In this article, one of six in ARCHITECT's 2021 "What's Next" series on post-vaccine architecture, contributor Gideon Fink Shapiro speaks with Michael Murphey, AIA, principal at Lakeland, Fla.–based The Lunz Group on recent trends in the design of distribution and logistics centers. Murphey, who has seen changes over his 40 years in the profession, also discusses the impact of the pandemic and the booming e-commerce market on industrial architecture. Maggie Briggs, The Lunz Group director of marketing, joins him in this conversation.

How has the design of distribution centers evolved over the past decade or so?
Murphey: It’s changed in so many ways. Ten years ago, a distribution center was basically a warehouse. The old model was based on wholesale commerce—basically “pallets in” and “pallets out.” Only a small percentage of items were packaged for individual distribution. Today, because of e-commerce, everything has shifted from pallets to pieces. Facilities and equipment are designed to handle a single piece or item, and distribution centers have to efficiently process much greater volumes of throughput.

What is throughput?
Murphey: Throughput is everything that passes through the system. We're talking about the flow of incoming goods, internal transfers, packaging operations, outgoing goods, and then how you handle returns. That's the whole test. The challenge is in how you handle those steps.

courtesy The Lunz Group

How does your design strategy accommodate higher throughputs?
Murphey: Automation is a big deal, meaning information technology and robotic technology. Lift trucks—the automatically guided vehicles that some people call forklifts, but they're taller and more sophisticated these days—have affected building heights, sizes, and aisle widths. You have to design floors called superflat slabs specifically for that equipment. A superflat slab has lower tolerances than a conventional concrete slab. When you're picking items off shelves 40 feet in the air, there’s no tolerance for any slope or inconsistencies in your floor slab.

O'Reilly Auto Parts distribution center, Lakeland, Fla.
courtesy The Lunz Group O'Reilly Auto Parts distribution center, Lakeland, Fla.

Do you think the pandemic will have any lasting effects on the architecture of distribution centers?
Murphey: The pandemic has accelerated improvements in efficiency because of the explosion in e-commerce. Facilities have had to up their game just to handle the sheer volume, and when owners invest in automation technologies, they can add value within the supply chain. But automation is capital-intensive. Investing in robotic technologies is a big decision for a company. The question becomes, “What best practices are going to survive in the post-vaccine era?”

When you design a distribution facility, how do you think about user experience?
Murphey: The first group is the client or facility owner; obviously we have great allegiance to them, seeing as our business model is they hire us, we make them happy, they hire us again. The other group is the occupants, or the employees. Historically, the objectives of those two groups don't perfectly align, but they’re closer than you might think with regard to the design of the work environment. Employees are the greatest asset of most companies. Design features that enhance the quality of the employee experience and well-being also enhance employee performance and productivity.

Farm Credit Office lunch room, designed by The Lunz Group, in Lakeland, Fla.
Wildstock/Munguia Farm Credit Office lunch room, designed by The Lunz Group, in Lakeland, Fla.

Are you designing for cold or temperature-controlled storage?
Briggs: Yes, and cold storage is a challenging problem to solve in Florida. To maintain a consistent, temperature-controlled environment—usually just above freezing—we look at insulation methods, ceiling heights, entry and exit points, floor design, and other design aspects. We have to be mindful of condensation and specifically of protecting the foundation from freezing. For example, the COVID-19 vaccines require elevated levels of cold storage. We are positioning our clients to be able to offer additional storage opportunities along the route from laboratory to patient. And the demand for cold storage goes beyond the vaccines.

How does security factor into the design of a distribution center?
Murphey: Speaking only of the architecture, not information technology to guard against data breaches, there are three types of physical barriers. First is the perimeter of the site, which historically is enclosed by fencing and gates. We’ve also had some success integrating stormwater retention ponds and earth berms that can stop vehicular access.

The second barrier is the building envelope itself. Obviously, it’s lockable, but before the pandemic, any delivery person, vendor, or maybe even a salesperson could walk right into the front door. Those days are over. We're stopping visitors at the door and controlling access electronically. And that level of security might stay in place after the pandemic.

The third level is internal barriers that restrict movement between various areas of a facility. The virus is driving that.

Example distribution and logistics floor plans
courtesy The Lunz Group Example distribution and logistics floor plans
Example distribution center floor plan
courtesy The Lunz Group Example distribution center floor plan

What's the next big idea in logistics planning and design?
Murphey: The supply chain is already efficient with the exception of the last-mile logistics, or the final leg of delivery to the end user. It is impacted by traffic and is extremely labor-intensive. And we consumers are becoming more demanding, expecting shorter and shorter delivery times. So whether the solution involves driverless trucks, drones, or a combination, the next big transformation in the supply chain may be the automation of that last-mile logistics.

Is increasing automation inevitable?
Murphey: On one hand, you've got firms that are on the verge of saying their return on investment allows for huge investments in robotics and automation. On the other hand, there’s a question of how much of this is being driven by the virus—reducing the number of human touches, reducing employee density on the floor. Social distancing and wiping surfaces are affecting the day-to-day operations in these facilities. So there’s a short-term goal to combat the virus, but what happens after the vaccine? A year from now, will the investment in robotics seem like a good decision, or will operators say, “Why in the heck did we do this?”

We're helping our clients deal with this uncertainty by developing some cost-effective design elements that don’t represent large commitments to automation, but that improve safety and efficiency in other ways. They’re low-hanging fruit.

A year from now, will the investment in robotics seem like a good decision, or will operators say, 'Why in the heck did we do this?'

What are examples of low-hanging fruit?
Murphey: We help our clients reduce the risk of spreading COVID by adding more partitions in the office areas and allowing warehouse employees to spread out more. We're looking at wider halls and larger break rooms. Meanwhile, employers are staggering break periods and lunch to reduce the number of people using the space at one time. We also create dispersed entry points, so that not every employee has to enter through one door. There’s more electronic access control to regulate movement between different areas of a building. In other words, there’s not as much commingling of employees in the office area, warehouse, or production area. We’re selecting hygienic surfaces and adding wash stations and automatic interior doors. Just common-sense stuff that keeps people from spreading germs.

Distribution center
courtesy The Lunz Group Distribution center

What about air quality?
Murphey: In general, the systems are being designed to achieve more air changes per hour. Before the pandemic, some of our clients would resist increasing the ventilation rate because they knew it often equates to higher energy consumption and costs. Now, they seem more receptive to greater ventilation rates. Some cases have more sophisticated filtration. Everybody seems more receptive to those kinds of design measures. It's not controversial.

Are you shifting any business models or anticipating a building boom post-vaccine?
Briggs: Yes, post-vaccine, I think we are going to see a large boom. I don't think that the digital e-commerce trend is going to go away. We're positioned along the booming Interstate 4 corridor between Tampa and Orlando, and there are a ton of logistics clients vying to develop warehouse space in this area. We’re expecting further growth in this sector.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.