The Greening of Retail Development


As principal of a commercial design firm that specializes in retail, restaurants, hospitality and corporate spaces, it amazes me how fast sustainable design has become the hot-button topic in the industry. Collaborating with developers, engineers, municipalities and builders has always required architectural firms to keep costs lean by reducing waste, but over the past few years there has been a paradigm shift in how our industry works. 

The change is most evident in the development of retail space, which up until very recently, has been the last stubborn stronghold of the “how-cheap-can-you-build-it,” mentality. As government-sponsored incentives in the form of tax credits have helped subsidize eco-friendly building, the extra costs of going green are being reduced, but they have not been eliminated.

The high turnover and inherent risk factors in retail development make adding construction costs in order to be environmentally correct a tough sell. That said, there are some common sense approaches that can actually reduce costs while helping the planet.

In a typical urban in-fill project there is usually an existing structure on the site. Rather than demolish the building and pay to have the debris transported to a landfill, we’ve had excellent results recycling the material. Installing a stone crusher on a site eliminates tipping fees and transportation costs while providing a source of free fill. We’ve also called for the recycling of scrap metal in existing buildings, which helps offset charges for demolition. Steel is infinitely recyclable and there’s always a market.

Projects that offer options for how a building can be positioned allows a designer to site a building to take full advantage of “dayligthing” inside the store. This technique costs nothing and reduces energy costs in the finished structure by using the sun to light the interior. Thoughtful window and door shading can also be used, reduce solar heat gain in the summer and provide more warmth in the winter when the sun is lower in the sky.

We’ve used these techniques on our “Town Center Aquia” project in Northern Virginia–a 750,000-sq.-ft. mixed-use development that includes retail, office, residential and entertainment space. We’re also using open-faced pavers in some of the parking areas to increase permeable surfaces. We’ll be applying for LEED Silver status for the project, a concept virtually unheard of five years ago.

By specifying the inclusion of pre-fabricated building elements like wall systems, an architectural firm can mitigate the waste and risk associated with building on-site. Pre-built components are typically constructed indoors under controlled conditions, which improves quality control. Making use of structurally insulated panels (SIPs) also reduces energy usage in the building.

In other projects, we’ve taken the poster child symbol or suburban sprawl, big box retail, and made it more palatable for an urban-dense environment by designing Targets and Best Buys that fit vertically into the inner city. In Charles Plaza in Baltimore we’ve taken the concept of a green roof, expanded it into a public park with trees and benches, and put it on top of another car-centric structure that’s under siege, the humble parking garage.

As a young man in the ’70s I saw the first serious wave of environmentalism wash over the country following the oil crisis. Like many others, I think what we’re seeing now is different, but challenges remain in turning retail completely green.

We’re pushing against 30years of inertia while trying to break a lot of bad habits in the design phase and during construction. By writing environmentally aware specifications, architects can help make the process more eco-conscious. As the price of energy creates a bigger impact and awareness increases, retail will follow along with everything else towards a greener future.

[Story by Bryce Turner at Retail Design Diva]

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