Savannah Car Wash has been serving the city of Savannah, Georgia, for nearly two decades and is considered the city’s most popular and successful car wash operation. First opened in the mid-1990s, the primary goal of Savannah Car Wash has always been to provide the customer with an outstanding car wash experience. A million-plus clean cars later, that simple business philosophy remains the same.
When owner Michael Wakely decided to expand his business by opening a new location, he selected the nearby city of Pooler, located just northwest of Savannah. A great area for building a new car wash, this is the fastest growing suburb in the Savannah area with well-planned commercial and residential developments a
excellent up-scale demographics. With its outstanding location along Interstate 95 and close proximity to the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport, Pooler has become very successful in attracting large companies and manufacturers, and is now the center for commercial development in the region.
Wakely found common ground in our design philosophy: creating car wash designs that are highly functional with great traffic flow, but still possess outstanding street appeal to get the customers in the door, and doing it all without breaking the bank. A description of the design process we undertook for his new wash is explained in the sections that follow.
The property selected by the owner for the project was a large 2.12-acre site located along a major divided four-lane road in the northern part of Pooler, its new commercial retail district. Part of a new retail development, the site was directly on the road but could only be accessed through a service drive in the rear of the property.
As experienced car wash operators, Wakely and his general manager Jimmy Wilson had already established the best way to lay out the site by the time we were contracted to start designing the site and building. Their business concept also included developing a separate large three-lane double-bay oil change building next to the car wash in the future, which had to be incorporated smoothly into the overall design without affecting traffic flow.
One of the biggest challenges at this particular site was the very large landscape setback requirements, the worst being the 50-foot setback on the side facing the four-lane road. Combined with 15-foot setbacks on the sides, this requirement reduced the size of buildable area considerably, affecting the conveyor length and the size of the after-care area in the front. Taking their initial layout, we designed the building and the site simultaneously, refining and enhancing their ideas and, in the final design, were able to provide a highly functional layout with great stacking, superior traffic flow, and excellent ingress/egress to the site.
Wanting something fresh and appealing, yet incorporating major design elements of the original car wash location to help establish brand recognition, the car wash that the owner envisioned was a super-sized, full-service type with unparalleled luxury and service never seen before in the Savannah area. Wanting to raise the bar way above any existing or future competition, he wanted to build a very long tunnel filled to the brim with equipment, multiple drive-thru indoor detailing bays, a large retail area, and a very spacious, over-the-top, luxurious customer lounge featuring lots of windows to view all of the acti
We started our design process by identifying the major design elements of their original location. There were only two identifiable features that stood out on this modern style building that would establish brand recognition: First, a unique large metal gable roof with glass clearstory over the wash tunnel — the building’s primary design feature — with all remaining areas of the roof flat and bordered by a level, raised parapet. Second, all of the walls utilized split-face block. Both of these design elements would be utilized at the new site to establish brand recognition.
As a highly experienced building contractor, the owner had come up with a basic layout sketch of exactly how he wanted to lay out the interior. The only design challenge was how to incorporate all of these rooms he wanted (and to size them correctly) in a building with size limitations due to the large setback requirements and the space required for the future oil change adjacent to it. We also had to find innovative ways to break-up the boxy “L” shape of the building required to fit all of these rooms in order to add interest and road appeal to the exterior design.
Our design solution was to once again utilize a large metal gable roof with glass clearstory as the primary design feature, but to place it over the customer lobby instead of the wash tunnel, and to extend it out front as a large covered porch with two massive columns. This change allowed the roof feature to be much larger in size than before and more striking in appearance from the street, as well as to provide the customer lobby with a very high cathedral ceiling. The ceiling peaks at an impressive 28 feet at the center. Combined with the already large size of the lobby (48’ 8” x 32’ 4”), and numerous over-sized windows on three sides offering unobstructed views of the wash tunnel, detailing bays, and covered patio and after-care area, this provides customers with a dramatic, very spacious experience every time they visit.
To add interest and height to the rear side of the building (facing the tunnel entrance and stacking lanes), a smaller version of the metal gable roof was placed over the wash tunnel entrance. The remaining roof area is flat with a single-level parapet wall surrounding it. The long flat walls of the boxy structure were broken up by alternating areas of split-faced block with stucco-finished walls recessed in 8 inches. By painting these areas contrasting colors, they were further delineated.
The interior of the building is setup similar to many other full-service car washes, only at a much larger scale and considerably more spacious. Rooms created for wash operations, detailing, and employee areas are also much larger and more functional than typical full-service car washes. The wash tunnel is a very roomy 22 feet wide and 118 feet long inside. The equipment room measures 14 feet by a tad over feet, giving plenty of room to accommodate the wash support equipment and allow expansion in the future. The three-lane detailing bays are over-sized as well, at some 50 feet wide by 60 feet long, and include an adjacent large vacuum room, storage room, and additional employee restroom. Employee areas include a large towel cleaning room, break room, and two restrooms.
That concludes the description of the site and building, along with the design process we used to achieve it.
To better understand the project and the concepts behind it, we posed a number of questions to Savannah Car Wash’s owner, Michael Wakely, about his design requirements, management ideas, and equipment selection:
Q: What is your background?
