TBT: How Ford Took Sustainability to New Heights in 2004

Apr 25, 2024

It’s hard to think about sustainability at Ford without thinking of the redevelopment of the Rouge manufacturing complex in Dearborn and the addition of a “living roof” to the then-new Dearborn Truck Plant, which opened 20 years ago this week. The environmental advances were part of a $2 billion industrial redevelopment project, the nation’s largest, which began in late 2000. 

Once the world’s largest living roof, the 10.4-acre garden – the size of eight football fields – is made of a planted surface consisting of sedum, a perennial ground cover, which collects and filters rainwater. The functionality of the organic rooftop located over the plant’s final assembly operations is multifaceted, as it reduces stormwater runoff, insulates the building from extreme temperatures, creates oxygen, and more than doubles the life of the roof itself. In addition to the rooftop, the stormwater system also incorporates vegetated ditches, 16 acres of porous pavement that allows water to pass through tiny holes on its way to a storage basin, and natural retention ponds.  

The sedum was planted in 2003. The four-layer, mat-like roll had been grown elsewhere during construction of the facility and transplanted near its completion. A weather station that captures temperature and moisture levels of the roof was later added. It helps monitor the health of the sedum, as well as its effectiveness for water retention and stormwater management. And the benefits aren’t strictly environmental: The green water system saved Ford several million dollars compared to a traditional system, and the roof was also expected to save the company millions in replacement costs compared to a tar roof.

“Ford is delivering on its promise to build a better world by showing there’s a green side to the Blue Oval. We’re putting in place today environmental solutions to challenges facing the industry and our planet,” said Jim Padilla, chief operating officer, Ford Motor Company and chairman, Automotive Operations.

Restoring natural areas

The years-long project at the Rouge, which first opened in 1918, also included the restoration of natural areas and the addition of thousands of new plants, trees, and shrubs. A new greenbelt parkway was created along the complex’s main thoroughfare, including 85,000 flowering perennials, 20,000 shrubs, and more than a hundred new trees.

Ford also sought to reverse the effects of years of steel manufacturing on the Rouge site through a biological process called phytoremediation, which uses plants to break down and remove polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) created during steelmaking. Natural elements were also brought inside the building, as 10 large window boxes and 36 skylights were added to bring in daylight to the final assembly area to create a more pleasant work environment and reduce lighting costs.

Recognition and re-creation

Even prior to the project’s completion, the Rouge Center was designated a wildlife habitat by the Wildlife Habitat Council in 2002 for the innovative environmental initiatives encompassed in the redevelopment plans. Also, the Rouge Visitor Center, the starting point for the popular Rouge Factory Tour operated by The Henry Ford, was awarded LEED Gold certification for its energy efficiency, environmental friendliness, and benefit to those who work and visit the facility. 

The sustainable redevelopment of the Rouge earned Ford the honor of Owner/Developer of the Year from a global real estate association. It also proved to be a trendsetter for vegetated roofs in the U.S. – Ford was usurped as the title holder of world’s largest living roof within five years – as the number of green roofs in the country increased by 80% in the year after the opening of Dearborn Truck Plant, and again by 25% and 30% in 2006 and 2007. 

Today, visitors participating in the Rouge Factory Tour can get a bird’s-eye view of the organic rooftop, which has added to the sustainability at the historic manufacturing complex for two decades and will represent Ford’s commitment to the environment for years to come. 

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