Car park design – an interesting beast


In any development, there is a fine line between the interests of the engineer, the developer, the investor and the end user. Ultimately all are after a solution which works, but it can be the age-old battle between cost and benefit which dictates terms.

In a previous post entitled Why Simple Design is Often Complex, George Burton writes of simple measures when planning user-friendly, profitable car parks. Those ingredients relate to convenience, layout, safety/security as well as aesthetics. It is a delicate balance. His premise is that retrofitting ill-planned infrastructure is far less desirable (in many cases unachievable), compared to implementing a best practice attitude during the design process.

In an opinion piece (below) prepared by Andrew Morse Senior Traffic Engineer and Partner at ptc., Andrew explains this may cost more at the outset, but (and George Burton agrees), this “pales into insignificance” given the alternative outcomes.

It’s not bad news, it’s good design

Car park design is an interesting beast, when comparing the desired outcome (a usable, inviting and safe place to leave your car while you go and do something else) with the design input process.  There is generally always a tension between these two aspects, which can be said for many components of a building/development.

It can be a difficult balance to achieve.  The input side of the scales requires money saving solutions which generally translates to ‘smaller’ and ‘tighter’ the other aspects of the building (cores, services, fire escapes etc) must be squeezed in, the land size is almost always a constraint and then Council slaps a setback around the whole site.

Typically most elements of a building’s design can be accommodated, albeit not achieving the optimum solution.  Services can wind around cores, structures can transfer to allow columns to be shifted around, ducting can employ a variety of sizes to fit through tight spots and maintain height clearances.  All of these things exist without interaction by the users of the building, so while an optimum solution is not achieved, as long it all works and achieves minimum compliance, c’est la vie….

This is where parking differs. Residents, office workers, and importantly, customers all not only have to interact with the car park but are doing so in an expensive object.  This is where designers, developers and builders should focus efforts on achieving best practice rather than substandard or minimum compliant car park arrangements.  Of course, it is recognised that the best solution is sometimes the most expensive in the short-term; however these costs pale into insignificance if a shopping centre fails commercially and operationally because of a poor car park experience,  a tenant taking legal action over an unusable parking space or (worst case scenario) someone gets injured.

Typically, the news that something doesn’t fit or work or comply during the design process is met with long faces; however, this reaction forgets the output side of the project.  Sure, go ahead, achieve the input side of the scale, but if this is at the cost of a good output, the development is destined for long term problems which are expensive, if not impossible to fix.

This is where “it’s not bad news, it’s good design” fits in.  I have been involved in numerous developments both on the design side and the output side where issues need resolution, and two things always jump out when resolving issues.  Firstly, retrofit solutions are never as good as a designed in solution; excessive signage required to mitigate design shortcomings is a clear indicator of a bad output.

If you’re interested in attracting customers, the same applies to customer perception.

An endless loop, designed into the development to avoid bad news (and possibly cost) during the input stage.  Replace ‘Poor Design’ with ‘Good Design’ and the cycle doesn’t exist, or better still it exists in the positive state.

So, when consultants push their design ideas, it’s generally not bad news, just good design.

Related article:

Future-proof car park


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