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
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
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,
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.
THE BUILDING...FOR NOW
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
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.
THE FLOW ON THE SITE
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.
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
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
IN THE CONSTRUCTION PROCESS
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
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
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.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.