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Ten things to consider when designing a new shop – or planning a remodel or expansion

by John Yoswick

Anyone who has worked in a shop for even just a matter of months can probably quickly list a half dozen or more things that work really well in that shop in terms of its physical design and layout – and a equal number of things they’d change about it if given the opportunity.

Whether building a new shop from the ground-up, or preparing to expand or remodel an existing facility, here are 10 things to consider when mapping out your plans.

A canopy is one way to provide
customers an area to pick up and
drop off their vehicles under cover.

1. Think about the customer experience. As early in the process as possible, consider the entire design and layout from the perspective of how a customer will interact with it. Is the building situated on the site to maximize visibility and “curb appeal” from the street? Is it clear where a customer enters the property and where they are to park or leave their vehicle? Can they drop-off or pick-up their vehicle under cover or out of the elements? Is there adequate customer parking close to the office?

A customer waiting area doesn’t have
to be large – but should be clean,
comfortable and quiet.
The office and customer areas often seem to be an afterthought in many shops where production space is considered paramount. But in addition to staff office space, consider including a quiet area for customers to wait with adequate furniture and amenities like a water cooler, television, customer-only restrooms, children’s play area or work space for those wanting use of a phone, computer or Internet access.
2. Take noise into account. Some shop processes – like grinding – and some equipment  – like air compressors and dynamometers – are particularly noisy. Try to situate these processes in a way that isolates the noise from the office and rest of the shop. A compressor room, for example, should be placed at the rear or the building or if possible in an external space. Noise-deadening material should be included in the walls surrounding these types of noisy equipment.

 Body Shop Specifics

Get the size right. The trend several years ago toward 30,000 - and 40,000-square-foot “big box” collision repair shops appears to be giving way to construction of more mid-sized facilities. “We’ve done a lot of work on lean facilities in the last few years, and we have it down to probably 10,000 to 12,000 square feet,” said Judy Lynch, manager of collision repair design services for Sherwin-Williams Automotive Finishes. “Realistically you can do $2.5 million –  and if you’re a superstar, $3 million – a year out of them.” Lynch’s assessment is backed up by one of the large multi-state chains of shops that even years ago saw a 16,000-square-foot shop as its ideal; it has now scaled back to a 12,000-square-foot shop model.

Get the proportions right. “I have a very simple little formula that I use, which is ‘10-2-1,’” Akzo Nobel’s facility and layout manager Rick Farnan said. “It doesn’t matter what the size of the facility is, but for every 10 body stalls, there should be two paint prep stalls and one booth. If there are 10 body stalls, two preps and three booths, I know two of those booths are usually empty. If there are 20 body stalls, two preps and one booth, I know there’s a big back-up to get into the paint booth.”

Plan for your booth(s). Farnan said body shops doing a mix of large and small jobs should be able to get at least six cars per eight-hour day through even a 10-year-old booth – and seven or eight through newer booths. He suggests allotting 24 feet wide by 27 feet long for a booth in any new shop layout. “Because of the longer vehicles, such as big pick-up trucks, we recommend a standard of 27 feet long for the booth rather than the 24 feet it used to be,” Farnan said. “And try to stay away from swing doors on a booth. You want to go with bi-fold or tri-fold doors that take up less room.”

Leave room for parts. Shop layout consultants recommend an area equal to about 10 percent of a 15,000-square-foot collision repair center be dedicated for parts. (This percentage could drop for larger shops.)

Consider an in-line layout. Mike Day, manager for body shop business development and facility planning for Toyota Motor Sales USA, said Toyota’s version of a “fast lane” production concept calls for a layout that essentially allows the vehicle to flow through the shop without ever backing up. “So non-structural repairs can be done on one line: from body panel replacement to priming and painting all in one line and moving the car through to the end,” Day said.
3. Get adequate lighting, air supply and electrical sources. Technicians rarely complain that a shop has too much light. Consider the use of skylights and high-efficiency lighting that will reduce power consumption and in some cases (if replacing existing light sources) offer opportunity for tax credits that offset part of their cost (check with your utility or state energy department).
Electrical and air supply drops at each stall allow for maximum technician efficiency – and far fewer trip hazards or potential damage to cords and hoses stretched across the shop floor. In stalls where resistance spot welding will take place, 3-phase power is required. Just as 220-volt lines combine two 110-volt supplies together, 3-phase combines three such lines to provide a more constant power supply into the welder. Most modern spray booths also require 3-phase power.
For the office, dedicated electrical circuits for computer equipment will help protect computers and peripherals from spikes, sags and other power fluctuations. High-end surge protectors are still recommended, with an uninterruptible power supply (UPS) – which serves as a short-term battery back-up, allowing for safe shutdown in the case of a power outage – for key computer servers.
Keep in mind, too, that communication cables for phones or linking computer networks can be subject to electrical interference, so such cables should not be run parallel with electrical wiring or near lighting fixtures.
Choose a compressor and air drying system adequate for your current air supply needs – plus a little more as growth or unexpected needs arise. Discuss with suppliers how it should be set up to ensure that heavy use of air – by a paint booth, for example, doesn’t lead to inadequate air elsewhere in the system.
4. Get the bay size right. Although the natural inclination is to get as many working bays or stalls in a building as possible, those bays need to give technicians adequate space to safely and efficiently move themselves and tools, equipment and parts around the vehicle.
For bays with surface or above-ground lifts, a minimum bay size of 12 feet by 25 feet is generally sufficient, but for work on larger vehicles, a 13-foot width is ideal. In-ground lifts can generally be accommodated in bays that are 11 feet or wider.
“That allows you to open doors on each side of the vehicle, put a parts cart along side and tools at the end and still walk around the vehicle,” Rick Farnan, manager of facility layout and design for the Akzo Nobel automotive paint company, said.
If your market includes a lot of full-size pick-ups, you may want at least some larger bays, with a 14-foot width and 27-foot length.

