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To Design, or to Redesign (Conclusion)

Designing a new plant, expert advice on decisions

CHICAGO — Faultless Healthcare Linen, based in Kansas City, Mo., knows what it’s like to design, build and retrofit laundry operations.

It’s tackled around seven such projects in the past 20 years, according to COO Mark Spence.

“Almost always the situation was capacity, creating new capacity to accommodate growth and to accommodate innovations in technology going on in the industry,” he says.

Faultless’ most recent project was its first new build of a laundry facility in St. Louis, which opened in 2018.

The situation of the new build was unique. In 2015, the company learned that its plant that opened in 2012 was going to be subject to eminent domain relocation to accommodate Next NGA West, a mega-project jointly managed by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Air Force.

“It took about three years to negotiate a relocation package with the city and state and then to actually construct the building,” Spence shares. “We could not find an adequate industrial building within the city limits, geographically, where we need to be located. There just wasn’t any inventory. They did agree to let us construct a new building, a new facility.” 

Faultless ended up building an 82,000-square-foot healthcare laundry facility not far from its other St. Louis healthcare plant in a new industrial development.

While the Faultless scenario was unique, many laundries face the question at some point of whether to build a new plant or redesign existing space.


For Ed Kwasnick, director of business development for design-build contractor ARCO/Murray, building a new facility is driven by the same criteria: space, capacity and cost. When the existing laundry cannot meet customer demands and expansion is not viable due to lack of space, inability to meet future capacity needs, or expansion is not cost effective, then it’s time to build a new plant.  

“I once had a client tell me, ‘When I’ve done everything I can to squeeze every last drop of productivity and capacity out of my existing plant, and it still consumes more time, energy, and resources than it produces, it’s time to build a new plant,’” he shares

“Here is this case where a decision is made to build new only after long hours and many days or weeks of exploring every other option, and you are absolutely sure that this is the best route to go down for you and your company, then by all means, full steam ahead,” says Gerard O’Neill, president and CEO of consulting company American Laundry Systems.

He goes on to say that the decision to build new usually comes down to possibly needing a second facility to back up the first. Maybe the operation needs a location closer to its main customer for 5 million pounds, along with the opportunity to chase more business.

“The availability or lack of availability of utilities is probably the number-two reason to go build, that and the inability to expand the current building,” O’Neill says. 

“Then of course there are the employees and the turnover that every laundry suffers from. If the plant is a constant swinging door, then fix this before you expand, build new, add more hours, more pounds or more equipment. More poundage is not the answer. It will eventually, if left unchecked, kill your plant and you will lose those valuable customers.”

Matthew Alexander, president and CEO of Pertl & Alexander, a consulting firm that specializes in design and management of laundries, says that when a laundry operation decides to build new, considerations include selection of architectural, engineering, and project management; design, construction and equipment companies; as well as site, environmental conditions, demographics, utilities, public transportation, regulatory, taxes and economic incentives. 

Laundries processing more than about 35 million pounds produce economies of scale that cannot be achieved in significantly smaller plants, he goes on to say. Therefore, new facilities are typically developed to provide high ceilings and adequate space to process 35-plus million pounds.

To minimize project costs and maximize ROI for a new plant, every cubic foot needs to be used effectively, Kwasnick points out.  

“The nice thing about building new is you have very few starting constraints,” he says. “You basically have a blank canvas. 

“You can make the clear height as tall as you want to incorporate automated rail systems. You can use mezzanines for storage or equipment to minimize the size of the building. You can support the rail system from the build structure to eliminate additional support columns. 

“You can keep the mechanical room adjacent to the wash floor and the finishing department to reduce the length of your piping runs. This not only reduces project costs, but also decreases heat losses in the process piping, which helps reduce operating costs.” 

O’Neill agrees that a big advantage to building new is designing the plant without any restraints in shape, height, size, etc. 

