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Beyond Bricks & Mortar Part II:
Game Plan for Succeful Site Development

By Keith Kondrot

Plan for the entire site and all that it needs to accommodate.

    In last month's issue of Auto Laundry News, we offered a fresh perspective on strategic site planning. We suggested that operators who are developing a new car wash site set aside, just for a moment, thoughts about the focal point of their endeavors: the car wash building.
    This shift in thinking is a direct response to the increasing prevalence of multiple profit centers on
the car wash site. We proposed that operators first position all of the "support systems," the ancillary business units, and only then determine the location, size and position of the actual car wash building. In this issue, we take the discussion further.


    Be careful not to fool yourself into thinking that this new, seemingly logical way of approaching a new car wash design and construction project is common in the industry. It never ceases to amaze me how few car wash operators have adopted this way of thinking. Conventional wisdom typically says that you:

• Go to the trade shows and fall in love with a huge assortment of products;
• Set the plans on a rough outline with the sales rep;
• Bring in a general architect and construction crew to get the building up;
• Get through the hassles of permit paperwork and proceed with construction without losing your sanity or blowing your budget;
• Bring in the equipment guy
who gladly fills every inch of available space with the large range of products you selected;
• Open up for business.

    That conventional wisdom not only fails to accommodate other site necessities, it neglects to incorporate the rest of the story. In this hasty process, it is quite likely that there were fines or delays from the municipality's zoning commissioner which the inexperienced or general service architect failed to follow through on. There probably was a huge and unexpected series of cost overruns by the construction crew. Your gut might have told you there was way too much equipment on the premises. Finally, the lot could end
up looking more like a
traffic jam than a smooth car wash operation.


    If we discard the "conventional" approach to car wash design and site development, what method are we to use in its stead? I believe that we have created an alternate plan, which will help many car wash owners bring their dreams to fruition by offering the following results:


Sites that make the best use of available space;
• Car washes that operate with the highest quality (not necessarily the largest quantity) of equipment available and necessary for the site;
• A customer experience which includes easy access to and egress from the site, a safe and clean environment, a sense of convenience, and quality in a pleasant atmosphere;
• A positive rapport with the city authorities for the way in which you and your specialized architect brought them onto the building team early and often;
• A balance sheet that speaks volumes month after month to validate the smart decisions you made.

    This alternate plan, simply said, replaces headaches and hassles with a true sense of strategic team-planning and long-term success. And all it will cost you is a call to your local car wash association or a couple of calls to regional architectural firms to determine which ones are specialized in the car wash industry. Who can argue with that? Consider, then, the following six-step plan:

Step 1.
    Identify a specialized architect and allow him or her to gather a team of design/development professionals who will assess your property and identify your priorities and goals for the site, including services now and in the future, demographic overview, and marketing strategy. Before determining the size of the building, ensure that you have ample space on the lot for essential elements. These include setbacks, employee and customer parking, green areas required by community zoning, signage, stacking, adequate turning radius into the tunnel, dry-off or detailing areas, potential expansion for additional profit centers, and, of course, easy access to entrances and exits. From here, determine buildable area. What size building will fit the site and allow ample room for equipment?

'Step 2.
    Encourage and allow the architect to work with local authorities early in the planning stages to create a workable site plan that will win approval. While qualifying a site, allow the architect to contact at least two general contractors for ballpark construction estimates.
    There is a big difference between a 110-foot and a 160-foot building, so these early estimates will help you determine whether you need to reign in your original plans. Having a
specialized architect who can recommend the best, most durable building materials will also help more clearly define the budget early on.
    Although cheaper building materials may be enticing at first, the long-term maintenance or replacement costs will add up quickly over the years. Employ value-engineering techniques that utilize better materials which perform well over the long haul. The initial investment may be higher than you expected, but the cost savings come into play five, 10 and 15 years down the road.

Step 3.
    With a workable site plan and preliminary budget in hand, contact some of the key equipment manufacturers whose products have intrigued you. Let them know you already have a workable site plan and fixed budget. Working in tandem with your architect, share the parameters and preliminary site plan with the equipment suppliers and bring them onto the team to meet your needs without overcrowding your wash or overriding your budget. Fitting equipment onto a site is a critical step in the construction process, but it cannot be the only consideration.

Step 4.
    Commence with the building process only after being assured that your professional team has the needs and best interests of your facility at heart. Be certain the architect and crews are familiar with the harsh internal conditions of a car wash, and that your site crew has planned for adequate means to accommodate these year-round demands on the building. The harsh elements that specialized architects have come to know all too well might be news to the general architect who has not yet seen the effects of reclaimed water and its fine mist on window frames, on fasteners, and in every nook and cranny inside the wash. Keeping outside water from coming in is only one major challenge; the bigger job is tackling the effects of weathering from the inside out.

