Towards greener retail design - a studio discussion

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Contact Mike Wilson-MacCormack

What can we as designers do to make retail environments more sustainable and retail design more responsible? As part of our regular studio ‘Fireside Chat’ discussion series, we invited colleagues from across the business to share their thoughts and ideas about how to address some of the environmental factors facing retail today. See their findings below.

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Mike Wilson-MacCormack, Director, Head of Newark Studio, Benoy

There are many ways we can start our projects. Quite often we start with a site analysis, or by looking at construction methodology or precedents. We or our clients might have an overarching architectural vision. Probably most projects start as a combination of all these elements. 

But what about starting by considering the most sustainable approach to the development in question? How often do we actually start from that point and see what emerges?

Of course, the challenges facing retail are huge. We’ve seen the inexorable rise of online purchasing. And we’ve seen a major shift in consumer trends, whereby experiences are increasingly valued over acquisition. It’s possible we’re at the point now where we pursue experience for experience’s sake. To borrow a phrase from Simon Forster, former CEO of Selfridges, invention not inventory” is the way forward for in-store retail. Because having done their research and been exposed to brands in the physical world, people are still more likely to make our purchases online. And the COVID-19 pandemic has further entrenched these behaviours. 

In our highstreets and town centres, we now have a huge oversupply of retail space; and we see top-tier developers and owners focusing on trophy assets and disposing of anything secondary. As new entrants pick up discarded real estate at low value, they’re coming to us and asking, what do we do with this redundant retail space?’

So, do we demolish and rebuild? Or do we repurpose and reimagine? 

Newbuild gives us an opportunity to focus on carbon sequestration, to use timber rather than steel and concrete, to leverage renewable energy generation and to create new landscaping and greenspace. Newbuild Benoy projects, such as Kings Road, Orpington and Buchanan Galleries in Glasgow, are breathing new life into highstreets, supporting local jobs and economies, and providing new homes and workplaces. 

But is demolish and rebuild always the right way to go? Is it right that these assets, some of which aren’t even 40 years old, will be swept away and replaced? Is it okay that all the embodied carbon in these structures has had such a relatively short life? And are we really convinced that rebuilding is not just another wheel in another cycle?

And what about repurposing? Traditional retail assets are often at odds with more contemporary needs. They tend to be really deep plan and inflexible, with poor access to daylight and limited opportunities for natural ventilation. Such structures don’t transform easily into uses such as residential, medical or workplace. We can repurpose these deep spaces for leisure activities and adventure sports, for dark kitchens or last-mile logistics. But are there opportunities to create something out of these spaces that feels more like a high street? 

When it comes to retail, yes we can rebuild and yes we can repurpose. But what guides our decisions? For instance, should we ever design a building we cannot adapt? Should we ever create spaces that are airconditioned, artificially lit and highly serviced? Should we ever create private space where if you’re not spending you’re not welcome? And how do we create a template for sustainable retail? What are the sources of passive resistance or barriers that prevent us from taking a particular path? 

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Anton Comrie, Senior Associate Director, Uncommon Land

The importance of context and research

Sustainability has become a scientific discipline grounded in research. And one of the things we need to do better is research, so we understand how to apply the right kind of sustainability solutions to the right contexts.

It’s not enough to export ideas from one place to another without understanding the ramifications and implications of these contextual shifts. At Benoy, we have the privilege of working across a very broad contextual landscape; but we have to understand each of the contexts we work in to ensure that we achieve right design right place’. This is the most basic first step in sustainability.

So the research component is critical. By developing our knowledge, when we speak to clients we can ensure we really know our subject matter and develop work that is 100% relevant. As designers, we often want to start drawing lines immediately; but sometimes it’s good to hold back until we have the knowledge we need to make informed decisions about sustainability. Because once the design work begins, commercial imperatives tend to push sustainability to the back of the process and divert us away from accruing a sound base of knowledge.

It would be interesting to know how much time we spend on sustainability versus creativity on each project. Is it 3%, 5%? Perhaps we need to ensure we spend at least 15 – 20% of our time on sustainability during each piece of project work.