“The freedom of having a blank piece of paper and building your dream facility with little or no constraints is the biggest attraction to building new, bar none,” he says. “But watch out for the hidden fees and the surprises. Impact fees can be considerable. Availability of utilities can be a very cost prohibitive.”

“What we did was the things that we liked and didn’t like about the old plant we incorporated those things into the design,” Spence shares. “One of the primary things we did is we separated our acute care processing from our specialty medical processing. Same building, but they’re completely separated, and they have a shared power plant system.” 

Another consideration Kwasnick points out is being mindful of future expansion. He recommends taking the time with a new build to think about how to effectively expand in the future. 

“Make sure you can expand your plant without interrupting the operation,” he suggests. “Because the last thing you want to do is shut down your plant when it’s operating at max capacity 16 hours per day, seven days per week.”

Based on its success in St. Louis, Spence says Faultless took growth into consideration in designing its new plant. The facility has space for a second tunnel washer, another bank of dryers and additional floor and rail capacity.

“We just didn’t want to box ourselves in,” he says. “There is still a fair amount of business that is serviced by competitors that are far outside metro St. Louis, and that puts a strain on delivery, and we want to be there. We want to expand geographically, but we want to be there for the opportunities that will arise that are still within St. Louis.” 


So, what would be a key piece of advice from the experts when it comes to the design/redesign decision?

“First, I would discuss their project goals and their budget,” Kwasnick says. “What are you trying to accomplish and how much do you want to spend? These two criteria are highly correlated, and one can help define the other.  

“For example, if a company has a limited budget, then building a new plant may not be viable and pursuing that option would waste time and resources. Therefore, we would focus on how to expand their existing facility in a manner that hits the goals they are looking to achieve while simultaneously meeting their budget. 

“At the same time, a client may want to expand or renovate their existing facility, but they cannot meet their goals due to existing constraints such as limited space, low ceiling height, utility restrictions, poor labor market and other factors. In this case, a new plant may be the best option.”

O’Neill would first highlight the major pros and cons of each option. Then, he says he would evaluate the existing facility. 

“We would then start to build the ‘pros and cons’ spreadsheet so we can score the reasons accordingly,” he says. “Finally, we weigh up this matrix and hopefully make a decision. This is easier said than done, I might add. Everyone analyzes to the point of paralysis. This can take a long time to overcome or it can be done quickly by someone who trusts the data in front of them. 

“More often than not, it takes a few weeks of painstakingly reviewing the data and spreadsheet and then the light bulb will go off one day on the drive to work. Then hold on to your hats because if you have never built a facility in your life, then prepare for it to consume you heart and soul for the next 12-18 months (average time frame).”

Alexander says that, generally speaking, when laundry facilities reach the end of life of major equipment in 20-30 years, and the laundry is able to consolidate between 35-50 million pounds annually, a new facility is more viable then retrofitting and expanding. However, there are a lot of variables and each case deserves careful study of the alternatives. 

“Giving due weight and consideration to all these issues will result in effective conceptualization of the project, which is the most important step in the process,” shares Steve Miller, vice president and general manager of laundry consulting company Victor Kramer Co.  

Spence suggests a laundry operation looking to design or redesign tap into equipment vendor resources that are available and ask a lot of questions.

“What’s worked, what has not, do you provide capacity consulting services and ask to see operations that they’ve been involved with,” he says. “Go on as many plant tours as you can that those vendors can get you in to see not only for their equipment, but also the design of the plant. 

“And then you have to decide: are you going to try to go this alone in conjunction with the equipment vendors, or are you going to try to get an outside consulting service that does the whole turnkey operation for you?”

Miller says an experienced project manager can take the professional engineers and equipment suppliers to completion of the project. However, the end product must meet an operation’s needs efficiently and effectively for years to come. 

 “The most important thing is to be creative, consider all your options, develop realistic cost expectations and fully commit if the project makes sense both strategically and financially,” says Kwasnick.

Miss Part 1 on making a decision and redesign? Click HERE to read it.