No longer do carts loaded with building materials sink a half-inch into the asphalt warehouse floors on blazing Texas afternoons.
Endurance is a good quality to have, but it’s not necessarily what you want your employees automatically to resort to as they begin each workday. But the state of the old facility that Houston millwork, cabinetry, and brick distributor The Detering Co. had operated out of for almost 90 years pretty much made endurance a necessity.
The company took the lessons learned from the old building and used them to create a new one that works so well it earned the 2015 ProSales Excellence Award for facility design.
The old facility, on 5.4 acres near downtown, was divided among five buildings on the site, which was split by a street and a railroad yard. “You could risk your life crossing the street to get to the warehouse,” says Detering general manager Alicia Dedman, who spearheaded the new facility’s design, working hand in hand with local firm Harry Gendel Architects.
“It was amazing we were able to do as much as we did,” company president Carl Detering Jr. says. “We just worked around the warts.”
There were more than a few of those. The old metal buildings on the site “had no insulation, and it was hot, hot, hot,” Detering says. In the summer, it could get up to 115 degrees in the production shop, says Dedman. “We poured a lot of Gatorade.” The bathrooms had no hot water, and because employees and operations were spread out among the various buildings, communication was sometimes patchy.
During a strategic planning meeting in fall 2012, the management team realized that their ambitious sales growth goals were not achievable in the current facility. Thus, a new facility was conceived. Chief among their goals was getting everyone under one roof to ensure smooth communication, creating a comfortable working environment, and putting in place the efficiencies that would make Detering’s sales goals possible.
“First we had to decide where we wanted things,” Dedman says. “We put the shop far away from the office from a noise perspective. For the moldings and doors, we designed the racks with narrow aisles, so we can stock them with a side loader. Everything in the old place had to be handstocked. Now the fronts of the racks closest to the doors are what we pull from, and in the back are the extra stocks.” Catwalks above the racking system make quick cycle counts easy.
Because the company has a huge will-call business, Dedman and her team designed the will-call sales office adjacent to its loading area. “We tried to put functions that worked together close together,” she says.
The old facility was not dock high, so materials had to be lifted up to or down from a truck bed. That’s not the case at the new location. There are six docks for loading and receiving, as well as docks at pickup truck height that can accommodate up to eight vehicles at a time for the will-call business. A 7,000-square-foot receiving area under a building canopy makes curtain-side truck off-loading easy regardless of the weather.
The design team also installed a cyclonic dust collection system capable of handling more than 113,000 cfm of heavy dust.
Those asphalt floors, a major sticking point at the old location, were turned into smooth concrete. “We love our new floors,” Dedman enthuses. “Now we can move a cart with a finger, not 16 men and an ox.”
The building is fully insulated, and the architects sited it to take full advantage of prevailing southern winds. The south side of the building is equipped with industrial louvers, and when the north side overhead doors are open, breezes flow through. The warehouse is also equipped with three industrial-sized fans to take up the slack when those breezes fall short.
Dedman and her team wanted the building flooded with as much natural light as possible and worked with an electrical contractor to make that happen. The main warehouse has translucent Lucite panels installed at ceiling height along north-, south-, and east-facing walls, which bring in light and reduce the electrical load.
The landscape was also given due consideration. Two 2,400-gallon rain collection tanks were installed with a drip line irrigation system embedded in the soil to keep the grass, bushes, and trees watered.
Moving and building a new facility was a big step for the distributor, not only for the money involved—$9.4 million—but also because there was a lot of history attached to the old site. The Detering family had operated a business at 3028 Washington Street since the 1890s. Carl Detering Jr.’s grandfather Herman ran the Last Chance Grocery there, at what was then the end of the trolley line. Carl Sr. opened the building materials operation on the site in 1926, a few years after the grocery store was closed.
Once the decision was made to proceed with a new facility, Detering started looking for property. The original parcel on Helmers Street that grabbed Detering’s attention was 16 acres. During the two years it took to negotiate the land deal, including selling the old site, the company was able to purchase two additional tracts of land, bringing the site total to 19 acres.
In December 2014, Detering bought a brick distributorship, South Texas Brick and Stone, currently operating out of its old location on the west side of Houston. The company plans to move that business to the new site, into a 20,000-square-foot building [the only original building at the Helmers Street location to be kept and refurbished] that Detering plans to add a 5,000-square-foot office to in the next six months.
The new site is six miles from the old address and close to all major interstates in the Houston area. This makes it possible for the company to offer same-day delivery on all products, a service it was able to offer only on a limited basis at the old location.
“If the order is in by 1 p.m., customers can have it by the end of the working day,” says Detering. The company sells to custom builders within a 90-mile radius of Houston.
The new facility puts all operations and employees under one roof spread across 107,000 square feet. It’s a big jump in size—and efficiency—from the former location’s 78,000 square feet.
“The old facility made us focus on how best to do things in a less than ideal situation. We were sort of known as a stodgy company that if you can’t find it anywhere else, go to Detering and they will have in stuck in a corner somewhere,” Detering says.
There are no forgotten corners at the new location. Everything has its place, and that extends to the company’s history as well. “One of the things we lost when we left [the Washington Avenue site] was our heritage,” he says. “So what we tried to do was visually project our heritage with the front of the building, the office side.”
Dedman notes that the main entry was bumped out a bit, and the resulting edifice repeats the facade of Herman Detering’s grocery store in a nod to the company’s past. The building’s front also includes residential windows from Lincoln, one of Detering’s vendors, right next to the 3.5-foot by 10-foot door with sidelites, built by the company’s custom shop.
“The materials on the front are the D’Hanis clay tile, which was the first line my father had when he started the brick line, with St. Joe brick accents, a line we are most known for representing,” Detering adds. “Inside, there is a vaulted brick ceiling, and a backdrop of used brick that presents a feeling of being around a while.”
The back wall of the lobby features a display of historical items, including photos of Detering’s father and grandfather, as well as artifacts that turned up when the old buildings were cleaned out—handwritten purchase orders, mechanical pencils with the company’s name, and bits of old machinery.
Off the lobby to the right is a 3,000-square-foot showroom with standing displays as well as vignettes. While the distributor doesn’t make a point of catering to homeowners—“We aren’t really warm and fuzzy if you don’t know what you’re doing,” Detering says—they realize that people want to see products in a setting that helps them visualize how those products will look in their home. The new showroom achieves that goal.
“We’re still learning the facility,” Detering says. He reckons there are still efficiencies to be discovered and taken advantage of. “This new facility will allow us to be as good as we can be. We wanted a facility that wouldn’t hold us back.”