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Design Priorities
By John C. Amelchenko

For the Car Wash Designer

My first recollection of a car wash (short of a pail and sponge in the driveway) was a two-bay self-serve in the New Jersey hinterlands. The wash had an attendant who wore a coin belt, and an air-freshener dispenser, that, if you twisted the knob just so, would offer up an unlimited supply of wintergreen. I get dizzy just thinking about it.

How far we've come! Today's "auto spas" (not my term) provide cappuccino with your wash or lube, and any one of a number of sensory diversions to get your attention (and your money).

Frequently, when a client retains an architect for design services for a wash or lube facility, a business plan has already been established. Construction budget, cars per hour, the length of the tunnel, amenities, etc., are all part of the design program given the architect at the outset of the design process. As the design evolves, many issues are confronted. Some are common to many commercial-building types (office, retail, etc.), and some are unique to the auto care industry. A successful project will most always address the following topics - expressed as a question, "What are the design priorities for the car wash designer?"


The image the building presents is important for several reasons. Should it stand out from the crowd, that is, be a building not only unique from other car washes, but from other buildings in general? As competition for customers (and employees) becomes more intense, the need to separate a building from the architectural herd becomes more important. Additionally, car washes are almost always seen from a moving car at highway speed, so the designer may need to grab the attention of the potential customer. Should there be a theme? Is a catchy name, ("See Foam," "Auto Accents," "Suds") enough to brand the establishment?


I believe most people hold the car wash facility in the same esteem as service stations. Essential, but "not in my neighborhood." The car wash use is often zoned out of more desirable (and lucrative) areas to industrial zones, where business survival is difficult. If the wash is located near a residential area, or in a town that may have historical or architectural guidelines, it may be inappropriate for a contemporary or whimsical exterior - as eye-catching as it may be. A better solution for the designer may be traditional exterior elements and materials (pitched roofs, columns, horizontal siding, etc.) This choice of architectural styles is critical in the approval process, which involves zoning or planning boards. Having a read on what will be approved by the local boards is essential in the planning stage.

An architectural rendering depicts an eye-catching design.
In an area with historical or architectural guidelines, the designer may choose more traditional exterior elements.


One of the most challenging elements in the wash design process is the marriage of building to site. A wash facility is a building that may be uniquely experienced completely without ever leaving your vehicle. Issues of vehicle circulation in and out of the facility, as well as typical site plan issues (drainage, lighting, etc.) can not only impact the financial success of the facility, but can become the pivot on which the local approval process turns. Deficient parking or queuing areas may keep potential customers away. Coordination with the site engineer is critical to a successful result. Traffic control signs should be merely reinforcement of good site design. Traffic data from a qualified traffic engineer, specifically in congested areas, are often a necessity in the approval process. Additionally, as the facilities become more diverse, conflicts with pedestrians (people leaving their cars) must be accounted for.


Wash facilities are by nature relatively large buildings (10,000 square feet) for single-user types. Their form is often dominated by the tunnel or conveyor enclosure. Additionally, the wash is somewhat different from most highway buildings in that three or four sides of the building - as opposed to a single front elevation - will be visible to the user. Making this structural mass appealing is a difficult task for the designer. The presence of intervening structure (internal columns) would prove detrimental to the flow of cars and people within the facility. Long-span structural systems (trusses, bar joists) are typically the structural systems of choice. Masonry walls and concrete floor slabs are cost-effective and durable. Pre-engineered buildings may provide a long span solution - and often at a lower cost than a site-built structure. Aesthetic options may be limited with pre-engineered buildings, so often a fašade is applied.

Interior design, such as ceiling profiles, has become essential in the design of a successful facility.


With vehicles weighing thousands of pounds moving around a wash site in relative close proximity, durability is the key in selection of building materials. Masonry materials are typically used on interior wall surfaces. Exterior wall surfaces need to be low maintenance, but there is greater freedom in their selection, and they are typically chosen for their relevance to the overall building concept. Specialty floorings (tile, modular synthetics) are rapidly replacing the conventional concrete slab in detail bays and oil/lube centers. Water, water, everywhere! High-moisture and -humidity levels are design factors for selecting wash materials and finishes. Often, pressure-treated wood structural members are employed for their moisture resistance.


The car wash has, at the core, its equipment. Evolution of the wash experience - from self-serve pull in and vacuum to its current diverse functions - has been paralleled by changes in wash-equipment technology. The designer must be aware of the possibilities of the new technology, and the design options they provide.


Today's facility is as likely to sell floor lamps as it does floor mats. Today's car wash is often one of the site's multiple uses, including chassis lubrication and oil changes, high-end detailing, and retail. Providing direct vehicular access to each of these areas of the building is one of the unique problems in the site design. Providing clear visual identification of each use to the consumer is one of the designer's challenges. The retail operations may sell items strictly related to autos, or may blur into a convenience store. This may trigger fire-separation issues for the building designer. Also, parking loads may be higher for a facility that contains a retail use.


The use of oil, chemicals, etc., in the modern facility must be satisfactorily addressed by the building designer. How these products are managed is a shared responsibility of the building designer and the facility operator. Management of waste and by-products is an issue that is typically discussed at the approval level, as is water reclamation. Storage areas may require an automatic fire suppression system. Noise management is another environmental issue that must be addressed by the designer.


In a building devoted to the automobile, both employee and consumer needs must not be forgotten. Older washes did little more than provide restroom facilities for customers. Contemporary facilities often provide glass-enclosed galleries to view the wash process. Interior design (ceiling profiles, colors, built-ins), has become essential in the design of the successful facility. Coffee bars and retail car boutiques are no longer unusual inclusions in the modern wash. Providing adequate facilities for employees (office space, lunchrooms, and locker facilities) is important in employee retention, and an element of a successful wash.

Designing a car wash may seem, on the surface, a rather mundane architectural task. The reality is that it is a singularly unique building type, which, because of its relationship with the automobile, can be considered - along with the diner, drive-in, and others - to be a quintessential example of highway architecture.

John C. Amelchenko is an architect with Point Pleasant Beach, NJ-based Aquatecture Associates Incorporated. You can reach John at (732) 295-3692

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