Step 5.
    Make the most of the availability of professionals familiar with the intricacies of a car wash building to prepare your building for a long life and low, infrequent repair costs. Insist on the use of durable materials. Utilize stronger, longer-lasting materials like concrete block for the walls. Consider high-end treatments like tiling - a hard but washable surface. Flash the building both ways and work off of the assumption that water is getting in from the outside so that you make a plan to have flashing that leads it back out. Otherwise, water stays down at the bottom and starts eating away at the mortar, deteriorating the building's foundation.
    This kind of damage, unbeknownst to many a general architect or general contractor not familiar with the car wash's incredibly harsh interior conditions, eats away from the inside out. By the time you notice it, the damage is already done, resulting in the need for a major, labor intensive and costly repair.

Step 6.
    Make absolutely certain that all the steel used in and around your car wash building is galvanized. Although this will not totally eliminate general maintenance needs of washing and cleaning, the galvanized steel will increase the life of the building dramatically. Normal steel beams typically need to be replaced every three to five years, while galvanized steel beams may need to be replaced once or twice over the life of the building.

    Although not all-inclusive, this six-step list can function as a checklist of sorts, so that you will not be caught in a bad situation when the building process is already at full speed or even complete. I've had clients who come to me to fix their sites because it was only after the building process was complete that they realized -thanks to the city inspector who told them - that there were codes and zoning laws with which they were not in compliance.
    Surely you've heard of the elderly man who boasts he is the picture of health although he hasn't visited a doctor in 20 years (costs too much and isn't worth it). One physical later, his prognosis is poor and what he expected to be a clean bill of health turns out to sound more like a death sentence. The same goes for the car wash owner whose lowest-bidding crew and seemingly good (although general service) architect has limited knowledge of all the tedious procedures that must be put into place before, during and after the unique car wash building process to ensure the longevity and functionality of a site. Only after the city inspector comes onto the site does he learn of his facility's failure to get a "clean bill of health." Making changes to bring the site in compliance with zoning laws will now cost him close to double what it would have cost him to hire specialized experts in the first place. Consultants such as these can save you as much as 10 percent to 20 percent on the entire project through value engineering, competitive bidding, and total accountability throughout the project. Consider the added bonus of having established a strong and positive rapport with community leaders in the process. That's a priceless feather in your marketing cap.


    Signage and landscaping are key components to any successful car wash site. These essentials can clearly make or break the grand opening of a newly built facility if not tended to with sufficient attention to detail. I tend to agree with those who say that the most important marketing tool of the car wash is its signage. We encourage clients to consider the strong return they will enjoy on their investment into quality signage. A marquee or architecturally sophisticated design that will blend well with the building reaps the greatest reward by way of being attractive and attracting customers who like the look and feel of your facility. Ground-mount or masonry signage is one and the same. The other option is a pole sign with two or more legs to support it.
    High quality signage is a sure sign, if you will, of an owner who takes pride in his site. Similarly, a clean and well-maintained site is the best way to send the message that your car wash considers
cleanliness and appearance top
priorities. Monument masonry at the entrances should match, and any signage on the site should be easy to read, taking into account all ages, visual disabilities, and the most legible typestyles and colors.
    A necessary word of caution must be offered here, however, so as to discourage overkill, or underkill, on signage. Too big will block a view into or out of the site, and too small will be too difficult for passers-by to make out. We've found a smart combination of quality materials, concise, clean wording and smart placement on the site are a critical trio.
    Where landscaping is concerned, work with the local planning commission to determine the extent of green areas required, and then commit to maintaining an attractive, well-groomed environment. Keep in mind that not everyone has a green thumb. Leave the landscaping to the experts. This is another area where minimal costs for upkeep and use of trained expertise will go a long way in impressing your customers who will want to return to your site again and again.
    A word of caution here, too, however: Be certain not to let landscaping hamper customers' access to the site, or their line of sight from the street. Just as we caution against allowing equipment suppliers to be the sole determinants of your wash product line, we advise against
letting a landscape artist make decisions that will compromise the flow of the site or that all-important easy access to the facility. Even the highest quality car wash will not build a strong customer base if the entrance is crowded with tall evergreens that block the view of or access to the driveway and threaten the driver's line of vision.


    Since I've taken the bold step of acknowledging that not all architects are created equal, it's my responsibility to help car wash owners distinguish among the good, the bad, and the ugly. Sadly, some general architectural firms are more interested in pretty buildings and expanded portfolios. Ask all architects you're considering for a contact list of their clients to learn just how practical and functional their buildings are on the overall site. An architect, while still keenly devoted to creating the best visual appeal, should understand that a successful site is much more than a pretty building. You will be better served by an architectural team that can back up claims of being familiar with the unique car wash industry. Since the car wash building process is one of the most complex and structurally demanding building types, it is vital that your architect specialize in this building type, or at least have direct experience with a sister industry (convenience store, petroleum station, quick-service restaurant) which demands the same type of complex permitting, zoning processing, and specific material requirements.
    There are few other buildings that will suffer the same amount of physical damage as the inside of a car wash. Does your architect understand the demands placed on the structure day-in and day-out? Is he prepared to plan for the specific building materials needed to tolerate these conditions?
Does your architect bring to the table an awareness of the many sewage/drainage specifications which must be met early on in the planning processes, or is he content to let a general contractor handle these "little details"? Is your architect prepared to go to bat for you in front of the zoning or planning boards with more than just a cookie-cutter building plan? Is he offering creative solutions to common problems that will help distinguish you from the competition (whether it be a dramatic architectural element, interesting canopy, color combination, etc.)? Is he a one-stop shop, so to speak, or will you have to go out on your own to gather the construction crews, handle scheduling, billing, and all other details?
    Contracting the services of a specialized architect is more than just checking a directory. It is important to ferret out those specialized architects who understand and will offer proactive, results-oriented solutions for a site. Get them to talk about how they will establish a unique presence, and the overall site's physical appearance. Ask how they intend to employ value engineering, competitive bidding and the best of what savvy design has to offer in a cost-effective manner. You'll also want to be assured that they will not exceed your budget. And don't forget to ask who will be responsible for zoning, who will coordinate billing from all parties involved, and what everyone's role will be. These are vital issues that are critical to successful project management. Unfortunately, they are all too often dismissed.


