The look of new age parking garages

Hotel parking lots and garages are typically constructed using standard designs intended to maximize car counts. Lately, it has become quite apparent that architects need to re-imagine how parking garages are built as consumer buying choices and environmental concerns shift. This provides hotel owners and operators with new opportunities and challenges.

Two opposing forces in parking garage design appear to have taken hold. On one hand, cars are getting smaller as people search for fuel efficiency, hybrids, and electric cars.  On the other, the percentage of people who are driving large SUVs is growing. According to the Washington Post, SUVs lead U.S. auto sales in 2010.

These changes require a shift in the way hotel parking garages are constructed. With the advent and ever-increasing popularity of “green” and sustainability ideas and use of electric cars, new infrastructure is possible and potentially revenue generating. Hotel developers are tasked with the challenge of incorporating electricity charging stations and solar panels as well as reimaging the size of parking spaces.

Furthermore, LEED-certification is another goal developers are striving for as the public becomes more environmentally conscious. On the other hand, the steady rise in the number of pick-up trucks, SUVs, and light utility vehicles on the road means that garage designs with obstructing columns, low ceilings and entrances, and hairpin turns are problematic and no longer viable. Big car owners look for big garages and parking structures that meet their needs to accommodate their premium demands.

Creating a space of their own

The good news is that smart design that fully incorporates these changing and opposing trends can result in more efficient and profitable garage ownership. So how can a hotel owner ensure that there are small spaces for compact electric cars as well as enough spaces for the larger full-sized SUVs?

One way to accommodate these opposing trends is to designate different areas or levels of the garage for differing sized vehicles. For instance, levels 1 and 2 can be reserved for SUVs, trucks, and large cars.  These floors can have higher head clearances and larger parking spaces.  The turns can be wider so that it is easy to navigate. Level 3 can then be dedicated to smaller and electric cars. The ceilings can be lower and the spaces correspondingly smaller. Not only will this allow the architect to use the space efficiently, but it also provides a level of comfort and maneuverability as larger cars won’t be trying to squeeze into tight spaces or occupying more than one space. This approach is no different than how valet parking is often segregated and operated.

Preparing for the electric car advantage

Studies show that 43% of Americans are considering purchasing an electric car. This presents both opportunities and challenges to architects facing the design of new parking garages. One of these opportunities is the ability to create smaller spaces, and therefore increase efficiency, due to electric cars being generally smaller than their gas-powered counterparts. Two other opportunities are perhaps most exciting to hotel operators because they may mean new revenue sources. 

Another opportunity that is often overlooked is to utilize the roof for solar panel installation. Typically the top deck of parking garages sits empty and is the last to be filled because people prefer to park under cover where both they and their cars are protected from the elements. It would potentially benefit parking garage owners to develop this area by providing cover and offset this additional cost by incorporating a solar panel installation. Not only is this an efficient use of the space, but also a business opportunity.

It has been reported that General Electric foresees the cost of solar falling below that of fossil fuels and nuclear energy within the next five years, thus making such a project both environmentally and financially responsible. In fact, GE has recently converted an entire parking lot into a solar-powered carport for electric, zero-emissions vehicles. This is a win-win situation for the environment as inexpensive, clean energy is being provided to zero-emissions cars. Parking garage owners can do likewise. Once the solar panels are installed, they can begin to take ongoing advantage of the energy they provide by reselling the electricity.

With an increase in electric cars comes the need for electric charging stations. These stations are becoming more popular and can be found in parking garages and lots across the country. In 2010, New York City began an installation schedule of more than 100 charging stations to be placed strategically throughout the city and many of these programs are funded by the Department of Energy. In most cases, little new infrastructure will be needed as the stations can leverage the existing electrical grid. They can be installed in front of the parking spot and take up minimal amount of space. Furthermore, these spots can be priced at a premium for those that need to charge their vehicles. This is another source of income for parking garage owners all while promoting a green, environmentally friendly cause.

It is evident that the way parking garages are designed and utilized is changing. With knowledge and intuition, beautiful, environmentally-friendly, and economically stimulating parking garage projects will become more commonplace.

Contributed by Stanley Tang, AIA, principal at BLT Architects, an integrated architectural and interior design firm, Philadelphia