Located in southeast Texas along the Gulf Coast, Greater Houston is the fifth biggest metropolitan area in the United States and the county’s fastest growing region over the last decade. An economic powerhouse, it covers some nine counties and an impressive 10,062 square miles, slightly larger than the state of New Jersey. With a rapidly growing population, nearly 7 million at present, the number of vehicles in the metro-area is increasing at an even faster pace than the number of residents, making the building of truly outstanding car wash facilities with top-notch service a real necessity.
A highly competitive market, the Houston-metro area has more than 200 car washes currently in operation, with some five to eight new washes under development at any given time. To compete and survive in this challenging industry, car washes have to possess excellent, well-maintained facilities and deliver notably superior service in order to attract and retain customers.
One of the best small local chains in the area is Wetzone Car Wash. First established in 2004, this operation is the result of the entrepreneurial spirit of two college friends, Jorge Canto, originally from Panama and Gilberto Arcay, originally from Puerto Rico. They met while attending the University of Houston back in the early 90s, and became roommates and lifelong friends. The business started initially as a small four-bay, self-service car wash with an in-bay automatic. Their original concept from the start was simple: “Give the customers more than they expect, ensure all equipment works 100 percent of the time, and give customers plenty of high-quality soap and chemicals.”
That simple concept kept the business thriving and growing, even through difficult times. Following the recession in 2009, quite a few other local car washes were going out of business. The partners saw an opportunity to purchase a foreclosed full-service car wash that had been closed for over a year due to the tough market conditions. The neighborhood it was located in was not the best, with middle- to low-income demographics and a daily traffic count of only around 18,000 cars, but it had a lot of potential. They tore down the old full-service canopy and replaced it with a new vacuum canopy stretching the length of the property, added self-serve vacuums at the front of the property, and 2 pay station lanes. The tunnel had MacNeil equipment in it. Although it had been poorly maintained and not working for more than a year, they were able to quickly repair all of it, and it has been working well since, with very few problems. The only new equipment they installed was a tire-shiner and ProtoVest dryer to better serve their “express” customers.
Their original idea was to convert this old full-service car wash into an express wash. However, when the location was reopened for business, the demand for full service was still there. Jorge and Gilberto quickly adapted to the “flex” concept to meet the demand, gained a loyal following of customers, and found success. In 2013 they decided to acquire a second car wash, refurbishing and turning around another older existing facility with a two-bay oil lube that was down on its luck. This was a very basic car wash with very little equipment in the tunnel, all of it by Belanger. Demographics were considerably better in this location compared to their first wash, with a good mix of population density, income, and traffic count. The only downside was lots of competition. The owners updated and repaired the existing equipment, adding a water softener, a spot-free RO system, tire brush, tire-shiner, RainX arch, Bubblelizer machine, and ProtoVest Stripper dryer. Theyalso installed a larger more colorful street sign with a Daktronics full-color LCD display to increase the facility’s visibility since the wash was not easily visible from the street. Again, through these numerous changes, accompanied by good management and superior customer service, they turned the place around and found success.
As their popularity spread, they eventually became one of the highest customer-rated car wash companies in Houston. With that accomplished, they turned their sights on expanding once again, this time wanting to build a large new facility from the ground-up, incorporating everything that they had learned about the car washing business. Exactly where to locate it, however, was the question. The Houston metro area is vast in size, so they evaluated the basic criteria everyone in the business considers, such as income, population density, and traffic count. In addition, they were looking for an area that was underserved and with high growth potential. Proximity to a “retail destination” was also important, so they decided to look near grocery stores and other high-traffic businesses for available land. In the end they were able to purchase a great site on a busy road in the small but growing city of Spring, located in the north Houston metro area. Its potential for growth was great since Exxon-Mobil had started construction of a 385-acre campus to accommodate some 10,000 employees for their upstream and chemical companies back in 2011. Then nearing completion, this huge project had already brought explosive growth to the area, with high demand for housing and all the other services that come with rapid population growth. However the area was visibly underserved by car washes, especially full-service and flex types.
Looking at competitive reviews on Yelp and Google at that time, partners Jorge and Gilberto saw that customers were clearly disappointed with the available offerings and wanted something better, something the partners knew they could deliver. Jorge explains their original concept: “This new location is going to be the culmination of our 24 years of combined experience in the business. One thing we learned the hard way is that marketing and advertising is expensive, and it’s also hard work. In today’s competitive market it is not enough to over-deliver and provide great customer service, you have to have something that makes people want to come into your business over and over again. The concept for this location was to use the site as our main marketing tool. We wanted an iconic architectural design that would make people look and want to come in, and once inside, provide the amenities that would keep them coming back. We believe this new location will bring local residents the much needed high-quality car care service that they are searching for, and allow us to have the sustainable long-term growth that our business-model requires.”
In order to achieve the truly exciting eye-catching design they demanded for their new location, Jorge and Gilberto contacted us. A brief description of the final completed design and how we achieved it follows.
The final site selected was in a newly developed commercial center along the major east-to-west four-lane highway of the city at an important intersection with a traffic light. The site was surrounded by businesses along the highway on both sides and across the street with large residential developments directly behind it and to the north. The commercial center had a total of seven lots, with the owners selecting the one next to the corner lot, which had already been sold. A connecting service road was scheduled to be installed along the front parallel to the main road, connecting all of the lots together, with a total of four curb-cuts already part of the development plan.
The depth of all of the lots was set at 307 feet, but the width of the site they selected could be slightly adjusted to fit their requirements. After proposing several different layouts (mainly due to establishing the best location for the quick lube), the one finally selected set the width at 225 feet, the only limitations being the set location of the connecting service road (with parking) in the front and where to best locate a curb-cut out to the road. Building setbacks and landscape requirements were very minor, allowing the established 1.58-acre site to be maximized to its full potential.
