From frozen fish to robots: Warehouse projects race to meet varied needs
For a few months, the new North Atlantic Fish Co. (NAFCO) warehouse in Jessup will hold a national record.
The 70,000-square-foot facility is designed to store 15 million pounds of seafood which NAFCO distributes to more than 3,100 stores in the region.
To maximize storage capacity in an expensive facility, NAFCO opted to install a power racking system. Similar to old-style, moveable file cabinets in doctors’ offices, the system sets rows of industrial shelving on tracks and those rows snug up against each other. With the push of a button, the system can move selected rows apart to create an aisle and enable forklifts to retrieve or deliver product. It’s a relatively uncommon technology in North America. It’s costly and requires contractors to complete a complex installation, including setting the system’s tracks in the building’s concrete slab.
“But a mobile racking system that accordions like that magnifies the amount of product you can store in your space,” said Drew Enstice, Director of Business Development for ARCO Design/Build Industrial, the prime contractor on the NAFCO center. “It will be the biggest system in the country for about five months” until ARCO completes a larger installation in Alabama.
The warehouse construction market is very busy and generating a variety of challenges for project teams beyond the overarching task of keeping up with clients’ needs.
SPEED TO MARKET
High demand for warehouse and even light industrial space is spurring developers to launch projects on spec. Meanwhile, pressing needs by distributors and producers to occupy new space has put those projects on “super-fast schedules,” Enstice said. Distribution centers, as large as 1.4 million square feet, are now regularly constructed within 10 months. On some projects, ARCO has erected a 1 million-square-foot building (not including site work) in four to six months.
Those kinds of schedules push project teams to overcome weather delays and complete many tasks, including excavation and concrete installation, in the middle of winter. That, in turn, has increased the use of cold-weather concrete practices and increased the need for precast concrete suppliers.
Subcontractors need to be able to deploy large crews within tight windows and organize their work to maximize efficiency.
“When we do large concrete pours for slabs, we may do 40,000 or 50,000 square feet in a night and we do them at night to avoid traffic problems with the concrete trucks,” said Michael Hozella, President of the QEI Construction Group, one of the divisions along with J. Vinton Schafer & Sons within Quandel Construction. QEI, he added, just posted its biggest year for warehouse construction, completing about 2.5 million square feet worth over $50 million. QEI’s current backlog of warehouse work almost matches that amount.
“The schedules are very intense and the subcontractors must have the horsepower to perform,” Hozella said. The upside is “the warehouses are so big that the subs, in turn, can start at one end of the building and race each other out of the building.”
NEW PRODUCTS, HIGHER TECH
The dramatic increase in e-commerce is not only fueling the need for distribution centers but driving the adoption of new building products and high-tech systems.
Robotics are becoming commonplace in large e-commerce centers. While some robots simply roll along the floor and require few special conditions, some advanced Automatic Storage and Retrieval Systems (ASRS) place robots on tracks above the storage racks. From there, they can pull up items from the racks below and assemble orders. Those systems require extremely level floors and, in some cases, require extra structural steel to hold ASRS tracks that hang from the ceiling.
Some large warehouses must accommodate a variety of materials-handling needs. The growth of meal kit delivery services has expanded the need for both cold-storage facilities and small cool- or cold-storage areas within larger distribution centers. Other specialized requirements within warehouses include hazardous materials rooms, aerosol cages to prevent widespread damage from aerosol cans in the case of a warehouse fire, buildings that meet Food and Drug Administration regulations for pharmaceutical companies, and additional security facilities/systems to safeguard high-value products.
Occasionally, warehouse developments turn into light-manufacturing facilities, requiring further upgrades. In Pennsylvania, QEI began working on a two-building spec project when a prospective tenant proposed turning it into a beverage manufacturing facility and distribution center. That change has required QEI to outfit one building with water supply capable of delivering one million gallons per day, a separate electrical substation, a small waste treatment plant, four railway spurs to tie into a local rail line, and a suspended, 450-foot-long tramway to move completed product from the manufacturing building to the distribution center.
The proliferation of e-commerce facilities, the high need for distribution center staff and general trends in the workplace are also prompting owners to include more varied spaces and additional amenities within warehouses.
“We’re seeing more mothers’ rooms and prayer rooms within new warehouse environments,” Enstice said.
Tenants request nicer, larger breakrooms with extensive and varied seating, big-screen televisions and high-end vending machines. Office space in some projects is tailored to meet current preferences in work styles and facilities include more open, flexible space for training sessions, company meetings or collaborative work efforts.
With no slowdown in warehouse construction evident on the horizon, builders, developers and market analysts say the construction industry should be ready for further changes in clients’ needs. Those will likely include last-mile facilities within urban centers that could include multi- story operations or rooftop parking in order to fit maximum operations into a smaller, city site.