DESIGN & CONSTRUCTION - AUGUST 2001

Beyond Bricks & Mortar:
A Fresh Perspective on Strategic Site Planning

By Keith Kondrot



     That this article proposes is not a complete overhaul of the car wash owner's way of conducting business, for there are definitely many out there doing it just right. Nor will I recommend certain operating procedures or marketing strategies even though, from my perspective, savvy architecture and site layout are the keys that turn any marketing plan's success. What I will be addressing is the call for a fundamental change in thinking for those owners currently considering building a new car wash site. This is not intended to discourage new development - quite the contrary. It encourages a new strategy so that ground-up construction of new car washes will bring fewer hassles, more proactive design and equipment choices and, ultimately, greater satisfaction for the owner and the customer. When it comes to strategic planning of a car wash facility, a fresh perspective, I feel, is needed in how the owner and his team of equipment manufacturers, construction laborers, corporate decision-makers, and community regulators perceive and proceed with the process of the top priority: site layout.
    This new way of thinking that I suggest does not take focus away from the building, it simply takes the building out of the spotlight long enough for the planners and powers-that-be to realize that there are many other considerations too often ignored with traditional car wash construction. From what I've seen in nearly 20 years of in-the-trenches involvement with the industry, it is becoming increasingly clear why so many car washes function at less than peak profit potential. Although these businesses are certainly candidates for a raze-and-rebuild, or a redesign/remodeling campaign, there are lessons that owners of new sites can learn from those who are struggling with poor site layout and the myriad of complications which result.

A NEW WAY OF THINKING

    The shift in the way new car washes are planned for, and the way in which sites are laid out, is in direct response to the rising popularity of facilities with multiple profit centers on a single property. Further, industry reports are concluding that as petroleum sites struggle with less than stellar profits, car washes are increasingly being introduced to the site as a profit-maker. If this plays out, it will be even more critical to implement the kind of proactive site layout in order to maximize the
functionality of the facility with new multiple profit centers. By the same token, this rule of thumb can also greatly benefit the owner who opts for a stand-alone car wash.
    Regardless of the size of your site or the scope of your construction project, the basic rule of thumb remains the same. Think about and plan for the entire site and all that it needs to accommodate. Refrain from getting caught up in trying for the largest building possible so as to jam in as much equipment as possible, while ignoring other site essentials (parking, setbacks, stacking, green areas, signage, landscaping, etc.).
    Contrary to what many car wash owners have thought for years, the car wash is not the exception to the rule when it comes to designing and building the best possible business. The general goal for any such businesses remains the same: Create a site that attracts customers, allows for easy access onto and movement around the site, has good flow, is not cramped or cluttered, provides the highest quality products and services, and displays a customer-friendly atmosphere of cleanliness and convenience. These are the essentials that combine to create a loyal and profitable clientele. The more strategic planning that goes into a site before the bricks and mortar are put together, the better the owner's chances of creating a functional facility that has the approval of all parties involved, and becomes a formidable opponent to any neighboring competitor.

FORGET ABOUT THE BUILDING...FOR NOW

    I propose that the most strategic and profitable course to achieving these goals is to approach the process of site layout in a way that first positions all of the exterior "support systems." Once that has been established, you can determine the location, size, and position of the actual car wash building. That's right, the building, in the early stages of site planning, takes a back stage to the seemingly more tedious car wash elements that have long been considered postscripts in the minds of owners and site planners.
    The reason is clear: Only when a site plan calls for adequate room for those vital elements will it operate in a way that answers the long-term needs of the customer and the business owner, not to mention the community in which it operates. Our most satisfied clients have seen the positive impact of this strategy year after year. Specifically, we recommend that our clients bring us onto their team at the very earliest stage of the planning process in order to make informed suggestions about the placement of adequate consumer and employee parking, setbacks, green areas, signage, lighting, convenience items (vending machines), holding or dry-off areas, or other profit centers (whether that be a quick lube, quick-serve restaurant, or gas station). Only after the site is assessed to make way for the best placement of these elements can we adequately assess how much room is left on the site for the building. Ignoring this rule of thumb threatens the flow of your site, which, in turn, threatens your customers' satisfaction with their experience on your site, which, in turn, threatens your long-term success.
    You must remember this: Even the most spectacular car wash building will turn customers away if there is inadequate room on the site to maneuver. If the customer's wheels are constantly rubbing against the curbs due to a too-tight turning radius, and if the access to the site creates a traffic hazard at the entrance/exits, it is likely due to poor stacking and tunnel placement on the site. It may sound corny, but trust me. I've seen it happen time and again. And it is the owners of these properties who call on us years into their lackluster business career to determine how they can improve their site, and to repair the troubles that came from poor decision-making at the initial planning stages. An ounce of prevention truly is worth a pound of cure. Where car washes are concerned (as well as convenience stores, gas stations and quick service restaurants, for that matter), a smart site plan - early in the process - will make you and save you plenty of money. It will also spare you from the trouble, time, and worry others have come to dread in the course of a do-it-alone construction or remodeling project.

