Retail Construction Evolved

By Jason Christoff, PE, LEED AP BD+C

The way business is executed within the retail construction industry may never be the same. The Great Recession is finally behind us, but it has changed how retailers deliver stores, as well as how architecture and engineering professionals design them. The A/E delivery model is constantly being reimagined to meet the needs of the changing market, but typically not as quickly or drastically as within the last five years.
Prior to 2007, the industry was largely concentrated on ground-up construction. Architects and engineers were churning out prototype-based construction documents, producing hundreds each year, with special emphasis on strong and accurate prototype drawing sets. A well-developed, high-quality prototype drawing set could often generate a set of construction documents delivered with A/E fees less than 1.5% of construction. Back then, the biggest problem was that retailers couldn’t find acceptable real estate quickly enough to develop prototype buildings, as prime performing sites were not always readily available.

As the economy weakened, companies began to rethink the best way to control overhead and capital improvement costs in order to bolster a return on investment. Many companies scrapped plans for growth all together; some refocused efforts to refresh existing locations, and others eliminated entire construction departments via layoff. The A/E industry suffered the effects of the recession well before economists were willing to categorize it as such.  In response, the industry had to adapt, reinvent and change its entire vernacular. Today, there are three major modifications to the way architects and engineers do business in retail construction: the reduced priority given to ground-up prototypical construction, the use of new technology to increase efficiency, and the composition of the A/E teams themselves.

The Demise of the “Prototype”
Focusing on retailers that develop out lots rather than those who occupy inline retail spaces, the term “prototype” is typically reserved for ground-up construction. These retailers will usually have multiple prototypes to allow for comprehensive and flexible application due to variations in geography or demand. Often, the prototype documents are so detailed and developed to such a high level, that client standards are contained implicitly within the prototype itself.  Interior finishes, lighting levels, merchandising placement, circulation, spatial relationships between elements and other retailer-specific standards, are captured and implemented easily through the replication of the prototype. These standards are not necessarily documented elsewhere, as they are so easily executed within the repetition of prototype implementation.

So, what happens when ground-up construction stops?  Retailers gripped by the poor economy had to be creative while seeking alternative, less expensive ways to bring products and fresh facilities to market. As weaker businesses began to fold, vacated structures in prime locations became available. In order to adapt to the changing market and save capital, interior renovations became prevalent and A/E firms created documents based on a kit-of-parts (KOP).

A KOP represents numerous individual design elements, for example, a customer reception desk and its associated lighting, finishes and adjacencies, which can be assembled with other “parts” to create an entire retail environment. However, a KOP alone is not adequate for comprehensive design. A plethora of additional information is needed to be extracted from clients about the programming, design and operations of the facility; information that had been previously taken for granted in the prototype-based development model. 

Emergence of Technology
Client collaboration is even more critical outside of the prototype-based development model.  The various client stakeholders need a greater level of involvement in projects, as the number of potential variables and project-based decisions increase dramatically. There is a balance between the ability to maintain and represent a space that reflects retailers brand identity, while catering to the actual characteristics of the space itself. The individual members of the client team responsible for making these decisions are often not used to this level of conceptualization, and not necessarily capable of thinking three-dimensionally. Traditional floor plans and elevations alone are not enough to paint the full picture of understanding to those who aren’t used to looking at construction documents. To compensate, A/E teams have taken the use of technology as a visualization tool to the next level. 

Utilizing 3D scanning technology in an existing facility allows for virtual walkthrough of unvisited spaces, easier integration into building information modeling producing photorealistic renderings and 3D printing of scaled physical models. Through these new visualization tools, we are able to portray a higher level of realism in order to communicate the as-built conditions and how they relate to the proposed concept. The shift in how the A/E team physically creates construction documents, how they communicate concepts and plug them into the client mentality has been cause for a change in the overall composition of the A/E team itself.

Evolution of the A/E Team Structure
In the past five years, there has been a significant change in the composition of retail A/E teams. Today they seem to have a wider breadth of experience and understanding, as well as greater flexibility and mobility, for the growing requirement of on-site observation. One of the most important factors is that they have a deeper understanding of meeting the goals of the client when delivering a building, rather than delivering it only to meet the characteristics of the site it sits upon.

Thanks to the minimization of the cookie-cutter-architecture mentality, A/E teams are closer than ever to being an extension of the clients own staff. There is now more incentive to understand “why” things are designed the way they are. Even the smallest details such as “how many inches is the hand sink from the prep table” deserve to be pondered and discussed. When teams try to fit a square peg through a round hole, there evolves a deeper understanding for the design tradeoffs and priorities for elements that may not “fit”.

Overall, A/E teams have been strengthened by numerous lessons learned throughout the economic down turn. Here, it is greater than the “do more with less” mentality that is echoed throughout nearly every industry. We have now learned a different way to staff projects, given the new set of steps involved to complete a project successfully. Fee structures and the menu of services offered to each project is more diverse and easier to navigate with the desires of clients to see a more a-la-carte style of doing business. More importantly, we have diversified. The additional services that we now offer were all developed in the effort stay on the cutting edge of technology and to add value to our clients. If a design team can remain an invaluable resource to their clients, the strength of those relationships can weather any economic storm.

Jason Christoff is director of commercial architecture at ms consultants, Columbus, Ohio. He can be reached at

More Web Exclusives/Guest Commentaries

Recommended stories

Login or Register to post a comment.