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Magda Jaslar and Fenia Lenta — Benoy Environmental Design Committee

Developing knowledge and tools

We’re beginning to spend more time on sustainability earlier on in the design process. Through Benoy’s Environmental Design Committee (EDC), we’re starting to spread knowledge through the office, giving people the tools to embed sustainability principles into their work. 

Increasingly, we’re conducting early environmental analysis, which has been very useful. We could always do more, but we’re beginning to acquire and implement knowledge. Going forward, we need to ensure every project goes out having undergone a climate analysis at the very least, plus considerations as to what’s working and what’s not. Further, we need to revisit and review environmental performance as a project evolves, against the baseline we establish at the outset. 

Where we can really test our models is in relation to passive design for hot climates by focusing on massing, street formations, screening and shading. This is an area of work that’s really gaining momentum through our expanding portfolio in the Middle East. And it’s essential we take a climatic or regional approach to sustainability and define those actions that can make a difference in different parts of the world. It’s also important we agree on those actions and set the ambition with the client at the start of each project. Otherwise time can be lost conducting research or devising interventions the client hasn’t bought into. 


Simon Grimbley, Director, Uncommon Land

The value of landscape and greenspace

Landscape is having its moment. Although the carbon reduction impact landscape can make is actually minimal, the intangible value of open greenspace has gained traction in recent years. During the COVID-19 pandemic in particular, awareness of the relevance and necessity of publicly owned and publicly accessible landscape has risen sharply. Often, it seems there’s potential for greenspace to be more valuable – socially and environmentally – than the retail assets that sit alongside it. So are there ways to generate direct income from this space? 

To demonstrate the actual value of landscape and what it brings would be a huge step forward. Because landscape is never seen as something you sell, it’s always seen as a cost. It can’t be rented for a price per square foot, it can’t be sold per unit, and is generally viewed as an add-on. We know its value intuitively, but we need to be more empirical; we need to be able to demonstrate the actual tangible value of landscaping and greenspace. 

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Wesley Louie, Head of Design, Singapore, Benoy

Balancing indoor and outdoor environments

In Singapore we’re working on the redevelopment of an existing retail project. Unusually for this market and climate, the client requested an open-air retail village. In Singapore, due to the heat and humidity, people tend to seek refuge in airconditioned retail interiors. But COVID-19 has shifted people’s thinking, as they increasingly see the value in naturally shaded and ventilated open space. 

The outdoor village typology is certainly unique here, but it’s part of a growing awareness of sustainability issues in design. And there is definitely an increasing sense that the landscaped spaces, the elevated parks and outdoor activities, are as compelling for local people as the retail dimensions. 

In hot climates, it’s about making outside environments more bearable; and it’s about getting the balance right between inside and outside. Sometimes the transition between inside and out can be dramatic; you can’t shift from airconditioned interiors into blazing heat, there needs to be balance and designers need to commit to both portions equally, otherwise one will struggle. Certainly, de-malling’ projects, where the roof is ripped off a shopping centre or an enclosed mall is turned inside out, need to be handled with care.

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Rob Bentley, Director, Benoy

Finding local value

From a UK market perspective, we have to respect the natural evolution of town centres. We’ve seen recent developments in regional urban areas that effectively aim to relocate and/​or create new town centres. And if you shift focus in this way, there are massive ramifications.

What’s more important is to find the value in your place, and to find the drivers of value creation. In this way, we can start to create places where people want to come. This in turn drives the value of the residential or other uses that might support your retail or town centre development. 

We also need to be mindful of social and community dimensions and other underlying conditions. The local employment profile, education profile and deprivation profile all need to be part of a town’s sustainable retail solution.

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Ioannis Bourlakis, Associate Director, Architecture, Benoy

The role of policy in driving change

While we can try to devise the best possible solutions for client projects and challenges, the key driver is policymaking. And if as architects we’re not involved in policymaking, from the smallest scale to the biggest nothing will really change.

There need to be rules we all abide by when we design. For example, we need to mandate that all office building designs have to have a shallow footprint and have to enable conversion to residential. But until we’re involved in policymaking around sustainability, we will just be treating the symptoms and not the cause. 

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