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Industrial Revival

Ford brings back the assembly plant tour with a new 'green' visitor center at its historic Rouge manufacturing complex in suburban Detroit.

June 01, 2004 |

For more than a half century, starting in 1924, millions of visitors toured Ford Motor Co.'s Rouge manufacturing facility in Dearborn, Mich., to marvel at the sights and sounds of one of the world's largest automotive assembly complexes. Then, in 1980, Ford discontinued plant tours.

Now, the tours are back, and in grand style. Ford has debuted a 45,500-sf visitor center adjacent to its new 2.5-million-sf truck plant. Visitors tour the facility (which was completed in June 2003, in conjunction with Ford's 100th anniversary, but only officially opened last month) before proceeding to the plant, where assembly operations can be viewed from seven platforms.

The project's complex nature and its incorporation of innovative features earned it a Merit Award in our Building Team of the Year competition.

The visitor center is one part of a $2 billion renovation of the Rouge complex, which will continue with infrastructure improvements over the next decade. It allows Ford to showcase the company's history and its adoption of flexible and sustainable manufacturing operations, as well as the building's sustainable design concepts.

The project's Building Team included Southfield, Mich.-based architect/engineer HarleyEllis; BRC Imagination Arts, a Burbank, Calif.-based firm that creates special venue attractions; environmental designer William McDonough + Partners, Charlottesville, Va.; landscape design consultant WH Canon; storm water management Arcadis; and Detroit-based CM Walbridge Aldinger.

Visitors entering the building are initially drawn to a display of five of the most popular Ford models that have been produced at the Rouge: the 1929 Model A roadster; the 1932 V-8 Victoria; the 1949 Club Coupe; the 1956 Thunderbird; and the 1965 Mustang.

In one of the building's two theaters, visitors see a 12-minute presentation about Henry Ford and the Rouge complex. They then proceed to a circular, 3,500-sf, seven-screen theater furnished with 75 seats that revolve 360 degrees for a multisensory presentation, "The Art of Manufacturing."

As the screens depict a blast furnace making steel, 300-degree air is forced into the theater for five seconds by ducts that run along the inside perimeter of the space. To accompany the awesome force of a stamping press, vibrations are transmitted through the theater's wooden floor, which was specified in part to optimize such transmission. Transducers — units resembling audio speakers that incorporate diaphragms — attached to the underside of the floor provide the vibrations. As the screens show the spray painting of a truck body, a fine mist is sprayed into the space to suggest a paint shop atmosphere.

The design process "wasn't as neat and tidy as normal," says HarleyEllis's Jack Bullo, who man-aged its architectural aspects. He explains that the building design was based primarily on accommodating exhibit features developed by BRC, whose other assignments have been as varied as Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park in Florida, the NASA/Johnson Space Center in Texas, and Knott's Berry Farm in California.

"The building had to be very sequential, very regimented in terms of how people moved through it," Bullo says. The Building Team also had to reconcile the differing agendas of stakeholders, chief of which was whether the visitors center should emphasize education or entertainment.


Part of a $2 billion renovation of the Ford Rouge complex, the new 45,500-sf visitor center allows Ford to showcase the company’s history and its adoption of flexible and sustainable manufacturing operations, as well as the building’s sustainable design concepts.

The goal, says Charles Poat, engineering manager with Walbridge Aldinger, was to "properly compromise" these issues. For example, a cistern that is a component of the water conservation system was located just inside the building entrance, where it also functions as a showpiece.

An environmental pioneer

The visitor center has been awarded a Gold rating under the U.S. Green Building Council's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design program. Sustainable design features include a storm water collection system that collects rainwater from the roof and reuses it to flush toilets and provide irrigation. Solar collectors reduce energy use by 40% compared to a typical museum-type facility. The plant was not covered by the LEED designation, but its 10-acre turf roof (see BD&C, July 2003) slows the runoff of rain and the volume of rainwater that enters the sewer system. Fareed Rifat, principal-in-charge of HarleyEllis's Automotive and Industrial Studio, notes that the landscaping has been done with native plants.

Sustainable design was fairly new for Building Team members, says Poat. During the four years they worked on the project, team members became involved with the USGBC and were instrumental in forming the organization's Detroit Chapter.

Four locations were considered for the visitor center. One option was to reuse the Albert Kahn-designed former glass plant, but this was abandoned because the building's expansive glass façade would not provide a conducive environment for visitor center displays. A major factor in favor of the location ultimately selected was its adjacency to the plant. An 80-foot-high observation tower was incorporated into the visitor center design to provide a vantage point for viewing the whole complex, particularly the plant's "living roof." Interpretive displays inside the 55x65-foot tower provide information about the 10-acre sod roof and other environmental initiatives.


An 80-foot-high observation tower provides a vantage point for viewing the whole complex, particularly the truck plant’s “living roof.”

Visitors are bussed to the center from nearby Greenfield Village historical park. Plant tours are conducted by the same organization, known as The Henry Ford, that operates Greenfield Village.

William Clay Ford, Jr., who became Ford's chairman and CEO in 2001, was one of the project's prime movers. "My great-grandfather would think this is fantastic," he says. As for himself, Ford says, "I would like the Rouge to be the most copied and studied industrial complex in the world."

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