Avoiding Expensive Pitfalls During the Site Selection Process
Selecting a new site for a company's facility involves a considerable amount of time and money, but a thorough, expert site investigation is well worth the investment.
Alexandra Segers, General Manager Southeast, SSOE Group (July 2011)

A lot hinges on finding just the right site for a facility. The search and selection must be based on long-term business goals and objectives rather than flashy incentives and tax breaks that don't consider the true "lay of the land" and the long-term operating needs of the facility.

The individuals charged with conducting the company's location search - and those individuals and organizations that they employ - must not only be capable of performing the site search, but they must also follow an approach that focuses on understanding the business and matching the chosen location to its goals.

A Job for Pros
It's critical to be able to recognize the considerations that must be addressed. Sad but true, not every resource that raises up a hand to offer site selection services has the knowledge and skill to do a smart, thorough job. Like those responsible for this snafu:

The company, an international automaker that was opening a plant in the United States, had a site, a plan, and a project deadline. Its first site glitch was the discovery, during construction, of a creek that had to be rerouted. The next "oopsy" was when the bulldozers encountered a rock bed that had to be blasted out of the way. The final blow was finding that its chosen site was home to an endangered species.

This was not a case of bad luck. These were three costly oversights that could have been avoided. The company's site selection team should have conducted the appropriate studies to identify any and every body of water. This would have necessitated testing the soil not only for rock, but also for other characteristics, and a thorough investigation also would have revealed if there were endangered species occupying the property.

Who Should You Trust?
As a long list of unfortunate individuals who sunk too much money into site preparation would be eager to point out, a "commercial real estate company" is not always synonymous with "qualified site selection firm." Let's talk about some key differences between the two.

Real estate brokers make money on commission. They are likely to be biased for one site over another for reasons that have nothing to do with the client company's needs. The best ones may offer basic information about zoning, access to utilities, and possibly permits. That leaves a lot of sinkholes they simply don't look for.

Those responsible for helping with a company's location decision should instead employ qualified organizations that can leverage architectural, engineering, and construction management expertise, using a detailed checklist of attributes in determining the suitability of a site. These attributes include environmental considerations, access to transportation, access to utilities, soil conditions, amount of cut and fill required, air quality, various codes, and permitting (federal, state, and local) requirements. Companies lacking in-house staff who are experts on these topics should hire consultants who have such expertise. The only bias these consultants should show is toward the client company's best interests.

Seeing the Big Picture
Compare these checklist items to running a battery of medical tests. If you want to interpret the results correctly, you have to know a lot about the patient. In the same way, you have to thoroughly understand what the company is going to do with the site in order to evaluate it fairly. Site selection firms operating with the client's needs in mind start the process by studying the client's business and what it has planned for this particular parcel of land - down to the details. That puts them in a position to determine the "must haves" and "nice-to-haves" of a site.

Transportation is a good example. In one instance, a firm conducted a search and recommended its client purchased a site in a hilly region in the northeastern United States for its new production facility. However, a hilly terrain and rugged winter weather was a bad combination for a company whose "must haves" included reliable truck access. It's obvious the site selection team that recommended this site forgot that it needed to support the function of the facility. Tunnel vision is the enemy of site selection, i.e., the macro level (does the site need to be near an airport?) is equally important as the micro (will the two-lane road be wide enough?).

Fitting the Pieces Together
A practical, utilitarian viewpoint is necessary when evaluating a site. The site selection team and any consultants who are hired should consider how a prospective site will impact the design and construction process - and ultimately the ongoing operations of the facility. All of this must be integrated with the company's long-range business goals. Considerations like the degree of slope and soil conditions at a site might be critical. Poor soil might mean piling is required - an expensive solution. And too much slope? Here's a worst case that happened to another global automobile manufacturer:

The company bought a parcel in the mid-South that ultimately required moving 26 million cubic yards of earth to level the site. You read that right .26 million - an off-the-charts challenge. One can assume there were other incentives attached to purchasing that specific site, but were they enough to offset the bill for earth moving?

There is a lot of time, trouble, and money at stake in site selection. It's important to conduct a search that follows an approach designed to uncover those site attributes that can swallow up time on the schedule and money in the budget if not detected before you buy. Employing expertise inside - and outside - of the company can ensure a company's needs are met and timely, expensive pitfalls are avoided. A thorough and knowledgeable approach will turn risk into reward.