The owners’ idea was to build a major car wash that could handle a very high volume of traffic, while using no more site area than necessary. This meant lots of stacking, a long conveyor, big customer waiting areas, and a very large number of free-vacuum/full-service spaces, all packed together into a tight space that didn’t hamper efficiency. Taking this into account, we utilized an extremely efficient straightforward layout. Locating the building exactly 5 feet off the property line on one side, we placed the stacking lane on the opposite side of the property and the three pay lanes along the rear property line. All free-vacuum and full-service/detailing parking was placed in the center, and employee parking out front along the road.
The final building size was dictated by installing the longest conveyor possible (without compromising safety or efficiency), combined with as large a customer, employee, and equipment area as the budget would allow. When all of the site design limitations were factored in, we were able to install a 140 foot conveyor and comfortably fit a total of 16 free-vacuum spaces, each 11 feet in width; 12 full-service/detail spaces, each 13 feet wide; 10 employee parking spaces; and two handicap spaces. There are also a dumpster enclosure, central vacuum unitenclosure, large pole sign, and a covered customer waiting patio directly in front of the lobby. In the original concept an adjoining three-bay quick lube with its own lobby and restroom was part of the design, but this was later deleted due to budgetary restraints (Note: the site layout was reconfigured to provide sufficient space for a three-bay quick lube to be added in the future as a separate standalone building).
BUILDING FLOOR PLAN
As stated above, the final building size was dictated by the length of the conveyor and limited in width by the numerous vacuum spaces in the center of the property. This resulted in the building footprint being basically rectangular in shape (after the quick lube was deleted). The interior wash tunnel dimensions ended up being 116 feet long by 20 feet in width, with 24 feet of the conveyor located outside under an extension of the metal roof. A sloped metal roof above allowed the tunnel an impressive maximum ceiling height of up to 23 feet with three large clearstory windows high above to provide an abundance of light.
Four huge windows also look out into the tunnel from the spacious customer lobby. This room is some 35 feet in length by 20 feet in width with a high, sloped ceiling. Another 30 foot long hallway offers views into the tunnel. Off of this hallway are two restrooms, a manager’s office, coffee service area, and a large storage room. To the side and behind these rooms are an employee break room, a restroom, and another storage room. To the rear of these spaces are a large towel cleaning room, central vacuum room, and a spacious equipment room.
With a well-thought-out floor layout fully established, the challenge now was to bring the design alive with an interesting, eye-catching exterior that would capture the attention of potential customers. The best way to accomplish this is through simple strong geometry and bright appealing colors. Needing to break up the rectangular box shape of the design, we accomplished this by utilizing interesting but simple rooflines combined with a huge iconic “W” shaped tower above the tunnel. By installing simple metal shed roofs with very economic steel zee-purlins, our designers were able to get high ceilings in nearly all of the rooms and utilize clearstory windows for abundant light. In front of the high tower over the tunnel exit, facing the street, we added a massive exposed shed roof supported by numerous large tubular steel columns with multiple steel crossbeams, all painted a bright color, and ending it at a sharp right-angle. This roof extends over the customer-waiting porch as well.
This highly interesting design feature combined with the high tower gave the building character and appeal that set it apart from all of the other very plain commercial buildings surrounding it. The lower exterior walls are composed entirely of split-face block painted two shades of dark grey, with the upper walls and tower covered in attractive Galvalume metal panels. The metal roof is painted an appealing shade of dark blue, and the metal columns, beams, windows frames, doors, and trim all painted a unique shade of orange. Combined, all of these unique geometric elements and bright contrasting paint colors make the building really pop, delivering exactly the kind of eye-candy the owners were looking for to get the customers in the door, and the elegance and ambiance to keep them there.
The new Spring location of Wetzone Car Wash just opened in mid-October of this year and has already proven to be a big hit with customers. As one of the largest and most extravagant car wash facilities ever built in the Houston area, the general reaction from locals has been extremely positive. New customers have commented that they simply love the wash’s unique and attractive design, along with the high quality of the equipment. They especially enjoy the large number of free-vacuum spaces and the great suction power of the vacuums, making cleaning the interior of their cars quicker and easier.
Another area of praise is Wetzone’s excellent full-service and detailing services, with 12 well-equipped stations and lots of highly trained personnel to work on vehicles simultaneously, cutting down on waiting time. These services were perhaps the best received since none of the competition in the surrounding area offers this. To sum it all up, on their opening day one of the very first customers said, “By far, this is the most impressive car wash I have ever seen in my life… You’ll be seeing me every week from now on.”
NAME: Wetzone Car Wash
LOCATION: 6511 F.M. 2920, Houston (Spring), TX
WASH TYPE: Flex
SITE AREA: 1.58 acres (69,220 square feet)
BUILDING AREA: 4,800 square feet
CONVEYOR LENGTH: 140 feet (with custom designed -cleaning trench)
VACUUMS SPACES: 16 free-vacuum spaces/12 full-service spaces
OWNER: Wet Zone LP
CONTRACTOR: Shine Wash Group LLC
WASH EQUIPMENT: MacNeil Wash Systems Limited
LOCAL REP/INSTALLER: Auto Clean Inc.
VACUUM SYSTEMS: AutoVac Industrial Vacuums
WATER RECLAIM: SoBrite Technologies
POINT OF SALE: DRB Systems
Christopher Crawford is with Car-Wash-Architect.com. He has written a number of articles for this magazine over the years concerning the design and construction of new car washes projects. You can visit his company’s website for more information about the services they offer, or call them at (561) 212-3364.