A: I was a regional manager covering the East Coast for Jiffy Lube International. In 1994, I bought an existing Jiffy Lube location and built it up to a seven-store chain, which I later sold to a large franchise. I bought my first car wash location in late 2004 after years of co-development with a competitor wash. Savannah Car Wash was the biggest wash in town, so when it came up for sale, I quickly concluded that a car wash business had much greater financial return opportunity than oil changes do in the long term. The original manager and assistant manager at my first wash, Jimmy Wilson and Pedro Cardenas, are today my two general managers, so our management turnover is pretty low. Since selling my Jiffy Lubes, I have started my car wash expansion plans by opening this new center in Pooler. I also plan to build two more full-service car washes in the future, for a total of four in the Savannah market.
Q: What’s your business philosophy?
A: I believe that excellent customer service is the cornerstone for any long-term business survival. At Savannah Car Wash, our managers provide positive customer interaction to ensure each customer’s experience is a memorable one. For our customer’s comfort, we invest heavily in the appearance of our lobby with large flat screen TVs, free wireless access, refreshments, modern furniture, and an up-scale ambiance. We focus heavily on good financial stewardship in our business, treating each part of the business as separate profit centers. The detail center, the car wash, and the lobby are all tracked separately for labor costs, product costs, and individual expenses. Over 50 percent of each manager’s compensation is based directly on the overall profit of the center he is responsible for. By doing this, we end up with our managers having an “owner’s mentality” to watch controllables as closely as I do.
Q: Why is your car wash so big?
A: Bigger is better! Every convention or meeting we went to as we prepared to build we heard, “We can do that with half the tunnel length,” or “Have you seen our 60-foot tunnel?” Everyone tried to talk us into a smaller tunnel. We have a lot of competition in our local market, so we needed to make a big impact and really stand out to attract new customers. And I think we did it — a two-acre property, 10,700-plus-square-foot building, nine-vehicle interior detail area, 12-space after-care area under canopy, and a long 145-foot tunnel.
Q: Why is your detailing center so large?
A: We have tripled our detail sales over the last six years and see plenty of opportunity in the detailing business for the future. We moved our detail bays next to the lobby so that our customers can watch what goes on in the detail bays, which has led to more understanding of the detail services that we offer. We jazzed it up with a big 7-foot “big-ass fan,” Italian-tile floors, central vacuum system, exposed roof beams, and Extrutech-covered walls. Detail customers are treated specially by having a different exit from the lobby and exiting the property through a different driveway. The customers love it and our detail business has exceeded our expectations and continues to grow every day.
Q: Why is the tunnel so long?
A: It’s all about the show. In a highly competitive market with limited disposable income, we know our customers want to see value for their hard-earned money. We added numerous “viewing areas” in the tunnel where the customers can see their car completely covered in presoak chemicals, the tri-color polish, and water-repellant sealant. We use the same amount of chemicals but allow it to remain on the vehicle’s surface longer so customers see the value they are getting. The customers enjoy it and feel that we are very serious about getting their car clean.
Q: Why did you build your own facility?
A: I’m a licensed contractor and I have an experienced crew that has built a lot of Jiffy Lubes, several funeral homes, large office buildings, and several historic remodel projects over the last seven years. We are an old-fashioned style construction company that actually employs tradesmen and do most of the work ourselves. By building this wash, we feel like we got a better quality building at a slightly cheaper price. And a good thing is, if we have any problems down the road, we know what is behind the drywall.
The new Pooler location of Savannah Car Wash opened in early May of this year. The general reaction from customers has been, “Wow, this is really cool!” They love it because of the large, open, very spacious feel of the interior and the high ceilings, along with the ability to easily observe all of the action in the detailing department as employees work on their vehicles, and to watch their car progressing through the tunnel at all stages of the washing process. Michael Wakely adds that at least three times a day employees hear, “This is the nicest car wash I have ever been in.” I think that statement alone says it all.
Christopher Crawford and John Diehl are with Car-Wash-Architect.com. They will be writing additional articles in upcoming issues concerning designing and constructing new car washes, as well as renovating existing ones. You can visit their website for more information, or call them at (561) 212-3364.
NAME: Savannah Car Wash
LOCATION: 420 Pooler Parkway, Pooler, GA
WASH TYPE: Full-Service
CONVEYOR LENGTH: 145 feet (featuring a custom designed self-cleaning trench)
SITE AREA: 2.12 acres (92,347 square feet)
BUILDING AREA: 10,719 square feet
OWNER: Wakely Properties, LLC – Mr. Michael Wakely
ARCHITECT: Car-Wash-Architect.com – John Diehl and Chris Crawford
CONTRACTOR: MKW Construction, LLC. – Mr. Michael Wakely
WASH EQUIPMENT: Sonny’s The Car Wash Factory, Tamarac, FL
VACUUM SYSTEMS: Vacutech Vacuum Technologies, Sheridan, WY
WATER RECLAIM: SoBrite Technologies, Eureka, IL
POINT OF SALE: Integrated Services Inc. (ISI), Portland, OR
CAR WASH CHEMICALS: Zep Vehicle Care, Eagan, MN