The wind-chill factor is 20 degrees in Minnesota and the snow freezes to ice as it hits the sidewalks. Question: Would you rather shop at an indoor mall or an enclosed mall?

For most consumers, the answer is easy. Stay warm and dry within the sheltering mall walls while you hit your favorite stores. But here's the twist. Many shoppers are growing tired of the sameness of regional malls and, well, the lack of fresh air. So, developers and architects must come up with ways to keep shoppers comfortable in an open-air environment.

“When the weather hits 90 degrees in Buffalo or when the temperature drops dramatically in a hot climate, that's when you really start seeing in a loss in retail business,” says James Gagne, senior vice president of Planalytics, a Wayne, Pa.-based market research firm that monitors how the weather affects supply and demand. “And it does happen,” he adds. “I'm surprised about how cold it gets in the southwest when the sun's not shining.”

Weatherproofing the outdoors is a tough, but necessary, assignment because lifestyle centers, which ICSC says average $400 sales in sales per square foot versus $330 for regional malls, are here to stay.

“Outdoor centers work because people are tired of being indoors,” says George Wickwire, a partner at Seattle-based Callison Architecture. Just look at Oakbrook Center, an open-air retail center in Oak Brook, Ill., says Tom Porter, senior principal of TVSA architecture firm in Atlanta. “It's one of the most successful centers in the Chicago region — just as busy in the winter as in the summer — and the area certainly has its share of enclosed malls,” Porter says.

In many cases, seasonal change is part of the allure for shoppers who go to open-air centers, he says. “Weather is neat. People want to be in the elements, either in rain or the sun,” Wickwire says. “But of course, no one wants to get sopping wet. That's where weather mitigation comes in.”

To protect shoppers from the elements, architects often construct designated spots or “relief zones” surrounding pedestrian walkways and seating areas. Colder climates require heated vestibules that might include heat convectors or outdoor fireplaces.

“The fireplaces go back to ancient Rome,” says Mark Tweed, president of HTH Group in Beverly Hills, Calif. Tweed helped designed Desert Ridge Marketplace, a 1.2 million square foot regional open-air center in Phoenix, while at MCG Architecture. “People can group around outdoor plazas with fireplaces just as they did in Pompeian days.”

In hot climates, relief zones consist of shaded lines of trees or canopies or overhangs with built-in ceiling fans and humidifiers (except for tropical climates, where moisture stays in the air. Overhead misters are generally used in drier regions such as Las Vegas or Phoenix). “In many cases, there's a long walk from one anchor to another, and in hot weather, using trellises or tree landscapes is an easy solution,” McCarty says. “Every 20 feet or so, you'd get a little relief.”

Less easy for architects is finding creative ways to tame strong wind currents accompanying freezing temperatures, says Greg Lyon, a principal at MCG in Irvine, Calif. Consumers would be able to adjust to hot climates, “unless you're in Saudi Arabia,” but if the air is cold and unbearable, shoppers are simply not going to stay outside, Lyon says. “During winter months, shoppers will often destination shop as soon as they get out of their cars,” and are less willing to stroll from store to store and stay for extended periods, he says.

To modify powerful wind tunnels in Legacy Village, a 610,000-square-foot lifestyle center in Lyndhurst, outside of Cleveland, David Parrish, partner at Cleveland-based architecture firm Dorsky + Partners and Alex Espinosa, partner and director of design for Commercial Studio, built curved metal grids between anchor buildings. The team also custom-built heated sidewalks by layering electrical coils underneath a cement pavement to prevent ice from forming during the winter, Espinosa says.

At Vestar-owned Desert Ridge, northern California-based SPGA Architecture and Planning and MCG, which designed the property, had to install weather-mitigating components for two extremes in the desert climate: 100-plus degree days during the summer and below-50 degree temperatures during winter nights. For hot days, the architect team installed water misters above six 300-foot long glass canopy walkways, along with large fountains, for a cooling psychological affect.