ENHANCE THE FLOW ON THE SITE

    Good location, good flow, and site orientation make or break a business' success. This is particularly true of the car wash industry, which creates a difficult enough situation by its very nature. An owner planning a ground-up construction would be wise to have everything in place, bring in experts to help determine what is feasible, get a clear understanding of the site plan technicalities, and work to make the site flow in the best way possible.
    When it comes to the building, consider a comparison of sizes and what each offers you and your clientele over the long haul. That is not to say that the building and equipment are not important. It
simply places a red flag to alert the owner that overlooking the other site essentials is the first of many missteps that leads to a site's lackluster success.
    Specifically, it is my opinion that you need to get 100-160 lineal feet for a building's length, into which you can adequately fit most tunnel equipment. The mini-tunnel, often used on gas station sites, limits you long-term with regard to services and how you can expand in the future with common upgrades.
    A major incentive for first determining just what will fit onto a site and how is that it provides a better chance to maximize the entire facility. With future growth in mind, you would be wise to consider value-added features (like a solarium as a walkway, waiting area with vending machines, or an additional profit center). This will keep your perspective in check, as opposed to being consumed with going overboard on the equipment end, trying to fit in as much as the site can hold. I like to tell my clients to consider a variation on an old adage, and avoid the temptation to fit 10 pounds of equipment into a 5-pound bag.
    Before any equipment selections are made, it is my strong recommendation that our clients allow us to get together with the city planners to tend to the tedious details of site planning. Coordinating all site elements and the proper, most functional site layout possible will enable you to get preliminary approval on your plans from the local municipality, since you are bringing them onto the scene early enough to let them express their ideas. Another trade secret that many car wash owners and equipment manufacturer reps do not typically realize has to do with a proactive and cooperative community leader relationship. Bringing the zoning and planning boards onto the scene in the conceptual stages helps nurture a feeling that this is their project, too. Further, this approach - coordinated by the architect who serves as your representative to these local regulatory bodies - sends an important message that you are eager and willing to work with them for a mutually beneficial result, which will best serve the community and your consumers. A few friendly meetings early is much better than hostile ones later on.
    Preliminary approval from the powers-that-be allows you to shop around with a workable site plan, lets equipment folks know you are to be taken seriously, and encourages them to understand that you have limitations on the amount of equipment that will work.
    If you select the equipment first, you are then beholden to the equipment and the representative who may not have the necessary in-depth understanding of that particular municipality's zoning codes, thereby ignoring these important site layout details. From that position, the ball is really not in your court at all, and it is virtually impossible to play offense. Taking the offensive means getting a team together, which will work with your best interests as the only priority. Although most manufacturer's reps are trying to meet your needs, it is all too easy to fall victim to someone trying to meet sales quotas, or a novice salesman trying to set your site up as a prototype for every new make and model of equipment.
    By getting the information laid out early on the clearances and the parameters of the site, the equipment selection process is wide open, more likely leading to dramatic cost savings, a high quality range of equipment, and a more functional (not overcrowded from an equipment standpoint) site. Most veteran manufacturer reps will be thrilled with this challenge, and should applaud your foresight in tapping them for the well-rounded team, which will, together, determine the best
possible equipment, placement, and materials for the most successful site possible.

