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Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

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Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

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When the German carmaker Volkswagen decided to build a new plant in the U.S., the company was eager to impress. This was to be Volkswagen’s first new assembly facility in the States since its factory near New Stanton, Pa., closed in 1988 after just 10 years in operation. The new plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., designed to build the Passat sedan, would demonstrate a fresh commitment. “Volkswagen doesn’t have a tradition of leaving a country or a factory,” says Jan Spies, the architect who heads Volkswagen’s global factory-planning department in Wolfsburg, Germany. SSOE Group, based in Toledo, Ohio, and with offices around the globe, was the architect and construction manager for the campus.

Such ambitions come with a high price tag. The company wanted a factory that not only incorporated the latest developments in auto-plant design but also considered the well-being of the workforce and met tough green standards. The company’s total investment in the project: $1 billion. But Volkswagen already has its reward. In December, the factory, which opened in May last year, became the first and only automotive plant in the world to receive LEED Platinum certification.

Not that Volkswagen is alone in its aspirations. Other manufacturers in the transportation sector are looking to build plants that are more than functional boxes of steel and concrete. Sure, efficiency and changing technology still determine the building’s essential shape—but even in outsize auto factories, there’s still plenty of scope for imaginative detailing and environmental best practices.

The Volkswagen facility’s challenging location underscores the nature of the achievement. The 1,400-acre plant, part of the Enterprise South Industrial Park, sits on the uneven floor of a valley. One side of the park faces protected parkland, and two creeks run through the site. “We thought, ‘Let’s do it really well and get the LEED because we have to deal with these restrictions anyway,’ ” Spies says.

In practice, that’s meant building in a slew of environmental features. Certain roofs, for example, allow the easy collection of rainwater used for cooling the welding machines as well as for flushing the toilets. The rockwool insulation in the walls is 6 inches thick, a white membrane covers the roof to reflect the heat, and LED lighting on the exterior uses 68 percent less energy than older lighting technologies.

Inside, there’s an emphasis on proximity to boost efficiency and communication. The main process areas—body shop, assembly, and paint shop—are grouped around a ring of checkpoints. “It’s about workers being able to communicate on quality issues,” Spies says. “When a mistake is made, it’s easy to go back to the previous stage and say, ‘Guys, we have an issue.’ ” A steel-and-glass bridge takes arriving staff across the creeks and into the heart of the complex, with spacious views across the interior. “It’s more than just a vast space: it’s a place to meet and talk with lots of daylight,” Spies says.

It’s the same aim—efficiency within a clean, accommodating environment—that characterizes the latest extension to the 1994 Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW) plant at Spartanburg, S.C., for which SSOE Group was the designer. Completed in 2009 at a total cost of $750 million, the Assembly Hall building covers 1.2 million square feet, including a hall where workers produce the company’s latest generation of sport-utility vehicles. Many of the factory’s features are borrowed from the company’s greatly admired plant in Leipzig, Germany, a facility centered around a building by Zaha Hadid, FAIA.

As at an airport concourse, “fingers” extend from the side of the Spartanburg plant, enabling trucks to deliver directly to the point of use on the production line. If equipment is needed for new models, the branches can be easily extended; the building’s generous 39-foot ceiling height means that there is ample room for overhead conveyors and vertical expansion.

BMW is known for its focus on sustainability; the company has led the automobile supersector of the Dow Jones Sustainability Index, a measure of corporate dedication to sustainability, since 2005. That dedication extends to the company’s factory planning. At Assembly Hall, forklifts run on hydrogen fuel-cell power, and half of the energy comes from methane gas provided by a local landfill site. BMW is also known for good labor relations, and there’s detail to please workers. The high ceilings can accommodate devices that can lift or turn a vehicle, so that workers need never to crawl underneath. Each finger leads into the central artery of the hall, where workers can mingle with management in refreshment and team areas adjacent to the central offices.

Natural light is crucial. A high band of windows unnecessary under the law surrounds the building. “They [the staff] love the building; it has a very nice feeling about it,” says BMW Manufacturing’s Sherry McCraw, project manager of the extension. “It makes a brighter, nicer environment, and if people are more comfortable in their workplace they can see the defects in the product much better.”

It’s not only the motor industry that’s changing its approach to its factories. The vast National Alabama Corp. (NAC) Railcar-Manufacturing Facility, designed by Albert Kahn Associates of Detroit, scooped a prize in the large-project category of last year’s American Institute of Steel Construction awards for Innovative Design in Engineering and Architecture with Structural Steel. With the capacity to build 12,000 railcars a year, the plant was intended as the largest and most efficient of its kind in the U.S.

Its most striking aspect is sheer scale. Stretching three-quarters of a mile, the plant covers 2.1 million square feet of former cotton fields in the Shoals region of northern Alabama. The fabrication, construction, and finishing departments, as well as administration, are all housed beneath one roof. The nature of the product determines the distinctive linear look. Railcars measuring 90 feet long are tough to turn; they are more easily built on long production lines. At the same time, the weight of the components requires the building to house the necessary array of gantries and cranes.

The architects had few recent models for the design. Acutely vulnerable to economic downturns, railcar manufacturers have been nervous of investing in new plants or technology. The aim of the NAC was to bring railcar production into the 21st century with modern production techniques—from automated welding to state-of-the-art paint shops. But modernity wasn’t the client’s sole consideration. A huge clerestory and broad expanses of glass curtainwall help to flood the building with light. (That’s in keeping with tradition: the firm’s founder, Albert Kahn, was a pioneer of the use of natural light in early 20th-century auto plants.) What’s more, as at the Volkswagen and BMW plants, the design encourages the breakdown of old corporate hierarchies. The plant’s three airy entrance halls are shared by management and shop-floor workers. “The key thing was to avoid segregation,” says John Hrovat, AIA, director of architectural design at Kahn and project designer for this project. “There is more fraternity between management and employees.”

Aesthetic gestures are not forgotten. At Volkswagen, the height of the tower that rises above the entrance was raised for deliberate effect; at the NAC plant, panels of silver metal and glass encircle the building to give a sense of movement. And the railcar factory’s long, sleek lines capture the spirit of the railroad. “It is as if it’s racing across the landscape,” Hrovat says. “It really begins to take on the characteristics of the product that is being created there.”

Note: This story has been updated since first publication to add that SSOE Group was the architect and construction manager for the Volkswagen campus, as well as the designer for the BMW plant.
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