum, Steelcase, and the world's largest producer of chemicals, BASF—are becoming convinced that manufacturing can coexist with environmentalism and still remain sound business.

 utside the boardroom, McDonough's speech is more pointed, less conciliatory. For instance, when he talks about regulations, he's practically bitter about what they represent. Far from being a free market libertarian, however, McDonough feels that regulations are emblematic of a culture tolerant of its own destruction.


"Regulations are signals of design failure."

- William McDonough


 "hen I say that regulations are signals of design failure," McDonough says, "my emphasis is 'signals.' They're signaling to us that something is fatally wrong. They're signaling to us that we have a right to be polluters, as long as we pollute within certain limits. Less bad is not good. Our culture has, in a strange way, adopted a protocol which essentially presumes the right to pollute and destroy."

 "ompanies will say, 'I'm meeting the regulations. I'm recycling. I have recycled content in my building.' Well, even if you look at the current lead standards for U.S. construction, or the current emissions standards for U.S. manufacturing, they're really a nightmare. They allow polluters to continue polluting. The regulations that we have for industry are really an invitation to pollute."

 "e need to change the fundamental fabric of our manufacturing and building schemes. We need to design them for disassembly and adaptive reuse—inherent in their design—so that no building, no machine, no product, will ever remain a heap of toxic junk in a landfill. And that's what we're trying to do at Rouge."


The Rouge makes oxygen. How many buildings you know have made oxygen lately?

- William McDonough


 cDonough's book, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things (North Point Press, 2002), written with his business partner, German industrial chemist and former Greenpeace activist Michael Braungart, proposes a new design agenda: not that we have to make less stuff; we just have to make it differently. Their enterprise, McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, is dedicated to helping companies implement "eco-effective" commerce strategies.

 cDonough and Braungart's world would have two kinds of products: The first are made of "biological nutrients," like corn- and soy-based foams and fibers, which are completely biodegradable. Sneakers wearing thin? Throw them in the compost. Carpet seen better days? Eat it for dinner. (They're not kidding; read on.)

 he second kinds of products are made of "technical nutrients," plastics, polymers, metals, and glass, made so they are endlessly reusable. McDonough reminds us that plastic water bottles and polyester shirts contain small amounts of antimony, a heavy metal that causes cancer. The rubber soles in a pair of shoes contain lead. And all our electronic appliances—from TVs to cars—contain chemicals that cannot be recycled. What happens after we throw them away? These are the "wrong kinds of nutrients," McDonough says, "because they would contaminate the material cycles." McDonough and Braungart's antidote is to work closely with major manufacturers to develop new eco-effective products using biological and technical nutrients, and to help make them commercially viable. For example, MBDC is working with Nike to make sneakers free of VOCs and PVCs (polyvinyl chlorides) that can biodegrade safely into soil. The company recently developed a carpet with Shaw Carpets made of a new isotope of nylon, nylon-6, that's "infinitely recyclable." And they've created a "pure technical ingredient" fabric with Design-Tex that, McDonough says, is so free of toxins, it's edible. Homer Simpson, beware.

 he most glamorous, if not the most exciting, proposition came in an announcement in early January at the 2003 North American International Auto Show in Detroit.


"The company's Centennial offers us a unique opportunity to reflect on our many past accomplishments. But it also challenges us to look ahead and create a vision of continuing success. Model U is an exploration of that future vision."

- Bill Ford


The Model T of the Twenty-first Century

 ou can have it in any color you want, as long as it's green. In design and materials, the Model U comes very close to the cradle-to-cradle ideal set forth by the McDonough-Braungart agenda. It's made of materials that can be in continuous life-cycles, both technical and biological, and it's a hybrid electric- and hydrogen-powered engine, using internal combustion rather than a fuel cell.

 t performs as well a gasoline-fueled engine—45 miles per gallon. Yet because there are no carbon atoms in hydrogen, combustion produces no hydrocarbon or carbon-dioxide emissions. It's not emission-free, however, producing water vapor and nitrous oxides, yet these are at very low levels and Ford's product literature suggests that catalyst research may soon reduce emissions to "near-zero."

 on't try to eat the body of the car—it's made out of aluminum. But with a shake of salt and some butter you might enjoy the "canvas" roof and floor mats, which are made by Cargill Dow from a corn-based biopolymer called polylactide. The seats and tailgate are processed from soy-based foams and plastics. The dash, steering wheel, headrests, armrests, and door trim are all eco-effective polyesters from Milliken and Co.—an "infinitely recyclable" technical nutrient. Even the tires, made of rubber, use corn-based fillers as a partial substitute for carbon black. And I've read they're lighter and offer lower rolling resistance, which improves fuel economy and traction in wet weather.

 hat links the Model U genetically to its alphabetical predecessor is that it's designed for mass production. Yet the one major difference from the Model T is U's modular, "slot-panel" design, which gives consumers a wide variety of ways to customize it. I hear the jingle now: "U's can make it anyway you want."

 he Model U is the result of a partnership struck among Ford's Research and Advanced Engineering, Ford's Brand Imaging Group, McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry, British Petroleum, and a host of technology suppliers. Its rollout won't be for many years, but it received considerable acclaim at the Auto Show and Ford seems serious in its commitment to bringing the Model U to market as the first true cradle to cradle vehicle.

 he most emotional part of Ford's Centennial, certainly for the Company, its employees, and the union, is that it will take place in Dearborn, its historic home, where founder Henry Ford launched the American industrial revolution. That this celebration will transpire in sight of a river that's gradually coming to life again, and that it inaugurates a new kind of manufacturing in a new kind of industrial facility, suggests that Ford and McDonough's claim might indeed be valid that the next industrial revolution has begun.


All of the photographs above were provided courtesy of Ford Motor Company.


Eric Lubell '76 is the editor of The Independent.

Volatile organic compounds (VOC) are solvents used in coatings (like paint), inks, and adhesives, as well as consumer products like hairspray, deodorants, air fresheners, and household cleaners. Emissions of VOCs, in and of themselves, don't necessarily give rise to health or environmental concerns. However, VOC content reacts with oxides to form ground level ozone—the primary component in smog.

Rouge River Plant occupies a drained swamp of 1,100 acres along the Rouge River on the outskirts of Detroit. Driving by it on I-94, you see a virtually defunct old-era plant decked with smokestacks, open pits, piles of ash and slag, silent cranes along a moribund river, and 100 miles of circuitous neglected railroad track.

In its heyday (it opened in 1927), Rouge was the most studied and technologically advanced place on the face of the planet, the largest complex of its kind. From the arrival at its private dock of iron ore and sand (dug from Ford-owned mines) to the finished vehicles that were produced in 28-hour cycles, it encompassed a fully-integrated process of mass production, churning out Model A's, tractors, and airplanes. In full swing in the mid-1930s, it employed 90,000 workers and drew more than 500,000 annual visitors to its public tours until they were discontinued in the early 1970s.

By the 1980s, much of Ford's operations had been spread out worldwide. Rouge had become obsolete, contaminated with heavy metals. Even so it never shut down entirely. When a boiler exploded in February, 1999, killing six workers and injuring two dozen, the Company huddled to decide its fate.