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The powerful impact of e-commerce on industrial warehouse and distribution facility site design

Industrial warehouse and distribution facilities have dramatically changed over the years. Traditionally, they were massive storage spaces for large companies, built in areas like the Lehigh Valley. Today, because of e-commerce and a pandemic, these facilities are much more complex and vary in size. They are also popping up in cities and the suburbs.

With limited available sites and high demand, developers have to get creative. They may consider properties they would not have looked at in the past and even adjust their prototype to work in an available location. As a result, there are changes to the way projects are planned, design, and approved.

Nave Newell has a long history of working on industrial warehouse and distribution projects. This dates back to the year we were founded in 1992 and the Highlands Corporate Center in Chester County. Since then, we have worked on projects of all types and sizes from Philadelphia to the Lehigh Valley to Harrisburg.

Check out our projects on this interactive map:

With several projects at various stages of development, we thought it would be a great time to highlight some of the trends we’re seeing in 2021:

A move into neighborhoods

Previously located on large, open undeveloped sites with access to regional arterials, today, these facilities are relocating to local neighborhoods. In fact, in the last 5 years, the term last-mile has gone from 100 to more like 5 miles. To meet demand and stay competitive, proximity to customers, supported by good local roadway capacity is a necessity. The more facilities suppliers and retailers have, the lower their transportation costs are, and the better they can compete. It is critical to staying in business.  

  • Two of our projects along Ridge Pike in Montgomery County are ideally situated when it comes to location. 1103-1113 Ridge Pike, a future last-mile fulfillment center is located in a commercial/industrial area, with quick and convenient access to arterial roadways, and close to many rooftops for community fulfillment.
1103-1113 Ridge Pike – Last-Mile Distribution Center in Plymouth Township, Montgomery County

As more retailers shift their model to provide quick delivery service, there will more demand for these type of facilities.

Retail-to-warehouse conversions

Probably one of the biggest fall-outs of the e-commerce boom are the number of vacant retail sites. While e-commerce may seem like a logical conversion, it may not be embraced by the community. However, open communication with the public and sensitivity to the community, can result in a successful project for all.

We’re currently providing support for the conversion of a former big-box retailer property to a last-mile fulfillment center. Traffic impact studies show the common perception is that retail-warehouse conversions are a more intensive land use, but they’re not. Let’s look closer. The number of trips/day is significantly less than a traditional retail use. With proper design and site solutions, e-commerce space can be a good neighbor. If you think about it, it’s still a retail use; you’re just shopping from home and that one van is delivering to many households.

Ultimately, redeveloping an underutilized industrial/commercial lot can be a great option to meet the high demand in suburban neighborhoods. Aside from improving the aesthetics of a vacant facility, the redevelopment results in new local jobs and tax revenue that will benefit the surrounding community.

Around the clock operations and circulation to meet consumer demand

These facilities have a lot of moving pieces. Especially the fulfillment centers, where the product comes in and is sorted and distributed within a 24-48 hour period.

A key component to site design for these facilities involves circulation patterns that aid in the flow of various types of vehicles. At peak times, you have employees enter the site in their personal vehicles, park, and take delivery vehicles to the staging, load, and then exit. The vehicles all need to flow smoothly and be kept separate – in, around, and out of the site. With all this occurring around the clock, we consider many factors to ensure safe and efficient operations. These include:

  • traffic queuing for loading
  • different sized vehicles, parking for different periods of time
  • rapid loading and turnover of delivery vehicles
  • streamlined pedestrian traffic directed to appropriate entrances

Loading areas look different

Traditionally, warehouses required a significant number of 4-foot high loading docks to be viable. Now, because of e-commerce, the focus shifts to the staging and loading of smaller utility vehicles. There are still tractor-trailers to accommodate product delivery. This change in loading adds a complexity to the site design, which now includes tractor-trailers, delivery vans, and employee vehicles, all carefully separated to improve operations and safety.

For our 1103-1113 Ridge Pike project (site rendering above), thoughtful land planning helped to balance the traffic patterns of various users resulting in a highly efficient and safe traffic flow throughout the site.

Stormwater management greening – minimize cost and maximize benefit

When it comes to redevelopments, many of these sites were developed 40+ years ago. They are mostly impervious and lack stormwater management (SWM) controls. As a result, stormwater management becomes a driving factor in the site planning and design. It also has a big impact on project schedule and budget. Water quality improvements like rain gardens, green roofs, and managed release BMPs are often relied upon for suburban redevelopment sites. Planners and engineers take all of this into consideration to find the best SWM approach that minimizes cost and provides the most benefit.

Future trend – more sustainable practices

In the not too distant future, we can expect to see more e-commerce delivery fleets shift from gas to electric. For some of our projects they’re already preparing for this transition by planning for Electric Vehicle (EV) charging stations and installing the conduit now for future use.

Another way to incorporate sustainability is use of overhead solar panels. Not only does this provide a renewable energy resource, it also offers shade and reduces urban heat island effects.

Let’s get started

One thing for sure is the rapid pace of change in this industry. Many deals are happening off-market and happening very quickly. A record number of new industrial investment companies are flooding the market, especially in the Greater Philadelphia and Lehigh Valley areas.

We know time is everything and it’s crucial to have a game plan. As a developer, you need information to make quick and informed decisions. Let our team of land planners, surveyors, and civil engineers help you secure an ALTA, prepare a quick sketch to understand yield, and complete an ordinance review to identify if you may need a variance or any other potential items that could affect your timeline. Our engineers can also perform due diligence to identify potential stormwater management and accessibility issues.

Contact us today and let us help you get started!