What it takes to design a successful business not only a beautiful space
This is the fourth and final instalment (4 of 4) in a four-part series of articles that make up the restaurant design guide focused on exploring what it takes to design a successful restaurant business not only a beautiful space. In this article I discuss The Importance of MEP, Designing with Maintenance in Mind, Site Conditions, Designing to Budget and Value Engineering, Local Codes & Landlord Requirements, and Project / Design Management.
The Importance of MEP (Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing)
The best way to describe a great MEP installation is when you don’t feel it, hear it, nor smell it (unless it is intentional). Unless you are someone who has done many projects or have been trained on the discipline, few owners/operators understand many aspects of MEP. They just know when things do not work. Also, few can afford, unless a larger scale project, an MEP designer. Therefore, it is left to contractors to design and build, which is where a lot of shortcuts can occur.
In the last project I executed, we flipped the equation. We worked with a premium MEP contractor and a small scale (more cost effective) fitout contractor. It was the best decision we took on that project.
MEP has a big impact on ambience, your operational efficiency, and maintenance expenses. Energy utilisation is directly related to MEP design and execution and is one of the principle building blocks in sustainable designs. Energy costs money. A well-designed project can be one way an owner/operator can control these costs.
Maintenance costs are connected to your MEP design and installation. You can feel the impact of any shortcuts taken during the design and installation stages once you open and you run high maintenance bills sooner than you think.
Another vital role for MEP is in the kitchen. Imagine the consequences if one of your main equipment you depend on was not functioning because of a faulty electric, gas, or plumbing installation. If they say the kitchen is the heart of the restaurant, then MEP is the arteries and blood flow of that heart.
MEP Design Considerations
Here are some high-level points to consider during the MEP design journey:
- Air quality
- Air balance / pressure
- Water quality
- Utility load
- Fire & safety
- Air quality
- Hygiene in terms of waste (grease and drain)
- Local codes
- Running utility costs
- Maintenance costs
- Maintenance accessibility
- Lighting controls and zone
- Distribution board (DB) loads and allocations
Designing with Maintenance in Mind
This point is crucial to the success of any restaurant design project and falls in line with the notion that the task at hand is designing businesses, not spaces. Often, I tell designers and builders that the project starts when their job is complete / finished. Back to the initial point of comparing a restaurant with a living organism, it is like an ecosystem with various interconnected components and interdependencies. Too often, I see basic elements missing such as:
- Access panels in the right places
- Physical access to all areas that would require maintenance in terms of space
- Power provisions (no extra power on the Distribution Board available)
- Catwalk for AC maintenance
- Preventative Maintenance Plans / handbooks provided at handover
- Spare parts
- Basic training carried out on handover for fitout components (finishes and how to clean and maintain them) and MEP installations.
A very important element to consider when embarking on a new project is site conditions. Sure, this is not too relevant if your project sits in a built for purpose hotel property. For all the standalone entrepreneurs though, if you are building at a set budget then site conditions can make a tremendous difference to your overall fitout expenditure. Yes, they say location, location, location, for the commercial viability of the venture. I would also argue it is as important for fitout costs and any roll out strategy you might have for your brand.
There is a very successful brand in Melbourne that went from zero to ten outlets in one year. How they did that was simple. Site conditions were a key factor in their expansion strategy. Here is some of what they did:
- Only took spaces fitted as restaurants before
- Made sure there is no upgrade required to the base build services
- Maintained the same division between front and back of house
- Design worked with site conditions to absorb the existing space in their interior concept
What I would add to the above list is flooring. Besides the cost implications and savings, if you can get away with maintaining the existing floor, then you can save valuable fitout time, which means you can trade earlier.
Designing to Budget and Value Engineering
Done well, value engineering can help align project budgets with the various stakeholders’ requirements; designers, owner, and builder. Done incorrectly, this exercise can jeopardise a project along with its objectives and primary appeal. What you want to avoid is carrying out a value engineering exercise by taking an excel sheet, sorting by largest to smallest (item value), and culling the high value items.
