Distribution Center Design: Five Tips For Owners

This article is contributed by The Korte Company, a St. Louis-based design-build construction company with nearly 60 years of experience.

Getting the most bang for the buck. It’s nearly every owner’s goal. And in projects as complex as distribution center construction and renovation, it’s crucial. There are several key steps owners can take to promote maximum efficiency — both during the project and for the completed facility.

1. Start with design-build and design with all systems in mind.

Today’s distribution centers feature more complexity than ever before, with increasingly numerous building systems competing for limited facility space. All building systems must seamlessly work together to support the operation. It makes sense to coordinate the design of each major building system to create a holistic design that delivers an efficient facility — one that uses best-value solutions that provide best value.

distribution center
Photo: The Korte Co.

For this reason, and a number of others, we highly recommend using the design-build method. In this construction delivery method, one entity forms a complete project team, including architect and constructors, and holds single-source responsibility for delivering the owner’s project. Construction professionals and trade contractors advise on cost, schedule, and constructability during the design process, and the strongest solutions are identified.

The team approach of design-build pays real dividends for distributors. For example, if the facility plans to use an AS/RS system with conveyors, the owner will likely employ a trade contractor who specializes in those systems. But the facility must be properly equipped to handle the ultra heavy point loads associated with AS/RS systems.

If the traditional general contracting method is used, the architect will complete the design, then you’ll bid work to a general contractor, who hires the specialty contractors in charge of the AS/RS system. In other words, the design is made with no input from specialty contractors, and the architect won’t know the critical load requirements of the AS/RS system. In the end, the specialty contractor will have to design the AS/RS system around a building design. And the facility owner is left designing their workflow last.

You want just the opposite.

For the best results, owners want their architect to coordinate with their specialty contractors from the start to accommodate complex elements, such as KIVA systems, conveyers, pick pods, and AS/RS rack systems. Partnering with specialty contractors early ensures they’re not competing with each other or with other elements of the design for limited space. All loads are accounted for. And the owner’s ideal workflow dictates all aspects of the facility design. This is the process in design-build — your project team works in partnership from start to finish to deliver a better build around your needs.

2. Select a design team that uses a better model.

Early pre-construction designs have traditionally been little more than napkin sketches; now they’re far more scientific and complete. A growing subset of design firms have adopted cutting-edge 5D Macro BIM technology. These models show, at the earliest design stages, how different design concepts affect cost, schedule, and constructability, allowing owners to evaluate large-scale options and make informed decisions.

As the project progresses further into design, owner benefit from the team using 3D BIM technology to show detailed models of the design. But computer modeling for architectural design is no longer limited to basic architectural models. Now, models of specific building systems are available. Subcontractors’ design consultants can use BIM to model structural engineering, mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems, ductwork, steel work, and more. Combined with clash detection programs, designers can ensure no systems interfere with each other, preventing field coordination problems before they arise on the job site.

3. Make decisions with an LCCA.

A life cycle cost analysis (LCCA) is the formal process of calculating the ROI you can expect from building investments. The LCCA provides long-term cost projections for a particular building investment over its useful life cycle, accounting for the time value of money and all other factors of cost and payoff.

distribution center
Photo: The Korte Co.

In the LCCA, the costs of two or more alternative investments are calculated and compared to determine which has the lowest long-term cost and better long-term value — e.g. which is most economical over the life of the facility.

The LCCA puts solid numbers behind decision-making and allows owners to evaluate where to best spend project dollars. To reap maximum benefits from an LCCA, make it part of the project from the earliest stages of design and continuously update it throughout the project as you evaluate solutions for various project elements.

4. Give the team complete information to support your workflow.

Supporting your workflow should be a primary goal of the design. To achieve this end, provide the project team information on:

  • The means of transportation used to bring goods to the facility
  • Where transportation will be staged to offload new shipments
  • How products move through the distribution center
  • What, if any, elements of the workflow you plan to automate
  • How products leave the distribution center

The distribution center design can and should support the workflow, beyond simply supporting heavy loads. For example, when full pallets of one item are received, facility crews can eliminate the process of sorting goods and breaking them down into individual boxes. In this instance, an efficient facility will incorporate strategic rack placement next to the docks that receive these specific pallets. The end result is better traffic flow throughout the facility and savings in both time and dollars. With the right information, the project design team can and will identify a range of solutions that improve workflow and storage.

5. Plan for future expansion from the start.

If it’s known that operations are expanding and you’ll likely outgrow even the new facility, planning for expansion can provide significant savings. For one, it can allow for phasing the project and minimize initial construction expenses. Second, it allows the facility to grow with the organization’s needs.

But planning for expansion isn’t just about adding more space. You’ll need a facility that’s designed from the onset to withstand future structural and seismic loads, particularly if there are plans to add or expand conveyors or AS/RS systems.

Some other considerations for future expansion include extending wiring, piping and utilities where the building expansion would be located; and using temporary, lower cost materials for the parts of the facility that will be torn down or replaced.