Whitepaper: 06.15.2015

Achieve Optimal Outcomes on Parking Projects by Asking the Right Questions

by Rodney Riddle, McCarthy Vice President

Structured parking construction in the United States is in the midst of a renaissance. A resurgent economy, land values at a premium, and a dependence on technologically advanced experiences are creating deep demand for more effective and efficient parking structures that better meet user needs. This is true across market sectors and regions – from the California Bay Area’s thriving building market to urban hubs such as Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth, the Midwest and beyond.

Interestingly, the ebb and flow of parking structure construction is also a reflection of larger market and economic forces. As society becomes more focused on sustainability, parking structures are increasingly energy efficient and solar friendly. As “big data” becomes the norm in other sectors, “smart parking” structures are utilizing data to achieve efficient traffic flow. Even global economic events can impact parking through changes in material availability and costs.

Parking structures are an essential component to the facilities they serve. They add value throughout the life of the facility for end users. The success of a facility – whether it is an office building, college campus, shopping mall or hospital – is often impacted significantly by how well its parking structure was designed and built. When done right, parking structures can enable easy access for users and serve as a lucrative revenue source. If they are not designed and built well, they can encumber access and generate major long-term maintenance costs.

At the same time, parking structure construction is a highly specialized, niche field where efficiency of space and cost-effectiveness of the constructed facility can vary widely, simply based on the experience and alignment of designer and builder. Owners and developers are well-advised to familiarize themselves with the parking sector’s unique issues and the questions to ask.

  1. It all starts with the frame – how do we choose the right one?
  2. How do we align form with function?
  3. What is our available workforce?
  4. How should we procure our project?

Knowledge of these considerations can yield substantial cost, scheduling and quality benefits – for both parking structures and the facilities they serve.

Choosing the Right Frame
The selection of a structural system is one of the first and most important choices the owner, developer, architect, structural engineer and contractor will face on a parking structure project. The type of structure or frame that is used on a project will impact construction and long-term maintenance costs as well as site security and aesthetic appeal.

The three basic types of structural systems for most parking projects are:

  • Cast-in-Place Concrete: Concrete is delivered to the project site and poured into wood or steel forms to create the structure.
  • Precast Concrete: Concrete structural elements such as columns, beams and shear walls are assembled off-site and then delivered to the project site, where they are erected to create the structure.
  • Precast Hybrid: A hybrid of the two above systems.

Cast-in-place concrete is generally less expensive and requires less long-term maintenance than precast concrete. Precast concrete can sometimes be built faster with just-in-time delivery, which can result in earlier occupancy. Selection of one of these systems should take into account a range of factors, including:

Garage layout and space adjacencies: Space adjacencies will significantly impact which type of frame is economical and appropriate for a project. For example, if the structure will have a building on top of it, the durability of a cast-in-place system may be appropriate. Space considerations also apply to the surrounding area — do nearby roads allow sufficient space for precast members to be trucked in from off-site and large cranes to be staged for erection?

Labor and product availability: In some regions, precast concrete members are not readily available or economical. In other regions, the skilled labor necessary for cast-in-place construction is in short supply.

Durability: Cast-in-place systems have no welded connections, so they tend to be more durable. For parking structures with a shorter projected lifespan, durability may be less important. When a parking structure must last for 50 years, the staying power of a cast-in-place structure is extremely valuable. Maintainability and ongoing operational costs vary in cast-in-place versus a precast garage and should be considered in the life cycle analysis of the proposed framing system.

Security: Cast-in-place systems allow for the use of “moment frames,” which typically create greater openness and visibility. “Shear walls” are often used in precast concrete construction, reducing visibility and potentially creating concealed areas that may raise safety issues. For parking structures in areas where public safety is a concern, the increased visibility of moment frames can be a major benefit.

Aesthetics: Precast concrete and cast-in-place systems have a different “look,” and an owner’s particular aesthetic preference will also influence which system is appropriate.

Form Follows Function
Each parking structure project is unique and must respond to the function of the facility the structure serves. Two important questions to ask are: 1) Who is the end user? and 2) Is the parking structure intended to generate revenue for the owner?

Key trends and considerations based on a parking structure’s function include:

Office Building: Office employees are what parking contractors call “repeat offenders.” They tend to arrive and leave work at the same time every day, parking in the same spot. A parking facility for office employees must be able to load and unload passenger vehicles quickly during peak arrival and departure times. Usually, the ramping system is designed to allow employees to travel vertically from floor to floor quickly.

