CDA Interviews: Designing for An Electric Vehicle Future

Jun 10, 2022

It's been said that electric vehicles are the future, but they're also a major part of the automotive past. Did you know that the first electric car made its debut back in the late 1800's? As political will and cultural pressure has shifted back and forth, electric vehicles have taken center stage as we reach a pivotal moment in the climate crisis. In fact, sales of electric vehicles soared during the first quarter of 2022. Automakers’ U.S. sales for the first three months of the year may signal the battery-electric age is finally here. The only automotive brands to post sales gains this year were all-electric.

With consumers more interested in going all electric than ever before, dealerships are feeling the pressure to make correlating shifts in their showrooms to better sell this type of product. CDA has been partnering with companies and brands to design LEED/Environmentally sustainable buildings for decades but, more recently, we've been able to apply this expertise to EV dealerships.

Environmental consciousness is part of the CDA ethos in every way. Our CEO Lauren Chipman is a proud EV owner, which is why she was so thrilled at the opportunity to sit down with one of our Senior Account managers, Steve Ajster, to discuss how the firm is tackling design for an electric vehicle future.

Their conversation has been edited for length.

Lauren: Good morning, Mr. Ajster, how are you doing?

Steve: I'm doing very well, Lauren. How are you?

Lauren: Excellent. I wanted to pick your brain about electric vehicles (EV) and how architecture is incorporated into their future. I know at Chipman, you’re the guy to talk to about this.

Steve: Absolutely. I’ve been working with an EV client for two years and we’ve completed seven dealerships with 20+ more in the works, which includes several new ground ups. It's an exciting sector, especially with everything trending toward a focus on a reduced carbon footprint in the world.

Lauren: Well before that, let’s take a step back. Why did you end up going into architecture?

Steve: When I was a little boy I was constantly doodling. Any family event, I'd be sketching, drawing, and everybody in my family knew that they better come with some pocket change because I'd be trying to sell those drawings. Then, I realized I also had a passion for buildings and learned that you can design a building and a space to evoke a certain response in the end user – so people could really immerse themselves and just feel really part of the space as they experience it. I took my passion for drawing and creativity and my passion for buildings and decided what better way than to mesh those two together and go into architectural design.

Lauren: To that point, it doesn't matter if you're designing a restaurant, an electric vehicle service center, a hotel or a house – it all has the same goal at the end of the day.

Steve: Absolutely! It's just understanding the end user and what they want out of the space.

Lauren: In our four decades of business at CDA, we have worked with clients on car dealerships and service centers as well as providing architectural expertise for LEED buildings, but you are leading our first EV team. Of course, electric vehicles have not been around that long. What kind of projects were you working on before you focused on EV?

Steve: My work was primarily in retail and restaurants (both fast casual and fine dining), and hotels. Restaurant work was my, pardon the pun, bread and butter. Actually, I think you can take a lot from the restaurant industry and apply it to electric vehicles or any retail facility. You want to create an environment where people are getting served and where operations are able to function efficiently.

Lauren: Exactly. The last couple of years you’ve been working with a client of ours who is one of the largest international EV companies on their retail and service centers. What do you have to take into consideration when designing and creating construction documents for these spaces?

Steve: From a principle standpoint it's about providing clean very usable space. More specifically we’re focused on quality of materials, building/municipal standards, operational flow, and flexibility of space.

Electric vehicles are a lot heavier than a normal automobile because of their massive batteries. That means there are more design considerations to ensure the facility can handle the extra stresses, from the slab reinforcement to the final finish applications. It also means we may need to reinforce display areas. For example, for Tesla in Camarillo, which opened its doors summer of last year, had a second level vehicle display area that had to be carefully evaluated structurally to affirm it could handle the weight of the heavier Tesla brand models.

Above: Chipman’s engineering consultant team assessed a glass cube display originally designed for a previous tenant to determine it could handle the weight of a Tesla

Then, as far as the building standards, car dealerships typically have significant exhausting requirements to be able to properly vent those oil and fumes out of the building. You don't have that as much with EV, so the codes for ventilation don't all apply across the board. EV facilities also require more electrical infrastructure and power demands. With all the vehicle chargers, you’re sometimes doubling the amount of electrical demand. Finally, with a typical dealership there are building codes that govern how much space is required for parking since there are so many cars purchased and driven off the lot(s). But that’s just not the case with our EV client, who is disrupting the traditional auto model and you don't drive vehicles off the lot. You go through the specs in the showroom and then your vehicle is delivered to your doorstep, so the need for display space is significantly removed.

Since the processes from an operational standpoint and a business standpoint are so different from a traditional dealership, part of our work is also education. We’re finding many of the municipalities where our sites are located don't really understand the differences either because these standards were established for a different model.

Lastly, you have to be flexible with the market. The electrical vehicle industry is is evolving quickly alongside growing consumer demands. We need to be able to design in a manner that allows for the greatest amount of flexibility and future expansion for EV client(s).

Lauren: Speaking of flexibility, where are these projects located? Are they going into your typical row of car dealerships?

Steve: Not typically. Our clients are very creative. Partially because of the real estate market is very competitive right now and partially because their dealerships are more showroom than parking lot. So, often they can get by with using the space and parcel in an unorthodox manner where a traditional dealership may not have that same luxury.

We're converting everything from bowling alleys to movie theaters into electric vehicle facilities. Of course we do also convert previous dealerships. What it comes down to is thinking outside the box and finding the right amount of space while allowing for as much flexibility as possible.

Lauren: What do you think EV holds for the country? What is the next evolution of this?

Steve: As electric cars are becoming less of an anomaly and a demand that is gaining energy with the American consumer we, as design professionals need to ensure that we have enough charging stations across the country to accommodate this new need that appears to be here to stay indefinitely. Think about the “end user” amenities that can be provided by brands while you have a captive audience waiting for their car to charge! This is a whole new market to serve and charging stations that don’t contribute to the environmental hazards and intense infrastructure of gas stations, so we can think outside of the typical gas station / service station locations and reconsider what the American customer is looking for to serve their driving and charging needs.

Lauren: Oh, I absolutely agree. I am an EV owner. I made the jump a few years ago and absolutely love the experience of driving my car, but definitely agree that the infrastructure needs to continue to expand. I can see a lot of possibilities and partnerships just within our Chipman stable of clients as well! Who wouldn’t love to charge their car on a road-trip while grabbing a Jeni’s ice cream cone or pick-up a pair of comfy leggings from Athleta?

Steve: With everything going on with climate change and a reduction in the carbon footprint I think there will be continued incentives and rebates. Clients and brands are adapting. I think we’ll see more and more companies that maybe weren't in the electric vehicle market, having to adapt and transition into that market as a necessity.

Lauren: Well, Steve, thank you so much for sharing your time and expertise and it really was an electrifying experience.

Steve: I love it. Absolutely. It was my pleasure.