For cold nights, they added fire torches and a concrete outdoor fireplace, where up to eight shoppers can sit and warm their hands between store visits, says Keith Phittsford, principal of SPGA. “I call it an outdoor living room because people just sit there drinking coffee and looking at the stars.” The gas-burning fireplace, which stands 8 feet high and 6 feet wide, is active 11 months out of the year, Phittsford says.

Weathering the Storm

Finding the right aesthetic for weather protectors can be tricky. Keeping in mind that lifestyle and open-air concepts are supposed to look more like European plazas than Midwestern strip malls, many architects use a combination of colors and materials, including canopies made of canvas, glass or metal, brick arcades and brightly-colored awnings mixed into one development. “We try not to have single-toned canvases from one end to another,” says Everett Hatcher, principal at CMH Architects in Birmingham, Ala. “The scale of it should change, but the covering is continuous.”

Developers usually provide weather protectors for the center, but require that tenants supply their own storefront and display window covers. Canvas or vinyl awnings are the least expensive and easy to maintain, so they are the most common among retailers, says Daryl Dunckel, president of Ordner Construction in Atlanta. Retailers can quickly alternate colors by season and scroll their logos on them. But canvas coverings have to be replaced every 5 to 7 years (possibly sooner for darker canvases because colors fade quicker), Dunckel says. Glass or metal (usually copper or brass) canopies are more expensive but last longer (about 15 to 20 years) and have a finished, elegant look. But only about 50 percent of retailers actually provide coverings for entrances, Porter estimates. “It depends on the developer.”

Prices vary, depending on size and design, but can range from $15 to $20 per square foot. A glass canopy that's about 5,000 feet long and 12 to 14 feet deep can cost about $1.4 million, Dunckel says.

Retailers tend to frown at brick arcades that are generally used to protect walkways to parking lots, says Kevin Nice, a senior associate at Arrowstreet architect firm in Boston. There may be issues with storefront visibility, but arcades are an effective way to protect consumers from harsh weather, he says.

“It's interesting that the city of Seattle has mandated a glass canopy system for a lot of its retail to bring in as much natural light as possible because of its overcast days,” says Porter. “But that can get expensive.” One example is University Village, a 400,000-square-foot open-air center that underwent extensive renovations a few years ago. Designers for the center, managed by University Village Partnership, installed a series of glass canopies with cast aluminum lighting, and a 30-foot long glass “gazebo” above the walkways leading to parking lots, says Tom Croonquist, vice president and director of development for University Village.

Retailers are usually required to follow the developers' mandate, but are generally given equal freedom to use various materials and styles.

“We want tenants to have their own individuality,” says Ron Loch, vice president of conceptual design and planning for Bloomfield Hills, Mich.-based Taubman Centers, which recently opened its first open-air development, Stony Point Fashion Park in Richmond, Va., anchored by Dillard's and Saks Fifth Avenue. “Some choose canvas overheads, others choose stone. We have about 90 tenants and each awning looks completely unique,” he says.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

PROBLEM:

Why should shoppers brave the elements when they can stay cool and dry in an enclosed mall? It's a question developers and architects must answer, because inclement weather can affect annual retail sales as much as 23 percent, says consultant Planalytics.

SOLUTION:

Architects are devising “relief zones” to protect shoppers from uncomfortable weather. A variety of architectural tricks, including heated walkways, outdoor fireplaces and water-spraying humidifiers — help keep shoppers comfortable through rain, snow, sleet and extreme heat.

BUZZ:

At Desert Ridge Marketplace in Phoenix, SPGA Architecture and Planning and MCG installed water misters and fountains to cool off customers on 90-degree-plus days. For cool nights, they added fire torches and a concrete fireplace, where shoppers can sit and warm their hands.

DATA:

In the past two years, about 70 lifestyle centers were built, bringing the total number in the U.S. to 100, and introducing the concept to cities as far north as Minneapolis. Another 20 new lifestyle centers in diverse climates are scheduled to open this year, compared with only six new regional centers in development, ICSC says.