It’s Not a Garage. It’s Not a Structure.

It’s a Building.

Rick Choate, principal of Choate Parking Consultants, gave a presentation to the Park Across America conference in April. A brief summary of his presentation follows.

Buildings, including parking facilities, are user-driven; they serve a functional purpose. The owner’s decisions drive aesthetics, function and the economics. These result in a balance or compromise.

These are not garages (that’s where you have your car fixed). Nor are they structures (although they are made up of structural elements). They are buildings.

Usually, the decisions made in building a parking facility control two at the expense of the third. For instance, if one stresses aesthetics and function, the price goes way up. If you stress function and economics, the aesthetics typically suffer.

When you plan a “parking facility,” you are driven by the site influences. As you begin your design, you consider the building from the inside out. Remember that you have certain dimensions and they are unforgiving. Lanes must be a minimum width, spaces take a certain number of square feet, and turning radiuses are what they are.

Try to keep industry standards in mind. This means the facility must be functional, systems friendly and constructible. The more standards you follow, the easier it is to find a contractor, and it’s more economical.

Parking functional design is determined by the type of user, the size of the site, the number of spaces and the number of levels. The elements involved in the design include the parking geometrics, the vertical circulation, the customer orientation and the entry/exit design.

The type of facility the parking building is supporting and the type of user greatly affect the design. For instance, if it’s a shopping mall, the spaces need to be wider (so packages can be easily loaded into the vehicle) than at a university or office building, where parking is longer term and the same people are using the facility over and over.

One of the major issues is the size of the parking space. Although we “feel” that vehicle size has substantially increased in the past two decades, in fact, it has not. This means that the requirements put forth by many municipalities to increase space size, particularly the length, are based on information not supported by the facts.

The average car size on the road in 1983 was 6 feet 3 inches wide and 17 feet 2 inches long. In 2001, the average car sold was 6 feet 1 inch wide and 16 feet 8 inches long.

The configuration of the circulation related to the site. A square facility is different from one that is long and narrow (and more efficient). The location of the ramps (on the side versus the middle) is important, too.

For instance, if the ramp comes up the middle, the driver must make a decision on every floor as to which way to turn. They stop and slow down the process. If they make the wrong decision, it means they miss potential open spaces.

If the ramp is on the side, the driver has no decision to make. As they approach the floor, they can see the available spaces on the floor and can make a reasoned decision as to what aisle to drive down.

The location of the pedestrian “core” is important. If it’s located in one area, the pedestrian will have to cross traffic, moving up or down the facility. If in another, they can go to exits, stairs or elevators without coming in contact with vehicles moving through the floor.

Remember, patrons spend more time out of their cars than in their cars in parking buildings.

Although there are many factors in the cost of a parking facility, the number of stories is a critical factor. A two-story facility may have an average cost of $30 per square foot, while with a five-story, it jumps to $40, and a seven-story to $44.

Remember, the layout, space size and geometrics figure greatly into the number of spaces you get in those buildings. The cost per square foot may not relate directly to the cost per space.

Lighting is a major factor in planning for a parking building. Although high-pressure sodium has been popular in the past, new technology in ballasts and bulbs makes fluorescent fixtures a workable solution today.

HPS fixtures, once turned off, cannot be restarted for 15 minutes. This causes problems with power failures and in cases where you want to use timers and motion detectors to lower electrical costs. Fluorescent fixtures can be turned on and off at will, and work particularly well when you want to turn off the lights in an area and have them go on only when the area is in use.

Security is a major factor in design. An open-plan floor gives a potential attacker the feeling of insecurity, since they are visible. It also gives the user a feeling of security since they can see and be seen. Good lighting, grilles at the ground level, and open stairwells and glass-backed elevators all add to the security of the building.

It is important to think like a contractor builds. The design should “fit” into the construction methods being used, whether poured-in-place or precast.

There are many other aspects to the parking building, and that’s why you have consultants, designers, architects and engineers to assist you.

A good designer determines the site influences, designs from the inside out, develops the functional characteristics, thinks like the contractor builds, avoids convoluting the base structure, and embellishes the exterior to fit the surrounding area.

Rick Choate can be reached at A DVD of his presentation is available at For information on October’s Park Across America conference, log on to and click on conferences.

Article Abstract from June, 2007

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