October 27, 2016

Carchitecture: Where Automobiles & Architecture [Safely] Collide

For some, cars are the thing that gets us from point A to point B. For others, they’re luxurious works of art that are meticulously cared for and hardly see a highway. Likewise, seemingly humble parking decks (or garages, depending on your chosen vernacular) can be either effective shelter space or imaginative, eye-catching wonders.  Fashioning a well-executed, delightful parking experience is no small task; it takes a deft understanding of materials, locational context and long-term operational goals.

Just ask Mark Larson, Baskervill principal and resident parking deck expert, who has over 25 years of experience in this arena. With his help, we’re going to back this up slowly and delve into the nuanced art and science that is parking deck design. It’s time to take the parking brake off.

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Snowflakes, chameleons and endless considerations

“We want to anticipate the client’s needs while working on initial site plans for parking,” explains Mark. “That includes knowing the users: when they come and go, the types of cars they drive, and the number of vehicles to be parked.” All of which can require some creative guestimating. But, the exploration into these types of factors is how we prevent a runaway cart incident the next time you go grocery shopping. While exceeding a mere two percent slope may cause some ruthless shopping cart collisions, it’s typical for a parking deck at work or at a medical facility to slope at about five percent. You get where we’re going, right?

You could say that parking decks are like chameleons.  Each has the ability to adapt to a client’s unique situation. To be value-conscious, a deck may need to impose weight and height limits.  Think about the size difference between an ambulance, an SUV, and your average sports car, for example. Garage parking is typically three times the cost of surface parking.  Extra weight and height affect the structural system and will increase what is already a large financial burden.

carchitecture_graphics2Of course, the placement of any parking deck on a site is one of the most important details to keep in mind throughout the design process. A key challenge with many decks is that they’re often a necessary evil; money spent on parking is money not directed toward the main purpose of the organization or business it accompanies. And getting as much valuable parking space out of every square foot is a big deal. Mark has the calculus down on maximizing spaces while keeping safety and user experience high on the priority list.

These guidelines are ever-evolving as new construction techniques and access technologies emerge, which is why Mark maintains an active membership to the Parking Association of the Virginias–an educational trade group devoted specifically to all things parking. “The number of occupants, whether it’s a commercial or residential location, and whether the deck is intended for public (think: mall or hospital) or private (corporate office, apartment building) use can impact how much space the deck will take up, how large and accessible each space needs to be,” explains Mark.  But the deck’s location is also a big factor in what it can and should look like as well. Parking decks tend to have large footprints so where they are placed, how tall they are, and the materials that enclose are important considerations.  Think of the uses a deck might serve (office or residential, public or private).  Context matters.

“Buildings cannot just be a pure aesthetic statement–they have to be thoughtful too,” says Baskervill Principal, Jay Woodburn. “Conversely, buildings cannot just be a lifeless machine, devoid of beauty–or no one would want to use them. It’s thrilling to establish the perfect balance of these values whether it is for a beautiful hotel or a parking deck.”

Parking for the people
Dan Rather once said, “Americans will put up with anything provided it doesn’t block traffic.” That’s why architects should have a pretty good understanding of what’s going on around the parking deck. What’s pedestrian traffic like? How many cars zoom by in a day? Are there a lot of events, like sporting or arts events, where people are all coming and going at one time? The parking situation is often a person’s first impression of a place, so we ask questions like this to make sure everything exists in harmony. A trip to the doctor or the start of a once-in-a-lifetime event can be ruined by ineffectively designed parking decks, and we’ve all experienced the stress and headaches they can cause.

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To complement Liberty University’s new 1,000-seat softball stadium, Mark and other Baskervill design members worked through the all the math, many grading plans, and traffic considerations with the client to design the resulting five-story, 1,400-space deck that can be accessed by cars on three levels.  The university can now park these cars in a more dense and discreet location – creating more open, green space for students.

When pedestrians and divers co-exist, safety is top priority. Pedestrians need to be visible to cars, and vice versa. Smart design choices can alleviate some of these concerns. “Think about where drivers will turn their car to enter a deck,” says Mark.  “If it’s near an intersection it’ll be difficult and perhaps unsafe.  Are you crossing a sidewalk?  Then perhaps it makes sense to have cars enter along an alley where traffic already goes.”

In addition to visibility, have you ever noticed the orientation of parking spots in a deck? There’s a reason that aisles of parking spots are almost always facing the building, and not running parallel to it. (FYI: It’s so you’re not forced to walk through rows of cars to get to your destination, and instead are walking more safely down aisles.)

Still with us? This parking business has a lot more to it than you thought, right?

For the long haul

Parking decks are often a multi-decade investment. For some multi-use facilities and high-rise structures, it’s not uncommon to require a life expectancy of more than 40 years! That’s why an understanding of the client’s priorities and the greater ecosystem of people and surrounding places is so critical. With current land and construction costs, who wouldn’t want such an investment to last?

When it rains, it often pours. And as Mark tells us, storm water is a big deal and any kind of parking generates lots of runoff. Architects work hand-in-hand with civil engineers on each project to study the site and determine the most cost-effective and environmentally-friendly way to manage storm water. “With parking design, and any impervious surface for that matter, you have to be actively thinking about what to do with storm water- where to retain it and to make sure it’s clean before it leaves the site,” says Mark.  Responsible design minimizes our impact on the environment.

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Onward

Parking decks are a true exercise in form meeting function. With the right design partners, you not only get a purposeful space meeting the needs of the surrounding businesses and community, you also gain a deeper understanding of the surroundings themselves and the people who interact with the space. This wisdom provides helpful cues for other initiatives and design projects.

“Until we choose other ways to get around, parking design will stay an important part of the overall design of a building and the site it occupies” says Mark.

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