Designing Flexibly for the Future of Retail

November 2016


The defining characteristic of future shopping destinations might be their flexibility.

The average lease length in a UK shopping centre is six years. Ten or 15 years ago, retailers were signing 15, 20, 25-year leases.[20] “Now when we’re designing a scheme, a retail unit may not end up being a retail unit — it might be a library,” says Ian Standring of WSP. “A food and beverage unit might become a gym. Or a market area might be split into five separate retail units in future, or converted into a community facility. That has big implications for construction, so we have to think about it early on.”

“Retail assets often have a long design life — up to 60 years. That’s a lot of investment, and a lot of potential change, so flexibility adds value. Moving to decarbonized electricity has a spatial impact. If you haven’t factored in flexibility, it could be costly later on”

Ian Standring, WSP

This will even extend to the external walls. Are you inside or outside? Maybe neither, maybe both. In temperate climates, shopping centres will have an increasing ambiguous relationship to the surrounding city — they might be designed as part of the streetscape, with doors that are only closed at night or once a year. “We want to create the very best internal and external worlds, and allow them to blend seamlessly so that we drive activity all year round,” says Robin Dobson, director of retail development at Hammerson. “There are always times when you’ll need a more controlled environment. We want the ability to make external spaces internal when the weather dictates, and to create internal spaces and then take the roof off to make a truly external world.”

Retail spaces consume a lot of energy, and the source of this energy is changing too. At the UN climate talks in Paris in December 2015, nearly 200 world leaders committed to holding global warming to less than 2°C. The World Green Building Council and the International Energy Agency project that, by 2050, carbon emissions from buildings must be reduced by 84 gigatonnes — the equivalent of taking 22,000 coal-fired power stations offline. As governments invest in cleaner forms of energy, electricity will become the dominant source of decarbonized power.

“You could track the road network and how people flow from car parks to offices to retail. Planners could use this to decide what should be developed where, or model interventions: where should the car park go, what should that site be used for? We could masterplan cities based on data about how that city reacts”

Adam Selvey, WSP


What will become of all that car parking space when cars can drop off their passengers and park all by themselves?

Driverless cars are already on roads around the world. Predictions for widespread adoption range from just two years to 2030 at the earliest, but there seems little doubt that they will eventually become the norm. Cars that can park themselves need less room to manoeuvre and there is no need to leave space for the driver to get out. Neither do they need to park so close to shops — they could wait at a storage hub at the edge of town. And if people no longer owned their own cars but simply ordered one from a shared pool, that would reduce the need for local parking even further.

“We’re looking at how we can convert car parks to alternative uses in future — to retail, or leisure or perhaps even residential,” says Hammerson’s Robin Dobson. “We’re looking at what they’re made from, how we lay out the grids, whether we can take floors out, or change the configuration.”

Autonomous vehicles will be transformational,” adds Rachel Skinner, development director at WSP. “We can redesign our town squares, reclaim our driveways and build more densely in cities. If planned properly, there will be more space for urban retail, commercial and leisure activities, we will have more pleasant places to live, and we can enjoy more open and green spaces.”

In tomorrow’s much denser cities, development will be based around communal rather than personal transport, says Stan Laegreid of Seattle-based architect MG2. “Transit hubs will become the new downtown urban centres. I don’t think people recognize how significant transit-oriented design is in moulding future urban environments.  For our cities, it means we will have more districts or nodal cities within a CBD.”

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