Four Logistical Challenges & Solutions for an International Design-Build Project
Our collaboration with clients begins long before any dirt is turned. In many cases, we get to know these companies before that land is even identified, assisting them in navigating the complex process of selecting and purchasing property for their processing, manufacturing or cold storage distribution center. While members of our Design-Build teams are involved through every phase of bringing an owner’s facility dreams to fruition, design is where I shine.
In my role as an architect, I can really explore the owner’s requirements and desires and address design challenges that arise before and during construction. This article illustrates how we took on a multifaceted greenfield project for an international client just as the pandemic was unfurling.
Building a facility across national borders is taxing during the best of times. GAB Operations LLC (GAB), a family-run produce company based in Guanajuato, Mexico, already has a small distribution office and warehouse in Laredo, TX. However, increasing demand for their produce fueled the urgent need for expanded and upgraded operations in the U.S. The company purchased land within an industrial center, also in Laredo, to develop larger and modernized cold storage, warehouse and offices.
Early communication with the client revealed four challenges, all of which related to logistics and transportation:
- Protecting product integrity upon arrival from Mexico
- Promoting trucker comfort and separation from other user groups
- Navigating the permitting process related to site and access driveways
- Preparing the company for its current expansion effort in the U.S. and Canada
With each issue, our solutions went beyond the task at hand to create results that would provide long-term benefits for GAB.
How to Protect the Integrity of the Produce Arriving from Mexico?
Mexico has become the number one trade partner of the United States with a total of $614.5 billion, according to a 2020 Forbes article. It is estimated that the World Trade Bridge (one of Laredo’s border inspection points) will reach capacity by 2030. With the continued rise in trade between Mexico and the United States, the time that trucks are waiting at the border will most likely increase. The border crossings are logistics heavy and can be a long process depending on the number of other vehicles coming into the U.S. at the same time. Freight vehicles at the border can go through a dual inspection process with a potential to be X-rayed by the border authorities.
GAB produce is transported in refrigerated trailers to maintain the required strict food safety temperatures. Once the produce comes across the border, it must be transferred quickly to the facility and into the coolers/freezer.
Early on in our design, we discussed a plan with the Owner to include a Forced Air Cooler.
This strategy will allow the GAB employees to rapidly chill produce in preparation for relocation into perishable coolers. There will be capacity to house an entire truckload of pallets. Using dedicated fans, air is pulled through the pallets to help drop the temperature of the produce safely to prevent the development of condensation and keep the produce from prematurely ripening.
During the design and construction process, we have been working closely with the Forced Air Cooler specialty vendor to ensure this system is designed and installed properly—from the selection of the access door and bollard layout to coordination with the fire protection engineer on the sprinkler head arrangement and location. We are working with the vendor to ensure that no thermal transfer occurs between the spaces. Integrating the Forced Air Cooler into the warehouse design also required working with our racking vendor to maximize the racking layout adjacent to the cooler to maintain aisles for forklifts and employees.
Could Creative Layout Promote Trucker Comfort?
While GAB was interested in creating camaraderie among a variety of users at this new facility, it became apparent that they would also have to consider social distancing and access control among those groups. To answer this need, we initially focused on developing a distinctive dormitory solely for the use of company truck drivers who deliver the fresh and frozen produce from Mexico.
This is a unique element of the project, as not many distribution facilities provide places for truckers to sleep. Each room features two metal bunkbeds and storage areas for personal items. We worked with the bunkbed supplier and our electrical engineer to locate outlets at the correct height for user convenience.
The trucker dormitory has 16 beds with two single–occupant toilets and a shower stall.
The truck drivers will also have access to a washer and dryer. Not only did we design the space, but we also organized finishes and furnishings to make the area functional and comfortable. We selected an anti-microbial paint for the walls and researched washable mattress covers for the dorm bunkbeds to prevent the spread of germs.
Non-company drivers will be restricted to the trucker breakroom area with separate toilets. We also designed an in-and-out door flow to create social distancing between the truckers at the check-in window and those who are exiting to their trucks. The warehouse/dock employees also have separate areas, including their own breakroom/training room with locker spaces. In the office space, we sought to emulate the open design concept that GAB has at its headquarters in Mexico. We chose glass doors to create an open office environment that blends the cubicles, common areas and private managers’ offices. While we created separation between these spaces, we also used finish selections to establish a cohesive theme throughout the office. We selected durable materials to accommodate staff traffic and Laredo’s climate
Why Are Special Permits Needed for the Access Driveways?
Every jurisdiction is unique. Whether it is the submittal process or communications with city officials, A M King strives to be the best advocate for our clients throughout design, plan review, and permitting, concluding with the Certificate of Occupancy and final punch list. We provide our international clients the expertise and experience from working in several states and dealing with a variety of jurisdictional types.
Laredo’s permitting process was challenging since it involved multiple steps, and during a pandemic this was all completed through a new virtual submittal process and online dashboard.
One of the items that we needed to address was our access driveways to a state road. This driveway required approval from the Texas Department of Transportation and needed to meet their design and size standards prior to approval. As part of this process, we participated in a City of Laredo review prior to submitting to the State of Texas. Once approved, we provided the applications and driveway layout to the State and discussed all concerns with our civil engineer. Finally, an inspector will be scheduled to visit the site and approve the work.
In addition, we worked with the department heads of the utilities to ensure there were no conflicts with the site arrangement. Next up, was the Accessibility Review, a Texas state requirement performed by a third-party review team that evaluates issues of accessibility within the building and City departmental plan review—both processes that A M King handled to receive the permit as quickly as possible.
Will the New Facility Prepare GAB for Accelerated Distribution in U.S. and Canada?
During our initial client meetings, we discussed how the design of this facility would meet the initial growth needs required for increased U.S. distribution. Beyond that, we planned for the expansion of the freezer and dock areas by designing a racking layout that would create easy transitions into new areas. Working with our structural engineer, we located the diagonal bracing in sections that would be hidden between racking. We also designed structural footings along the expansion wall to accommodate additional structural columns. This will prepare the facility for a future expansion while allowing the building to function as the client requires for present conditions.
To start, this new facility will have 10 dock positions. By pre-planning the structural bracing, we were able to identify a new wall opening for dock growth and flow of the forklift trucks between the new and existing dock areas. It is critical to our process that we consider how the facility could remain active during this future construction.
Addressing the needs and desires of an international client is similar to what we do for U.S. clients, but with some additional logistical considerations. Our goals are to understand the transportation requirements of our clients and how their product moves from point A to B while exceeding food safety requirements. In a post-COVID world, we have also created a plan for separation of facility user groups to prevent spread of germs, ensuring that those spaces accurately reflect the needs of each group. We serve as our clients’ advocate in navigating local/state code and accessibility requirements to maintain a smooth transition from design completion to initiation of construction.
As part of the design process, we also consider not only a client’s current needs, but how we can help facilitate any future development and set in place the basic infrastructure to help reduce the down time required to make these updates. Working with the Owner’s group has been a collective effort on the part of our Design and Operations team to meet the goals for this new Laredo distribution facility.