Todd Sachse

The last decade has been a time of profound and consequential change in industrial construction. Trends like the integration and influence of new technology, adapting to space limitations in urban environments, the explosive growth and proliferation of distribution centers, and the push towards zero waste and green building practices all have the potential to impact industrial operations in ways both subtle and significant for a very long time to come.

Understanding some of the more transformative and impactful industrial design and construction trends and innovations—how those trends came about, and how they are likely to play out in the years ahead—could provide valuable insights into the future of an evolving industrial landscape.

The distribution boom

One of the biggest trends impacting the design and construction of industrial facilities is a significant spike in distribution centers. Distribution centers large and small are one of the fastest-growing sectors in the industrial market, primarily as a result of the growing popularity and prevalence of e-commerce. From giant national players like Amazon, to online groundbreakers like Warby Parker and StockX, the transactions may be digital, but the products—and the infrastructure required to store and ship those products—are anything but. Even brick-and-mortar retailers like Target and Walmart are building and acquiring distribution facilities in an attempt to remain competitive in a marketplace where the convenience of online retail has fueled a continuing shift in consumer expectations about product availability, selection, and speed of delivery. Department store giant Nordstrom, which made significant investments in bolstering its online distribution infrastructure in recent years, has seen that investment pay off in dramatic ways. Much of Nordstrom’s 2018 growth can be attributed to online sales, which now make up more than a third of the brand’s business.

Tech-ups

Distribution centers are the forefront of the technology boom in industrial facilities. Today’s cutting-edge facilities are automated to an extent that would have seemed like science fiction in the not-too-distant past. Robots and driverless machines are increasingly being used for stocking, picking, packaging, and moving products and materials across warehouses. Increased automation has very real implications for industrial facility design. Instead of buildings designed for people, we now have building designed for robots. Aisles can get narrower and shelves taller, allowing for more efficient designs that maximize available space.

Space and size evolution

One clear issue that is influencing the way industrial facilities are designed and built is the availability of real estate—or the lack thereof. The increasing cost and limited availability of land, especially in key markets, is driving up the price tag of industrial facilities and limiting expansion options at a time when distribution demands are driving new construction (and redevelopment). An acre—which is a significant sized lot in a busy urban market—might seem like a lot of space, but for an industrial warehouse, that’s a tight squeeze. Consider that fact that approximately 64% of U.S. warehouses are larger than 25,000 square feet and 37% are larger than 100,000 square feet. Another hurdle for an expanding industrial sector is the ongoing lack of investment in transportation infrastructure around the country.

Given those obstacles, it should come as no surprise that more efficient designs and compact facilities that occupy a smaller footprint are in demand. While there has been some discussion about the potential for more nontraditional design solutions and multi-story warehouse concepts, the additional expense of building and operating multi-story facilities makes them unlikely to be more than a niche product.

Function-first design

Another core-and-shell trend in the industrial space is the growing prioritization of function over form. For obvious reasons, industrial facilities are traditionally utilitarian in nature compared to their commercial counterparts in retail and office sectors. After all, there isn’t much point in driving up the construction price tag just to create a “cool looking” industrial building. In recent years, however, that spare approach has become even more spartan in nature, with a “four walls and a roof” mindset focused primarily on investing resources into functionality, efficiency improvements and upgraded technology. Functional-first design de-emphasizes image and aesthetics in favor of maximizing functionality within a given footprint. This is a reflection of the industry’s growing understanding that the ultimate success of an industrial facility is dependent upon how well the structure accommodates the technological realities of today’s leading industrial operations.

Sustainability and efficiency trends

That function-first mindset means that, from a design and construction standpoint, industrial facilities tend to be a relatively straightforward proposition. Industrial construction is still relatively meat-and-potatoes, primarily steel and concrete, without some of the more exotic and architectural materials we have seen in commercial skins and exteriors. There is more industrial innovation on the mechanical systems side. Operational efficiency is at a premium, as operators look to minimize waste and boost sustainability, thus decreasing operational costs. The good news is that because of technology advances and increasing precision, there is generally less waste in manufacturing than in the past. One of the biggest leaps forward in sustainability in recent years has been the transition to energy-efficient LED lighting. In industrial environments, this has resulted in a dramatic decrease in energy consumption and the cost of lighting a space. The increasing automation discussed earlier also makes industrial facilities more efficient—sometimes in surprising ways. For example, with fewer people required to operate a space, the need for fresh air intake is reduced, which lowers HVAC/operational costs.

Occupying a critical point in the supply chain, industrial facilities are often among the first to reflect substantive shifts in the market or in consumer preferences. Any subsequent design and construction adaptations are frequently a direct reflection of technological, environmental, economic and civic realities. Which is why the industrial design and construction trends described above—which will continue to manifest themselves in industrial build outs in 2020 and beyond—are so important to monitor. In examining the contours of an evolving industrial sector, we have the chance to better understand not just an industry, but a society.

Todd Sachse is founder and CEO of Sachse Construction, a Detroit-based construction management firm.