The future of warehouse design
Observations from sbh’s Steve Lamb on the future of warehouse design.
“Unlike other industries such as IT, which has introduced technologies that would have been considered the subject of science fiction only a few years ago, developments in the logistics sector are, and will continue to be, a process of gradual evolution.
The major challenge for the industry for a good many years to come will be how to remain profitable and viable faced with economic uncertainty, increasing legislation, rising energy costs and even the long-term effects of climate change.
There is no one silver bullet solution to all or any of these issues, but encouragingly there are steps the industry can take to minimize their effects, while continuing to provide the structures that the distribution sector needs to compete.
Changing patterns of distribution
The biggest single trend, which is sure to continue for a decade or more, is the increase in Internet shopping and home deliveries. This will have an increasing impact on the location, size and design of the future warehouse. While the demand for mega-sheds of up to a million square feet to support conventional retail outlets may grow, we may well see demand for smaller and more regional order preparation and shipment warehouses for direct home deliveries.
Cross docking facilities which help minimize stock levels and are designed for fast selection, sortation and dispatch of orders as small as an individual item, are sure to increase. While storage space is reduced to the minimum, the high traffic volume typical of such an operation will almost certainly require ample space for vehicles and a high number of loading docks – ensuring that deliveries and dispatches are not delayed.
As a guide, while a typical warehouse building may occupy over half the usable site, a full cross docking facility may take less than a quarter. In addition without the need for volume storage, such buildings do not need to be very high, with an operational internal height of 6m usually more than adequate.
The growth of rail freight in the UK has been the fastest in Europe with traffic up by more than 60% in the past decade. With increasing congestion on the roads and in UK ports, more companies will certainly be looking seriously at the advantages of using rail freight, including greatly improved reliability, in many cases competitive costs and its contribution to a safer and cleaner environment.
As a result rail-connected warehouses that enable goods in bulk to be brought directly into the warehouse for safe and protected loading under cover, will be more in demand. The location of such warehouses will depend on being able to access a suitable railtrack, ideally linked directly to the port where goods arrive. This could provide a valuable impetus to move distribution centres away from the crowded south east and the motorway hubs, and help to revitalize some regions in the North.
For example Associated British Port’s Grimsby and Immingham ports have invested nearly £90m in projects including the new Immingham Outer Harbour to handle additional ro-ro traffic and dry bulk. Across the region The Mersey Dock and Harbour Company recently applied for approval to build a new £80m post-panamax container terminal which would double the port’s container capacity.
Driven by increasingly demanding EU requirements, the warehouse of the future will certainly be more energy-efficient, with sophisticated systems such as BEMS, rain water storage and recycling and high insulation roof and wall panels.
Over the past three years, changes in legislation covering the storage of hazardous materials have brought many more companies into the net, as well as imposing stricter disciplines. In 2006 the UK extended the scope of COMAH (Control of Major Accident Hazards) regulations to cover companies storing far smaller quantities of such materials than before. Applied to products as diverse as perfumes, paints and fertilisers, the new regulations added new substances, as well as lowering the threshold where the regulations apply by up to 90% in some cases.
ATEX Directives from the EU, covering the risk of explosions in environments where dust or flammable vapours could be present, were introduced in 2003 for new installations, and have now come into force in 2006 to cover existing facilities.
One genuinely innovative approach to safety in chemical storage was successfully evaluated and tested recently by L’Oréal its new 12,022m² Nottingham Distribution centre with help from sbh.uk. It involved Proven Aqueous Film Forming Foam (AFFF) technology using a specially formulated alcohol-resistant foam to deal with products such as perfume and cosmetics.
As the foam has a lower specific gravity than either water or most flammable liquids, it floats on top, inhibiting fire spread and smothering it by cutting off the oxygen supply. Damage is largely restricted to the immediate area and the fire is prevented from reaching other parts of the warehouse.
Energy conservation innovations
There are a number of technologies that while not new, could potentially make the warehouse of tomorrow far more environmentally responsible, as well as reducing energy consumption:
Combined Heat and Power: widely used for Housing, it has recently been selected to heat the London Olympic Park and is powering Waitrose’s recently opened Rickmansworth store, showing that it has a strong case to offer to industry and distribution. The store is being heated by materials from two local tomato farms, a fine example of resourceful thinking.
Solar Energy: should global warming lead, as it appears, to warmer, sunnier summers, this may well provide lower cost heating and power for distribution centres, alongside conventional systems.
Ground heat pumps; a more recent technology that uses a buried loop to provide heat from the ground. This technology is more suited to warehousing than to many other sectors, as it requires a large area of ground to deliver maximum potential, which most warehouses and parking areas have in abundance.
Paying less for energy is one approach to savings, while making better use of the energy supplied can generate even bigger savings. Constructing a warehouse with more rooflights provides additional free daylight, reducing the demand for electric lighting. Established technologies such as daylight dimming or motion detectors ensure that lights only operate when needed, which in many cases is only a fraction of the time they would normally be on.
At a more advanced level, Building Management Systems can monitor and control all energy-consuming functions and make considerable savings in the long term. As an example, the warehouse heating system installed in L’Oréal’s new Trafford Park Distribution Centre (an sbh.uk project) provides ventilation – in effect, free cooling – all managed by a Building Energy Management System. A PC provides a single access point for control and monitoring, with data displayed on the screen, helping to save energy costs and maintenance with the minimum management time. Inside the offices intelligent control sensors make sure lights only go on when activated by people moving in the area and when there is not enough natural light, further reducing energy consumption and costs.
The Building Structure
Recent developments in building materials are making great strides in improving insulation levels, cutting significantly the amount of heat lost through the roof, walls and even the floor. The latest materials are able to achieve thermal conductivity levels as low as 0.021 W/mK and also Class 0 / Low Risk fire rating to the Building Regulations.
While still a controversial issue, there is little doubt that for whatever reason the UK will be increasingly prone to high winds, more intense rainfall and in many places, a more frequent risk of flooding – all of which may force architects to reconsider some design elements of the modern warehouse.
The typical warehouse is still designed with sloping roofs to cater for heavy snowfalls, with roof tie construction techniques that may be vulnerable to high winds, and with guttering and drainage systems unable to cope with sudden, very heavy downpours. With increased pressure on commercial and industrial land, the temptation to develop on areas prone to flooding will grow, so the likelihood of finding warehouse stock under water will increase still further.
Steps such as improved water capture and drainage systems will help rainfall to drain into the main watercourse without backing up and causing flooding. Balancing ponds have limited capacity and systems will need larger bore outlets than before to enable water to flow through the system and into the watercourse without flooding.
The trend towards ever-larger warehouses, now nudging a million square feet, could generate further problems. Huge volumes of rain join run-off from hard standing surfaces large enough to provide record levels of parking for HGVs and cars. Surface water drainage systems installed decades before will have little chance of coping, resulting in both vehicle parks and the warehouse itself going under water.
Prudent planners and architects are increasingly able to avert the danger of flooding by developing Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems. The concept looks at the long-term environmental and social factors as they affect drainage, and using a variety of systems to protect the building’s integrity designed to:
• Deal with run-off close to where the rain falls
• Manage runoff flow rates to reduce the impact of construction
• Manage potential pollution at its source
• Encourage natural groundwater recharge
While no single step will transform the way in which warehouse structures perform their allotted task, developers and occupiers have a wider than ever range of technologies and developments, that properly harnessed, could lead to significant improvements in productivity and cost in the years to come.”