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10 ways to build smarter

The first consideration in building anything is location. Different construction methods yield wildly diverse results depending upon what part of the country you’re in, how the building is sited and how exposed it is to the elements. One method may cost more than another, but it may also yield savings in the energy required to run a restaurant—and in the cost of insurance. We turned to a man with his feet in both camps—a builder who also owns a restaurant—for guidance. Allen Mitchell owns McCormick & Associates builders in Midcoast Maine. In February, he opened a Cody’s Original Roadhouse franchise in Rockport. 

1. Choose the right construction method
One rule that generally holds true is to use concrete whenever possible, particularly in flooring and sub flooring. Concrete is generally less expensive than wood; it can cost as little as $1 per square foot. Ideally, the least-cost way to build the base of a restaurant is to leave out a basement and build frost walls or footings covered by a concrete slab. That slab can also be stamped with a pattern and stained to look like slate or stone, which could provide a good and easily cleaned floor surface for the restaurant. It can also be hosed down or power washed, providing there is a drainage system installed. Mitchell does caution against intricate or deep patterns, however, where dirt and bacteria can accumulate in cracks and crevices. One thing to know about concrete is that it always cracks, sooner or later. In a floor that is made to look like stone, this actually makes it look more realistic.

Concrete may also be used for walls. One option, though expen- sive, is to use insulating concrete forms, or ICFs, in construction. These modular forms are put together like building blocks, then filled with poured concrete, creating a building envelope that’s akin to a beverage cooler. They stay cool in summer and warm in winter with a minimum of energy usage. They are also very durable.

For walls and roofs, structured insulated panels, or SIPs, are an option; they’re essentially pre-fabricated wall panels that are very well insulated and go up faster than a standard stick-built wall. So while they are more expensive per square foot, money is saved in the labor required to put up the walls. They also are generally more durable than standard stick-built walls. Mitchell chose a standard roof with asphalt shingles; it was the most cost effective alternative. If the building has a flat roof, he suggests a good rubber roof.

Finally, there’s modular construction. This involves constructing sections of the building in a factory, delivering them by truck to the site and hoisting the sections into place with a crane. Modular construction can generally save 50 to 75 percent when compared to standard, on-site construction and usually results in a tighter building envelope. However, if you choose this route, investigate the company that builds the structure diligently. There are fly-by-night operators out there that build something more akin to a single-wide trailer home than a commercial-quality building.

2. Right size your HVAC system
Too much is just as bad as too little when it comes to heating and cooling. Don’t be fooled by claims that the more BTUs you buy, the better the system is going to work. You want to determine exactly how much heating and cooling you’ll need and then spec the system accordingly. If the restaurant is in a warmer climate, consider a heat-pump system, perhaps even using geothermal energy. With the cost of oil and gas and electricity going nowhere but up, the cost of drilling the 1,200-foot-deep well required for a geothermal system may pay for itself in a matter of years, not decades. Mitchell advises against the use of in-floor radiant heating systems because they take too long to react to outside temperature changes. He is a fan of forced air because it handles both heat and air conditioning and is simple, cost effective and reliable. In colder areas, he recommends hot-water baseboard backup.

3. Stick with standard-size windows
Mitchell likes Andersen windows because they’re reasonably priced, readily available and easily replaced. If you’re using an architect, make sure to specify standard sizes. Architects often use windows as design elements and tend to use custom sizes liberally to enhance the look of the place. If that’s what you want, fine. But you’ll pay for it. All windows are now government rated for energy efficiency. Consider installing sun shielding such as 3M’s Scotchtint and Scotchshield universal window treatments. You can buy windows that have this feature built in, but they will cost you. The sunshield film can reflect up to 78 percent of the sun’s heat, which can save a bundle on air conditioning costs in warmer climes.

4. When building from scratch, that’s the time to take into account that hood systems draw air from the restaurant—and air-conditioning or heating with it. Obviously, an exhaust fan needs enough power to suck cooking fumes from the building. “All good kitchens have a balanced air-makeup system,” Mitchell says. For the uninitiated, that means a system that brings in air from the outside to replace the air sucked out of the restaurant by the hood system. That means spending the time, and money, to get your contractor to evaluate the airflow out from the hood and in from outside. The air-makeup system will also have to “temper” the incoming air so it isn’t too hot or cold, so energy costs must also be considered. The whole affair is going to require vents and ducts in the kitchen. If you’re lucky enough to be building in a place where windows can be left open all year, this is not a concern. If you’re not, and you don’t pay attention to this, it will cost you much more to remedy a problem once the walls are up than it would while the building was under construction.

5. Investigate solar hot water systems
How would you like to save 20 percent or more of your energy costs for an upfront investment of less than $5,000—right now? Invest in a solar hot-water system. These systems are relatively simple, and can cost as little as $2,000. Basically, a series of glass tubes are placed at a proper angle with maximum exposure to the sun. A chemical is circulated through the tubes and is piped through a coil in a hot water tank. As long as it’s light out, even if there are clouds, these systems will maintain water in a tank at between 100 and 110 degrees, and a well-insulated tank will hold that heat for hours once the sun goes down. The hot water heater then needs only bring the water up another 10 to 20 degrees if you’re using a chemical dishwashing system or 70 to 80 degrees if you’re just using soap and water. Either way, it represents a substantial savings.

6. Consider a full sprinkler system
While costly, a sprinkler system can save a restaurant operator a bundle on insurance premiums, what with restaurant fires being as common as they are. The cost for a place the size of Mitchell’s can be $25,000 to $30,000, but Mitchell estimates it will save at least $2,000 a year in insurance costs. One thing to keep in mind, he warns, is that the local water utility will charge you a monthly fee to have sprinklers linked to the water system. But in the event of a fire, the utility does not charge for the water used. It could be money well spent.

7. Mind your electrician
Install three-phase, 240-volt service with a load rating of at least 400 to 600 amps. This can rise considerably as the size of the restaurant increases, but under no circumstances should standard single-phase electrical service be installed. Adding to electrical service once a building is completed is far more expensive than doing it upfront. Spec all your equipment early so you know what you’re going to need “before you start pulling wires.”

8. Find your own decorative ‘stuff’
Mitchell lucked out; he found a man in the interior wilds of Maine who had barns and garages full of antique cars, road signs, streetlight posts, gas pumps (he has three) and huge gas-station signs that fit the motif of a Cody’s franchise. He made a deal for the entire contents of a couple buildings and has enough “stuff” to do another location. He estimates that he saved at least half of what it would have cost to have a consulting firm fit the place out, including the $10,000 fee just for hiring the consultant. He budgeted a total of $40,000 for the existing restaurant and got “stuff” worth twice that. He also used reclaimed wood from pallets that he got for nothing for decorative panels on the walls.

9. Buy used, reconditioned equipment
This is No. 1 on Mitchell’s list. He saved about 50 percent by buying a combination of new and reconditioned stoves, grills and other equipment from a supplier. It came with warrantees and shaved about $70,000 off the estimate of $140,000 for all-new equipment.

10. Make sure the waste system’s adequate
The worst place for cooking grease to wind up is in a septic system. And if it gets dumped into a municipal sewage facility, big fines will result. So Mitchell advises installing a grease trap that is large enough to handle volume over time. He has a 2,000-gallon trap that he estimates will need to be pumped a few times each year. He is linked to a municipal sewer. If you’ve got a septic system, know going in that any significant amount of grease that infiltrates that system will destroy it and a new system will have to be built for upwards of $10,000 for a small system.

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