Some equipment, like frame racks and dynamometers, generally require longer or wider bays, so get the specifications of the equipment you plan to install and choose locations for this equipment accordingly.

Six-foot high “false walls” provide
“hidden areas” where technicians
can place tools and parts to help
maintain the shop’s tidy
5. Consider appearances – even in the production area. An orderly look to the shop can impress customers, referral sources and potential employees. One idea: As shop owner David Bourgeois laid out a 10,000-square-foot addition to Queen City Auto Rebuild in Redmond, Wash., he created “hidden” areas around the perimeter of the new shop space, using 6-foot-high “false walls” that give each technicians an area for toolboxes and parts.

 …yet if painted to match the real
shop walls virtually “disapear” when
looking across the shop.
With the shorter walls painted to match the buildings interior walls, they virtually “disappear” when looking across the shop, but help give the larger space a more tidy, professional appearance.

6. Think green. A new shop or expansion offers a great opportunity to incorporate “green building practices” or equipment and systems that will help you tread easier on the environment – while saving money and providing a potential marketing opportunity.

Easy access to overhead door closure switches, for example, can help encourage technicians to reduce heat loss in cold weather. Tax incentives often are available that can help make installation of solar or other alternative energy sources competitive with traditional sources. Waste water collection systems can not only meet local ordinances but also include oil-water separators, or allow reuse of “grey water” for landscaping or other uses. Consider the energy-efficiency of the various brands and models of equipment you are purchasing.

Check the website of the non-profit Coordinating Committee for Automotive Repair ( for more information on building and operating a “green” shop – and an opportunity for earning national recognition for doing so.

7. Keep safety in mind. Employee and customer safety must be key considerations in planning any new or expanded facility. Access to the production area by customers should be carefully controlled, and areas where customers can walk be should be clearly delineated. Adequate ventilation for exhaust and solvent fumes is required.

Many fire extinguishers are rated to handle only two or three of the four types of fires that could occur. Shops should have extinguishers rated for Class A (wood and paper), Class B and C (flammable fluids and electrical) and Class D (special agents, combustible metals). Make sure there’s an extinguisher no more than 50 feet away from any point in the shop, that signage clearly indicates where they are, and that they are easily accessible (mounted between 36 and 60 inches off the floor).

Also plan for smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, and one or more eye-wash stations.

8. Consider parking needs. When planning building size, consider how much external parking will be needed for customers, vehicle storage and vendors (for deliveries). If inclement weather or concerns about theft or vandalism are issues at your location, some outdoor parking could be sacrificed in order to have more indoor space for vehicle storage. Or consider whether rooftop parking – or multi-level vehicle storage units – can help increase your capacity without expanding your property’s footprint.

Courtesy SPX Corp.
9. Go with the flow. One of the keys to shop efficiency is minimizing the movement of vehicles that is necessary. Time spent moving one car just to get another out of a stall or to another part of the shop is wasted time.

An adequate center aisle allows for
easier flow of vehicles in and out of
bays and the shop – without having
to move one car just to move
another to a different part of the

While more overhead doors allow easier vehicle access in and out of the building, they also make it more difficult to maintain a comfortable working temperature in the shop during hot or cold weather. Where adequate aisle space within the building is available, fewer doors are needed.
Most shops use some variation of one of four basic floor plans:
Bay-plan: Ideal for a long, shallow building, the bay-plan includes a roll-up door at the front of each bay. This plan tends to be favored for shops specializing in quicker services, such as oil changes, or exhaust and brake service.
I-plan: This plan calls for a long, rectangular drive-through shop with a door on each of the short ends, with stalls on either side of a straight-through-the-building center aisle.
U-plan: Stalls are placed on the outside of a U-shaped aisle leading from the entrance to an exit, both located on the same side of the building, with offices and parts storage located inside the U between the entrance and exit.
L-plan: This is similar to the U-plan, only the entrance and exit are located one on the short side of the rectangle and one on the long side.
The I-plan and L-plan are best suited to accommodate some angled bays in addition to some that are set at 90-degrees to the building’s wall. Although 90-degree bays offer the maximum use of space – 10 such bays can be included in a space that allows only seven angled bays – they also require a sharper angle of approach, which can be difficult or more time-consuming with larger vehicles or when aisle space is limited. If space is at a premium, or if most work is done on standard-sized vehicles, 90-degree bays are the best approach. But if convenience and quick access take precedence over space demands, or if the shop regularly works on larger vehicles, consider at least some angled bays.
Farnan said a building width of at least 70 feet allows the shop to have 23-feet-long stalls on one side, 26-feet-long stalls (to allow for larger equipment, for example) on the opposite side and still an adequate center aisle (21-feet wide) down the middle.

“Anything less than that, and you’re really going to suffer,” he said, adding that that a 25-foot aisle will even more easily accommodate the turning radius of larger vehicles.

10. Get outside help. These tips and your own experience working in one or more shops will offer a good basis for laying out a shop in a way that maximizes productivity. But make sure you get some outside help, often available at a reasonable cost from the lift-makers and other equipment vendors, trade associations or automotive paint companies.

Make lists of the types of requirements you have for the new facility, indicating which items are “must-have” and which are “as budget allows” or “longer-term goals.” These lists will help you as you prioritize and create a budget.

It can also be helpful to visit other recently-built or expanded shops to see and ask about what they have done that works – and what, with some hindsight, they would have done differently.

“We toured quite a few shops around the country,” Dave Finkelstein of Golden State Collision Centers in the Sacramento, Calif., area, said of the process leading to the construction of a new 22,500-square-foot shop. “Looking at the different shops and different processes certainly weighed into our decisions about the layout here.”


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