It can be tough to know where to start on a big project.
For Tom Lawrence, a project manager at Haag Muller architects and engineers in Wisconsin, the best way to begin thinking about a major building renovation is to consider the customer experience.
The customer arrives, waits for service to be completed, pays and leaves. But it’s everything that happens between those stages that’s important. Consider what the customer sees and hears during that time.
“Put yourself in that person’s shoes and think of it from the outside,” says Lawrence, who has developed auto shops, quick lubes and similar businesses as part of his work. “What’s the experience like? Sometimes it’s the architecture. Sometimes it’s the people working there.”
Good building design is attractive, but it’s also functional. It gives the customer cues to guide them through the transaction and makes the entire experience as smooth as possible.
That’s a good way to get the ball rolling, but no renovation is a simple task. Here are some things to consider for a facility facelift.
1: Consider line of sight
One customer experience shops might want to consider is how much customers want to see the service performed on their vehicles. This is one of the main reasons that some brands have customers wait in their vehicles during service.
But for those that more often utilize a waiting area or lobby, more shops are giving a glimpse into the work performed.
“Providing natural light and views, so people can know what’s going on with their vehicles and not feel like they’re closed in and kept separate from the process of getting an oil change or getting the car serviced,” Lawrence says.
The same idea can also be true for office spaces, which might occasionally be needed for customer service. Lawrence says he worked with clients who owned an auto body shop. The clients said that female customers didn’t feel comfortable at times in a closed office.
So, they gave the office a mostly glass enclosure, which offered privacy in sound but not in sight. It not only helped to solve those uncomfortable feelings, but it also helps bring natural light into new spaces. Lawrence places a high value on this for both customer and service bay areas.
“One of my personal things is that I try to get as much natural light as possible into these spaces, which helps on two fronts,” he says. “It helps people working there because natural light is a little better than artificial. It also helps from the client side of things. Spaces seem brighter, somewhat cleaner and they don't’ feel so closed in.”
2: Don’t reverberate
This tip also deals with the customer waiting area, which often gets the lion’s share of attention in a shop refresh.
“Shops have some challenges,” Lawrence says. “Typically, you're dealing with materials that, by the nature of materials, they aren't clean. You've got oil, grease and that sort of thing. But in the client areas, sometimes people have tendencies to put in surfaces that are easily cleanable.”
If techs track oil and dirt all over those vinyl floors and smooth desks inside, it’s easy to wipe them down, right?
That’s true. But it’s also true that sound bounces back and forth inside that room. It could come from the bay, other customers or the TV. It’s all amplified, and it can be downright offensive to some people. Using different materials in the room can make an amazing difference to dampen that sound.
“If you don't have some soft surfaces to absorb those sounds, it can also be an unpleasant experience,” Lawrence says.
It doesn’t have to be high-end stuff, he adds. Wood is a common material that solves this problem.
3: Understand the ‘vernacular of the area’
What about the outside of the building? A sharp exterior sets the tone for a customer’s experience.
One of the first things to consider is what Lawrence calls the “vernacular of the area.” It means that the look and feel of the neighborhood or town can influence the look of a new building or renovation. Lawrence says it doesn’t mean directly imitating other buildings, but there are influences.
“It can mean things like what materials are used. Is it a lot of brick? Is it stone? Is it kind of commercial buildings with flat roofs? Are they pitched roofs?” he says. “Where they’re built and what the area is like influences the language of the building. The local municipalities sometimes will have something to say about that.”
City governments can dictate the use of some materials and some design elements. An experienced local architect should know these rules.
4: Keep it timeless
Lawrence says that he often encourages clients to think past trendy building designs and more toward timeless looks. It is still an appealing choice, and it could be friendly to the budget as well.
“In six or 10 years, everybody is going to change how they want to do things,” he says. “Look at major franchises and how often they change their branding. That’s a lot of money to go in and change branding, especially when you're dealing with the exterior of a building.”
Just as there are trends in building design, there have been trends in materials, too.
For example, Lawrence says that the past three decades saw lots of buildings go up with split-faced blocks as the main exterior material. The coarse, large brick-shaped stones were favored by stonemasons and offered a textured look.
Trends changed, and Lawrence says that split-faced blocks are now often used as accent pieces rather than the main look. Wood, metals and combinations of other materials are coming more into favor.
“I think the focus that most material manufacturers are looking at now is trying to develop materials that are low maintenance, easy for contractors to work with,” he says. “They're easy to build and relatively easy for designers to incorporate into your projects.”
One benefit today is that digital catalogs have made it much easier to shop for multiple materials to find the right fit, Lawrence adds. A clean, timeless facade should stand the test of time and still incorporate the elements a shop owner wants.
“Even if you have a big box, by using different materials and different thicknesses of materials, different textures of materials, we can make that box seem more attractive and friendly and appealing to people,” Lawrence says.
5: Make the plan
It might look like a handy shortcut to go straight to a contractor and begin work, but there are benefits of working with an architect first.
A firm should be able to look at all the factors—the engineering, the local architecture, the client’s needs and the design—and bring it all together into a working plan.
“It's not just a matter of putting windows in,” Lawrence says. “You want to make sure that it’s proportional to the building. Does it look right? Does the spacing look right? What are the materials? How does everything come together?”
Interested operators can do their part to plan by pulling together design examples that they like, Lawrence says. Collect some photos of buildings in the area, or search the internet for examples, even if it’s just a part of the building that’s appealing.
With a budget in mind and other ideas in place, it’s time to think about how all of that will help attract new repeat customers.
“I would highly suggest to an owner that they work with their design professional on every aspect on the client experience on the building,” Lawrence says. “From arriving on the site, to paying the bill, to getting in their car and leaving.”