Retail: Parking structures for retail facilities should be designed to help users find a parking spot quickly, so that they can enter the retail facility (and spend money). This is accomplished through design elements such as a “high bay” on the first floor, allowing users to park and walk directly into the at-grade retailers or mall. Electronic parking assistance is also common for retail projects so customers can easily identify open spaces by locating a red or green light with a sensor over each parking space. The focus for retail projects is to make the parking experience as easy as possible, so shoppers will be likely to return to the facility.

Transportation: The expansion of rail and bus lines throughout the country typically has created demand for parking facilities where people can park their cars and then board public transit to take them to their final destination. These parking structures should be designed to prevent long queues from forming during extremely busy commuting hours. Ingress and egress that affect public streets and user satisfaction become an important consideration in the transportation plan.

Healthcare: Parking structures for healthcare facilities should be built to accommodate the unique needs of the users of a healthcare facility. Building and design features that can help older and ill patients include over-sized parking spaces, security, higher than normal lighting levels, painted interiors, and way-finding devices.

A major trend in each of the above market sectors is the use of parking structures for revenue generation. Revenue-generating parking structures must focus on traffic flow, efficient lane use, convenient payment systems, and ensuring that the gates open and close quickly enough to keep vehicles moving. Mixed-use urban developments, multifamily wrapped garages, and central campus garages are performing their function as well as offering a revenue stream for the owners of these facilities.

A Skilled Workforce and Self-Perform
Parking construction is specialized and requires a highly skilled labor force. A parking project’s workforce must understand formwork, efficiency of repetition (continuous improvement of cycle times on concrete pours or pre-cast placement), and quality control in the installation of materials. In some markets, such as Silicon Valley and busy metro areas like Houston, the rapid growth of demand for parking projects has created a shortage of this skilled labor. A contractor with a large, dedicated workforce of experienced parking professionals is a major benefit to a parking project.

Achieving efficiencies throughout the construction process is integral to cost, scheduling and quality gains on parking structure projects. A key methodology in the owner’s and contractor’s toolbox is the ability to self-perform structural concrete. A contractor with the ability to self-perform this aspect of construction can control the project’s schedule, set a high standard for subcontractors, and determine with precision the quality and safety on a project.

When considering a self-perform approach, owners and builders should ensure that this makes sense by asking:

  • Does the contractor own the equipment and materials necessary for this kind of work?
  • What is the contractor’s track record for self-perform projects?
  • What is the contractor’s current workload for self-perform parking projects? Can current project sites be toured?
  • What is the contractor’s safety record with regard to self-perform projects?
  • What is the composition of the contractor’s skilled, self-perform workforce?

The Efficiency of Design-Build
The parking structure construction sector is increasingly oriented to a design-build project delivery model. Other models, such as a design-bid-build model, are still available and may be preferred on some projects. However, a design-build approach is currently the most popular model by far – and for good reason.

The design-build delivery model is an effective solution for the vast majority of parking structure projects because the contractor and designer are one contractual entity — allowing for a more collaborative approach. This guarantees certainty on cost early in the design process, minimizes change orders, and results in a much faster project delivery process. The result is improved decision-making for the entire team.

The New Wave of Parking
It is an extremely exciting time for both owners, designers and builders to be involved with the new wave of structured parking construction. Parking structures are an essential element that add great value to the facilities they serve. Furthermore, today’s parking structures are not like the parking structures of the past. Smart parking, green structures incorporating photovoltaic technology, and garages with a high degree of aesthetic and design value are becoming commonplace. By focusing on the function a parking structure will support, such as retail or office building use, the most efficient approach for the construction process can be identified. By asking the right questions, owners can ensure an optimal outcome on any parking structure project.

About the Author
Rodney Riddle, LEED AP BD+C, is Vice President, Parking Structures for McCarthy Building Companies, Inc. in Northern California. In this role, he is responsible for the overall design coordination, preconstruction services and construction operations exclusively for the firm’s parking structure projects in the region. With more than 15 years of commercial construction experience, Rodney began his career working in the field as an estimator/project manager. He joined McCarthy as an estimator in 1998, serving as senior estimator and preconstruction director before assuming his current role. Riddle holds a bachelor of science in construction management from California State University, Sacramento. He currently serves as vice president for the American Society of Professional Estimators, Sacramento Chapter, where he has also served as an advisory board member. He can be reached at rriddle@mccarthy.com.

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