Best Practices in Distribution and Warehouse Facilities Design

NAIOP has published a new 2020 edition of “Rules of Thumb for Distribution/Warehouse Facilities Design,” a 60-page e-book authored by Bryon Pinckert, former principal with HPA, Inc. Pinckert has drawn on his firm’s decades of industry experience to explain best-practice methods for planning and designing warehouse facilities in the publication. 

In this interview, Pinckert shared his thoughts on COVID-19’s impact on industrial facilities design, if malls should really be used for distribution centers, the implications for accelerations of automation, and more. 

This e-book was originally published in 2005. When you look at the earlier edition, what are some notable guidelines that have changed? 

It was interesting to see that the guidelines haven’t changed so much as extended. In 2005, a large distribution center had a footprint of a few hundred thousand square feet. Today, a large distribution center is in the range of one million square feet. As footprints have evolved to be larger, the technology of fire protection systems has evolved to allow large buildings to grow taller as well. The 2020 Rules of Thumb e-book extends the guidelines from the 2005 edition to illustrate all the new approaches to optimize this new scale of facility. 

How do you hope the e-book will be utilized by commercial real estate professionals? 

The industrial real estate market is in many ways defined by the leasing brokerage community, and varies geographically. This is sometimes at odds with the trend of large-scale national logistics operations that want to reinforce common operational standards in their different geographical facilities. This book doesn’t just say the appropriate depth of a truck yard is 130 feet, it explains why it is 130 feet, and under what circumstances it would make sense for it to be something other than 130 feet. Both industrial real estate developers and brokers will be able to use this information to have more meaningful dialog with end-users. 

What technologies do you see most poised to impact warehouse/distribution facility design in the near future? 

There has been tremendous investment in automating as much of the logistics work flow as possible, and automation in many forms will start to change some of the guidelines we currently use. The use of robotics for pick operations is what is driving a new set of multilevel prototypes for some e-commerce users. Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (AS/RS) are driving taller clear heights and new conveyor mezzanine configurations. 

What are some of the differences in guidelines for urban/infill versus traditional warehouse where space isn’t a limitation? 

There are several drivers that change the rules of thumb in urban locations. One is land cost; land costs more in an urban location. This means the FAR calculation becomes more important to a successful project, and the rules of thumb need to be reexamined without compromising too much on functionality. In urban locations, the tenant is more likely to be focused on fast small delivery as opposed to large truckload sortation, and understanding how those uses differ in terms of trucks and forklift equipment is important in the design process. 

What are some adaptive reuse strategies that are put into practice when converting other spaces (like former malls)? 

Distribution uses work best in open spaces with as few obstacles as possible. The typical suburban retail mall that we see becoming vacant has uneven column grids and odd geometries that are not a great fit for most operations. They can be made to work, but it’s not ideal. Big box retail facilities, however, can work very well for a number of last mile users. The on-grade condition works for loading delivery vans, and the customer parking lots can be converted to van or box truck parking. 

There is a new phenomenon we’re starting to see in certain markets where office vacancy rates are high. We are seeing low- to mid-rise office buildings being purchased and demolished to make way for modern industrial buildings. It doesn’t seem to make sense in that the FAR remains similar, but it shows we are on the cusp of a market condition in some locations where Class A industrial space may lease for more than Class B office. 

Will COVID-19 impact any of the guidelines you’ve included? Ex. increased need for automation, design considerations for communal areas. 

The automation trend was in full force prior to the pandemic, and adoption and investment will accelerate given the current situation, which is likely to impact the U.S. for some time.  

We are just seeing the first programmatic shifts of reducing worker density in picking and packing operations, and in the designs of common areas like lunch rooms and training rooms. Some of the more nimble e-commerce groups are starting to increase space allocations in these areas, and it’s likely to increase the overall demand for floor area to some degree. 

If another edition of this e-book were to be published 15 years from now, how could you see it changing? What sections might be longer? Shorter? 

There will be dramatic change in the design of distribution facilities 15 years from now. The retail revolution has put a microscope on the entire logistics process, and significant disruptions to the traditional models are underway. The pandemic caused a major shock to the system, and the rate of change is increasing like the exponential growth of infection. 

But today much of the change is in the form of experiments with new methodologies and technologies. There’s an old saying about the trailblazers being the ones with all the arrows in their backs. There will be some of that, and it’s not clear which gold rush is worth “taking some arrows” for. There will be a lot of legacy infrastructure that will continue to be accommodated. Even if there are self-driving electric trucks rolled out tomorrow, a facility will need to continue to work with the trucks of today for quite a while. A very narrow-aisle forklift truck represents a big financial investment, and they will be in use for some time, even as there is a trend to more automated mechanisms. 

Buildings will be different 15 years from now, but it’s difficult to pinpoint what the new rules of thumb will be. It is a sure thing that designing today with the rules of thumb in this 2020 book will give any developer a step up in today’s marketplace. And if you really read it (instead of just copying the numbers), you will have a good understanding of how to accommodate change in the building you design next year as well. 

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