    Although the details of permit processing and zoning expediting during project management merit another article altogether, this much is true: It's not a project unless you can get it zoned and permitted! This is why it is critical to have an architectural ally on your team early
and often to coordinate project management from the very first stages of planning, site selection, feasibility studies, preliminary as well as final site layout plans, and construction. Lack of compliance with the community's purposeful zoning regulations is a costly and unnecessary recipe for disaster. This is not to say that variances cannot be introduced and approved, but these come into play only after approval of basic design, sewage/water and general construction issues.
    It is second nature for us to bring to the table this type of in-the-trenches expertise that helps plan for the peak periods, making sure the best-case scenarios do not end up being worst-case scenarios. Putting together a site with a forward-thinking, proactive, and comprehensive mindset will allow you and your building team to make accommodations for the very unique requirements of a car wash facility.
    The most attractive façade means nothing to the profitability of your site if the turning radius is too tight for most larger cars. The most obsessive clean-car customer will not return to your lovely site if he can't turn onto your lot without feeling like he's at risk of getting hit. This can result from the stacking being too close to the street, leaving cars which are waiting in line dangling onto the street.
    Frankly, this traffic-encroaching waiting line is all too often the result of not being honest with yourself or the city planners about peak car wash periods. If there is not a trained professional who can adequately represent your interests and concerns to the zoning commission, then the eventual overflow on peak days can result in overcrowding on a site that spills out onto the street, creating a traffic hazard no customer or zoning commissioner will tolerate.
A similar risk is to approve plans for a 160-foot building because you insist on fitting in all of the latest and greatest products, bells and whistles. All is well until you realize:

The over-sized building means employees have to park on the street;
• There is no room to accommodate, in a later expansion, the potentially profitable customer waiting area (with vending machines and impulse items)
• You've blown your budget on equipment, leaving little for signage or landscaping, which are your key marketing tools.

    A smarter option we recommend to our clients is to accept a realistic building size, coming to a budget which includes the vital necessities of signage, dry-off area, parking and landscaping, not to mention durable building materials. Yes, I admit, this might mean making some concessions. You may have to accept a shorter building to save costs, although you will still fit quality products in the tunnel. Our goal matches that of our clients: creating the best car wash possible. Yet we acknowledge and are proud of the fact that we come to this goal with a different mix of skill sets than the average car wash owner. From what the industry is telling us, we're onto something.


    The public and industry professionals alike have come to accept the car wash as a "tweener" business. That is to say, it is a convenience destination people will go out of their way to visit, but typically they will opt for a convenient location on a nice route. In addition to selecting a car wash site on the merits of its appearance, attractive architectural elements, and the overall quality perceived from the street, the customer must feel that there is a flow and an order on the site. Even those who are adamant bargain hunters when it comes to car buying are cautious when it comes to surveying a potential car wash site.
    No one driving a car wants to feel crunched on the site, to be threatened entering or exiting, or to get stuck in traffic on the car wash lot. Knowing that the site flows smoothly, that they will be serviced in an efficient and customer-friendly atmosphere that answers their needs, is a critical message you must send to lure
loyal customers. To that end, a well-planned site is part of any business goal. A focus on quality building materials will keep the facility in top-notch condition longer, and attention to the details of signage, landscaping and parking are all vital cogs in the site, layout wheel that drives customers
satisfaction and your profits up and up. There are many, many ways to create an attractive, unique and eye-catching building that is just as functional as it is fun. Neglecting the necessities of a complete car wash site will cost you dearly in the long run, so be sure that you are not persuaded to believe that the building is the only important element on a site. Because those sites that focus only on the building are the ones that wish they had left a little more room for added parking or traffic or signage.
    Here's a money-saving tip to clip: Plan ahead and bring the necessary experts onto your project development team. And do not forget to leave enough room for all of the car wash facility components so that the site works well and avoids major nightmares that will drive customers away. Keep in mind the need to be consumer friendly, convenient, and code-compliant, and you will increase the potential for your site's overall, long-term success.

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


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