Planning to remodel your facility? Read on

Don Leidy
Managing Principal
Maintenance Design Group, LLC
Denver, Colorado

Whether remodeling an existing facility or designing a new one, a well-designed facility is key to efficient operations and fleet management. But designing a facility does not begin with design.

The planning phase is the most important step in the entire process. Gaining an understanding of the functional requirements should be the foundation for the design process. This understanding begins with asking questions, touring other facilities, and doing research. What follows are some useful suggestions that can help guide you through the planning process of building or remodeling a facility.

Clerestory window panels allow good illumination toward the interior of the work area.

The reasons for remodeling a facility are as varied as the individual facilities. Public works and fleet departments commonly outgrow facilities that worked well 20 years ago but are now outdated. Downsizing or increasing services, the passage of new laws, updated building codes and regulations, and the introduction of alternative fuels can all necessitate change.

If you expect your fleet to grow by 20 percent in the next decade, accommodating vehicle parking will have a bigger impact on the site than the buildings. As a rule, 50 percent of an entire site will be used for parking and circulating "company" vehicles, 25 percent of the site will be used for employee parking, and only the remaining 25 percent of the site will be required for the buildings. Adding parking for ten large vehicles and the cars of employees who drive those vehicles has a bigger impact on the site than adding a repair bay or ten lockers.

Keeping that in mind, you should always plan for an expansion of your expansion. Take every opportunity to purchase additional or adjacent property. As Will Rogers said, "Buy land. They're not making any more of it."

The vision you and your staff have of the new facility will shape the final design. Do you need more office space, different equipment, better lighting, greater clearances, or improved ventilation? No two facilities will work the same way. A facility in southern California will have different needs than a facility in upstate New York, so each facility ends up being unique. What makes each facility unique are the operational characteristics, fleet mix, climatic/geographic conditions, and the people who will be staffing the facility.

Those people who are going to occupy the new or expanded facility are some of the most important people to the planning and design process. You must be able to see the big picture. You should visit other facilities and talk with peers in the industry. You also should keep staff members and any other concerned parties informed and find out what their expectations are for the facility. One of the most successful approaches to facility planning is the onsite design charrette (see sidebar at end of article).

Public works facilities must be designed to accommodate a wide range of vehicle sizes and types.

Building consensus can make or break a project. The fleet administrator should get everyone who has an interest in the project involved in the planning and design process, whether it's the staff, board of supervisors, county commissioners, council members, or the public. Including everyone in the planning meetings not only educates key players about the process, it encourages "buy-in" or acceptance of the new facility.

Early planning is key to any successful project that comes in on budget. Equipment selection, layout, utility requirements, and finishes need to be considered early on in the process. The earlier in the design process needs are identified, the more likely they will be approved and the less they will cost. After construction has begun, modifications to bid documents will require a change order, and change orders are expensive. A compressed air outlet included as an integral part of design may cost $200. Added during construction, the same outlet could cost as much as $1,000.

Planning and attention to the smallest detail can prevent mistakes that can hinder the efficiency of a maintenance facility. What are some of the most common mistakes that create problems for fleet administrators down the road?

Lighting. It is important to choose lighting fixtures that offer a full spectrum of light. Lighting has ramifications on the efficiency, functionality, and safety of the facility, as well as on the general atmosphere of the workplace. For example, high pressure sodium lights work well outdoors but aren't suited for a shop environment. Inside a building, the light's orange-yellow cast creates poor color rendition, making different colored wires look the same and blood indistinguishable from grease.

Overhead clearance. Ductwork, plumbing, and cranes installed too low can encroach on necessary overhead space and interfere with the required unobstructed vertical clearance in the repair bay, rendering cranes and lifts useless.

Door size. Measure each vehicle's width and height (including mirrors and vertical extensions). You might think that ten-foot-wide "garage" doors can accommodate a truck that is eight feet wide. Most trucks usually have mirrors that protrude up to a foot on each side, which shrinks clearance from two feet to only a few inches.

