Bricks & Mortar:
A Fresh Perspective on Strategic Site Planning
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
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.
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 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.
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
possible equipment, placement, and materials for the most successful
IN THE CONSTRUCTION PROCESS
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
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.
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
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