GAINING CONTROL IN THE CONSTRUCTION PROCESS

    How many times have you heard fellow car wash owners grumble about the lack of control they struggled with during the design and construction phase? How often do you, as a car wash owner, feel you are forced into certain decisions about everything from what you will offer on your site to what equipment you will install? How many times do you find yourself wishing there was a one-stop shop for answers to questions you are afraid to ask for fear of appearing inadequate and vulnerable in the eyes of your equipment salesman or contractor? I'm here to tell you that those insecurities have no place in today's industry. Information is out there and easily accessible for car wash industry professionals willing to spend the time to ferret out the resourceful experts who are eager and able to answer your concerns, while keeping your needs the top priority.
    There is nothing wrong with acknowledging that there are areas of the design and building process that you simply do not understand. The trouble lies in the hesitation on the part of car wash owners to seek and find the help they need. This new breed of skilled professionals can work in tandem with car wash owners, while taking the tedious and time-consuming task of overall project management off of the owner's plate.

A NEW BREED OF ARCHITECT

    There is a solution to the problem that has long plagued the car wash industry, the dearth of design practitioners with in-depth experience and knowledge of car wash operators' needs. Specialized architects are responding to this increased need for answers to specific questions (more like recurring nightmares) on the fundamental design strategies needed for maximum site feasibility and profitability. Over the past 10 to 15 years, enough of you were brave enough to ask the questions and admit you did not have all of the technical expertise necessary to play the role of architect/general contractor/permit expediter. Hats off to that brave contingent of industry professionals who knew when to ask for help.
    You won't hear me say that the equipment manufacturers are the enemy. They play a vital role in the process of establishing and maintaining high-quality car wash sites. But any manufacturer's rep worthy of a solid reputation will tell you that there is much more to building a good car wash than placing equipment. In fact, in my experience, the best case studies we've been involved with are ones where the equipment team knows enough to work wisely and well with the rest of the building team. Equipment manufacturers are an important cog, but not the only one, in the wheels that drive a good, long-lasting and highly functional car wash site. We are proud of the alliances we have formed with some of the industry's premier manufacturers, and we have made a strong commitment to an educational outreach campaign that helps them gain a greater understanding of how the specialized architect can make their jobs easier and more successful.
    To serve the specialized needs of a specialized industry, a small but savvy group of industry insiders -who happen to have a strong background in architecture, zoning processing, design planning, equipment placement, and construction administration - determined that it was time to say, "There is a better way." These specialized architects, available in most regions of the country, offer a type of one-stop shopping which, over the course of the building process and over the
life of the car wash, dramatically benefits all parties involved. The customer, the equipment operator, the municipality planning commissioner and, of course, the business owner, all benefit from creating a cooperative environment, getting preliminary approval from the local authorities, and working chronologically and in concert with the needs of the site.
    Simply put, everybody wins. And the car wash owner gains a valuable sense of pride and accomplishment for knowing when to tap into outside expertise. Don't forget that the added control and confidence the owner acquires with the reassurance that all of the project specifications are being handled in a way that is open, honest, proactive and even cost-effective. Imagine how much an owner in the midst of a car wash building project can spare himself in the way of headaches, battles with zoning and permitting authorities, time spent (mis)managing the project team, and money lost on delays, cost overruns and labor.
    Acquiring the expertise of a specialized architect who is familiar with the specifications required by the complex combination of these "support systems" will allow you to be in the driver's seat throughout the entire equipment selection and construction process.
It is mush less time consuming to plan early and often for the essentials of a car wash site. Not leaving ample room for the exterior "support
services" is a costly and risky proposition, which can make or break a car wash. Waiting until after the building is permitted and constructed to think about how to make room for these essentials ends up costing much more over the life of your business. The result of poor, ill-advised planning is inadequate room for vehicles, lack of space for parking and the general over-crowded, inaccessible perception your site will give off. Bottom line: these miscalculations result in customers turning away from instead of into your site.

   Next month, we will continue our discussion with a look at why conventional wisdom has failed the car wash industry. We will also spell out a six-step game plan that will help you on your way to developing a successful site.

Keith Kondrot is a Registered Architect and principal of Streetscape Architecture, based in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. Kondrot has nearly 20 years of experience, applying his specialized architecture to the car wash, petroleum, and convenience store industries. He is a member of the Illinois Petroleum Marketers Association/Illinois Association of Convenience Stores, and the Chicagoland Carwash Association. Contact Keith via e-mail at streetarch@aol.com.

 

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