Building finishes/aesthetics. The bottom four to six feet of the shop walls should be durable (concrete or masonry) to withstand the abuse in a shop environment. Make sure the entire inside of the building (walls and structure) is painted to allow proper building maintenance to extend the useful life of the facility. Designing the facility's exterior to complement the surrounding environment and adding native landscaping can help gain public approval of the project.

Expandability. The building should not only handle the shop's current work load, but also should be adaptable and able to accommodate demands 20 years from now. For example, if additional bays aren't built during initial construction, room should be left on the site to accommodate the expansion. Also, load-bearing walls should be avoided to maximize flexibility for future modifications.

Appearance. Form follows function. It is always possible to make a functional building look good, but it isn't always possible to make a good-looking building functional. Unfortunately, there have been cases where an architect designed a facility in which the doors were too narrow to accommodate a plow truck because a wider door "wouldn't look right."

Public involvement. Everyone who has an interest in the project needs to be informed. The best-designed project won't get built if it's not approved because an elected official or the public doesn't understand the importance of the facility.

Here are several issues to consider when remodeling an existing facility.

  • Many times, the existing facility was designed to accommodate smaller vehicles than are currently in the fleet. In this case, constructing new space to accommodate heavy-duty vehicles allows renovating the existing facility to more efficiently accommodate the growing light-duty vehicle fleet.

  • Expanding offices and personnel spaces to a second floor requires installation of an elevator to meet accessibility requirements. Consider providing these expanded areas on the ground floor and use second story areas for storage and non-people spaces.

  • Plan on relocating existing equipment, or replace outdated equipment with modern, more efficient equipment. Keep in mind all equipment and systems will be two to three years older by the time all planning, design, funding, and construction are complete.

  • Fueling types and related systems often change throughout the life of a facility. Planning for those changes makes updating or replacing those systems less costly and disruptive to daily operations.

  • Always build or expand a facility into which you can grow. It is more fiscally responsible to build a facility with today's dollars than tomorrow's dollars.
    A light-reflective floor hardener and enamel-painted wall and ceiling finishes provide a durable, cleanable, bright work environment.

Toward the end of the planning effort, you should consider holding a peer review session, inviting peers in your area to a day-long informal review session to critique the design. During this session, the peer group contributes great ideas and validates the design for you and your staff.

Designing a public works and/or fleet facility is a complex process. Remodeling an existing facility is often even more so because you are not able to start with a clean sheet of paper. Asking the right questions and planning carefully in advance means the fleet administrator will experience a smooth design and construction process that results in a safe, efficient, and positive work environment that will last the life of the facility.

Don Leidy has worked on the planning and design of more than 300 operations and maintenance facility projects since 1976. He can be reached at (303) 820-5270, or by e-mail at For more information on the facility planning process, please visit

Using the design charrette approach (an intensive onsite planning and design session) accomplishes in one week what can take months if done by traditional methods. The design charrette builds consensus and harmony while a standard design approach can lead to misunderstanding and disagreement. This method is especially effective when utilized on a remodel project. Since the charrette is conducted in or near the existing facility, issues regarding existing conditions can be immediately verified.

 In the design charrette for a small to medium-sized project, a typical week's effort might include the following (larger projects may require a week for site planning and a week for building layout):

Day One. Six or eight site layouts are developed and presented to the stakeholder group to review. The concept sketches are put up on the wall, and everyone discusses what they like and don't like about each. With everyone's comments, the concepts are taken back to the drawing board for the initial fine tuning.

Day Two. The planning team modifies the ideas from the initial six to eight concepts into two or three. These new concepts incorporate everyone's comments and begin to show parking details, building characteristics, and rough landscaping features.

Days Three to Five. Another review session and more refinements occur before these concepts are refined into one final site layout. With the preliminary master plan in hand, the team turns its focus to the inside of the buildings. For the last two days, the planning team and the stakeholders follow the develop-review-refine process as it relates to reviewing building interior options and equipment needs until a building conceptual floor plan is agreed upon.