As design director for a leading car wash architecture firm, I am frequently asked “What are the latest trends in car wash design?”. While car wash trends are constantly evolving, below are some of the trends I have observed in the space today.

Wood-Like Materials    

One major trend that we’re seeing in commercial architecture which has carried over into car wash design is the use of cladding materials that mimic the natural look and warmth of wood but are durable enough to be suitable for commercial use. These materials come in many different compositions such as aluminum coated to look like wood, porcelain tile, and other composite materials.

Adding a wood look substance into your material palette will create a warm and inviting look that is very current. Talk to your car wash architect about the durability of the material they have selected. Metals will generally come with a 20-year finish warranty. The warranty of tile will depend on the manufacturer, but porcelain tile will outlast the amount of time it stays in style if installed correctly. The warranty for composite materials will range from 15 to 50 years depending on the product selected.

The natural look and warmth of wood help soften a car wash’s appearance.

Mixed Metals

Mixed metals have become very popular over the last few years. Previously architects would match the metal copings, canopies, window frames, exterior light fixtures, site light poles, and any other metal components to each other. If one was black, they all had to be black. Now we’re seeing a little more freedom and playfulness with material selections, allowing designers to make independent selections for each metal item.

For example, we frequently see buildings with dark bronze trim but clear anodized storefronts and light fixtures. When mindfully executed, this technique can add variety and interest to the material palette or differentiate various building masses from one another.

Natural Light    

A huge trend in car wash design is daylight in tunnels, although I would dare to say daylighting is less of a trend and is more of a permanent change in programming. We know many operators want a light show, but the two are

A modern car wash tunnel should have plenty of natural light.

not mutually exclusive. When the customer’s windows are completely coated in soap, the LEDs are meant to light up the windshield when viewed from inside the car, and they will do so whether the tunnel is blacked out or not.

Spaces with no daylight are deeply disturbing to the human psyche. Have you ever been in a cave when the tour guide turns off the lights, and everyone gasps and clutches their neighbor? From a deep evolutionary standpoint, it is scary and uncomfortable for human beings to be in dark spaces without any daylight or a perceived immediate escape route.

Our brains have evolved to tell us this could be a life-threatening situation, triggering fear and claustrophobia. Simply adding tunnel windows to the design of your new construction or remodeled car wash will put your customers at ease.

Our entire day we are over stimulated. We are bombarded with constant notifications, crowds, traffic congestion, strangers having loud conversations on speakerphone (not to give away my pet peeves), horns honking, people shouting, heavy equipment beeping, just to name a few.

The car wash tunnel can be the same overstimulating experience for customers when you consider the noise of the blowers, the brushes against the car, the stress of aligning with the conveyor, folding in your mirrors, turning off the automatic wipers, etc. If you have a blacked-out tunnel, it can be triggering for people who are subject to overstimulation or claustrophobia.

Give people a peaceful ride through the tunnel without overloading them. Let them sit there for those few moments of their day doing nothing but relaxing in a comfortable daylit environment without the force-fed sensory onslaught of a blacked-out tunnel with colored LED lights flashing like a rave.

Research shows that spaces with daylight are generally perceived as “better” than dim gloomy ones. An example of this is the way the corner office is considered a status symbol. Two windows are better than one. The penthouse is a status symbol, it is on the top level and presumably has the best view. No one wants to walk down a dark alleyway, it’s perceived to be unsafe.

If all the owner or operator has to do is clean glass in order to give the customer a “better,” “safer” experience it seems like a clear choice to me, pardon the glass pun.

Rising Construction Costs         

Next, we must address the rising cost of construction, building materials, land, equipment, chemicals, and everything else we consume. In the recent past, you could wash 6,000 cars per month and expect to be profitable now it’s closer to 12,000 and rising.

To address these rising costs, sites are getting smaller, and buildings are shrinking and being simplified. This is often referred to as value engineering, which is a misnomer since there is no value added, and there is no engineering involved in the process.

With sites becoming more compact, hiring an architectural or engineering professional with experience laying out car wash sites is imperative. You want to squeeze the most out of your land while ensuring optimal traffic flow and correct sizing of all functions.

You will want a local civil engineer on your team as early as possible to assist with grading and drainage, determine stormwater retention, research allowable access points to the site and cross-access easements, and research other easements and setback requirements. As we all know, time is money. When hiring a civil engineer and an architect, ask them about their team size, schedule, and capacity to take on your project. Make sure you understand the entitlements process necessitated by the authority having jurisdiction.

As an architect, you may think I would be opposed to the simplification of buildings. Surprisingly, I am not at all. Simplification makes for quick, easy construction, and it makes financial sense.

Gone are the days of excessive ornamentation. We no longer see new buildings with elaborate crown moldings, raking cornices, brackets, or sculpted triangular pediments, especially in car washing. This simplification does, however, mean that quality building design becomes more important. Otherwise, what you’re left with is an uninviting box.

Work with an Expert

How do you produce a quality design that’s simple? Well, the answer is also simple. Hire a design professional who understands design principles and can execute them flawlessly: proportion, visual hierarchy, scale, repetition, contrast, unity, balance, variety, and more.

It takes skill to execute, but if the principles of design are followed, simple buildings will be attractive. Material selection and placement become paramount. Quality construction details executed by a general contractor with car wash experience will make a simply designed building look high-quality. Conversely, poorly executed construction will make a simple building look cheap and low-quality, which is not the image we want to project to our customers.

To keep your construction costs in check, hire an architect who is experienced in car wash design. A car wash professional understands the many nuances and idiosyncrasies inherent in the process and the coordination necessary between disciplines.

Car wash slabs aren’t flat, the walls aren’t wood framed, and there is lots of plumbing and electrical coordination. The floor needs to drain, and the chemicals are corrosive. A professional architect with car wash experience can handle all these things. Don’t be the guinea pig for a design professional new to the industry. The mistakes can be costly. Like it or not, rising costs seem to be here to stay for the foreseeable future.

In closing, car wash design is a niche. Hire an architect specializing in car wash design and build a knowledgeable, experienced project team who can ensure your success from the project’s inception. 

Jamie Kosich is the principal and lead designer at APDG, a full-service commercial architecture and interior design firm specializing in car wash projects. The Texas-based company can be reached at (972) 724-4440 and on the web at