It is possible to get this right by doing it early and systematically. To have success with this exercise, you also need to have collective input and consensus with various parties involved on the project and to be aligned in one direction. The ideal scenario, almost a utopian dream, is to design to budget.Rather than design, tender, then work on value engineering the project to suit the budget.
Local Codes & Landlord Requirements
Any designer would know this and I am just including it here in order not to forget that these codes should be followed but can affect your design and in some ways your concept. Things like gas and charcoal for example are always a point of contention and can affect what and how you end up cooking. Not all cities or even councils allow charcoal. Not all countries allow gas. In some places, even if they allow gas, you need to be careful regarding gas pressure allowance, which dictates the equipment you can have.
In some cities and locations, landlords have more stringent regulations than government authorities do, which could lead to an unforeseen spike in investment / fitout costs. These affect the MEP installations and specifications. One of the major points that can cost you tens of thousands of dollars is the extraction and ventilation system requirements.
Signage regulations also play a role in what you can do and affect your restaurant’s visibility, be it in a positive or negative way. Make sure these guidelines are checked prior to confirming the location. Accessibility considerations, ramps, and passageways are other important issues to get very familiar with from the outset.
The point here is, these landlord requirements and local authority codes will definitely guide your design team during the development stage of your concept. It is important to do a quick check prior to securing the location to see if any of these could hinder or affect the project’s feasibility and viability before moving forward. Getting the proper paperwork in place as you progress with the project design is crucial. On multiple occasions, I have seen opening delays cause by paperwork issues pertaining to various authority sign offs.
Project / Design Management
My view on this matter is simple, plan for the expected and expect the unexpected. This role is critical to ensure the success of a project. Linking all the different design silos together is crucial. While larger scale projects might have internal or external project managers appointed, independent operators often lack this resource.
My view is that not all project managers are born equal. Even on larger scale projects, you sometimes find project managers appointed that are more focused on the paper trail and documentation of a project. They tend to avoid driving the project in any specific direction. Their role seems to be more as record keepers, and they shy away from giving opinions. I understand that there are certain contractual limitations and risks involved in being more opinionated and steering projects in certain directions. There is also a separation sometimes done between design management and what we refer to as project “fitout” management.
For a project to be successful, you need someone to weave all the different components together. By no means is this the only way to do things, it is just my personal take and based on my experience. You need someone who understands branding, kitchen design, operational constraints and so forth to drive the project forward; operational, design, and fitout. Often in independent standalone projects, I have found owners taking up that role and can do so with a lot of knowledge if they have gone through the process before. Emotions sometimes need to be managed if that is the case. I hope that with my series of articles, I can give you the knowledge and information to handle things yourself if you are an owner/operator reading this. It is easier to plan for what you know than what you don’t know.
What you can take away from this
Designing a restaurant is a collective effort. It is not through the genius of a single person or entity that great restaurants are conceived and launched. The best are created when multi-disciplinary experts come together and work towards a shared vision and direction. Exchange ideas. Learn from and teach one another. I often say, while design awards are a great recognition and often good for PR, the best design award is financial targets. A well designed restaurant is one that achieves its financial targets.
As you will see there is an art and a science to designing a restaurant. Functional and aesthetic elements have to be in harmony. You want to create a space and an ambience that makes customers fall in love with it through carefully orchestrated design elements. Simultaneously, the restaurant needs to function like a well-oiled machine to allow the operating team to do their magic. Time is often the pressure placed on a project and the key is to efficiently use what is available to deliver the best outcome.
While the above is a general framework and points to consider based on my personal experiences, each project is different and each one brings with it its set of unique questions, parameters, and obstacles which makes it a great world to be a part of. There is a reason why experts (from designers to fitout companies) specialise in restaurants. There is a long learning curve associated with executing these projects successfully. I hope that with this and all the other articles, I can help in speeding up that knowledge acquisition process to some of you.
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