The recent interest in upscale, external shopping environments puts a new emphasis on hardscape, amenities, landscape, lighting and environmental graphics. The concept of new urbanism, the main street retail prototype and the latest lifestyle centers demands a “sense of place” from their exterior counterparts.

First impressions

When patrons visit a certain location, they encounter the hardscape first. As visitors draw near their destination, the hardscape distinguishes the project from neighboring shops and restaurants. It sets the mood of the excursion and gives the visit a starting point. Likewise, it leaves visitors with a lasting impression. The owner's last chance to invite the shopper back for another visit might lie in the hardscape.

“Developers are putting in larger budgets for the hardscape and the exterior,” says Leon Nitsun, vice president of architecture at Simon Property Group. Owners want successful projects.

Open-air success

The process of creating a successful open-air retail center begins with land planning. While the decorative hardscape is important, function comes first. The external center must have a well-conceived retail diagram at the core of its planning process.

The retail diagram organizes the site to facilitate easy accessibility of parking areas. Parking plans differ depending on the style of the project, but no matter the style, tenants desire a pleasurable experience for their visitors and hardscape plays a significant role.

The retail diagram for lifestyle centers usually distributes parking facilities in smaller fields around the center of the location. Tenants want their locations to be convenient and easily accessible. If a visitor can't immediately access a storefront from the parking area, a successful internal pedestrian walkway through dispersed entry portals can guide visitors directly to their destination. Well-planned hardscape would include well-marked, lighted walkways to guide visitors.

The importance of accessibility plays a big role in main street projects as well. Designers bring only a limited number of parking spaces to the project as an essential element to the creation of the street scene. This setup introduces new challenges. A wider street affects the sense of scale, yet tenants need adequate parking to please their customers. Pedestrian and vehicle safety require walkways and curbs. Crosswalks, designed inadequately, restrict and confine cross shopping. The necessary curbing creates new hazards requiring tactile warnings and wheelchair ramps. Hardscape encompasses all of these issues.

Setting up safe, convenient pathways to and from all parking areas helps eliminate some frustration that comes with limited parking. Using decorative hardscape to enhance the pathways adds excitement and lessens the frustration. Signage needs to appropriately direct traffic flow. Here we start to cross the line from using functional hardscape to using decorative hardscape.

One can conceivably divide an owner's hardscape budget into two categories: the necessary and the desired. Parking facilities and convenient, directional walkways must be included in any project for shoppers to reach the tenants.

A project might need a pylon sign, a way-finding system and additional graphics to make the scene enticing in order to attract customers. The same applies to lighting. Every project needs a certain amount of light. By using light to add ambiance and to set the mood, the scene becomes more appealing. “You've got to have something that's physically practical and aesthetic. You can get both,” Nitsun says.

The components of the exterior environment need to be ordered and designed to complement one another. A design team is recommended for open-air center projects. This concept is much like the teaming of design consultants and in-house experts to address design issues on an enclosed center.

“My role is to understand the vision the architect has for the space and to enhance that,” says Helen Deimer, vice president of The Lighting Practice. The early inclusion of lighting consultants and graphic designers to work with the architect and landscape architect helps the design options to unfold simultaneously, rather than sequentially. “We try and get the graphic designer to work with the project architect, ideally, as a team,” agrees Nitsun.

Architecture vs. hardscapes

Besides the design portion of the team, other team members include the owner, designated representatives, leasing agents and a general contractor or the owner's in-house construction personnel to assist with cost estimating. “It's easy to spend a significant portion of your budget on building well-crafted and well-conceived buildings. It takes some discipline to make sure up front, that you've thought about the entire vision,” says Will Voegele, regional director of development at Forest City Development.

In more cases than not, owners get wrapped up in what the building is going to look like. They focus the majority of their budget on the architecture and the funds for the hardscape tend to fall short. Typically on retail projects, graphics give the project zing. Unfortunately, in many cases, the graphics aren't even being considered until after the project is designed. There seems to be a paradox.

Budget concerns

Rather than fixing line items and allowances for each discipline, it may be better to institute a flexible system of estimating and budgeting for the creation of an external retail environment. Design efforts may overlap causing budgets to be redistributed. For example, a hardscape may incorporate a low wall as a planter wall or fountain edge doubling as a seating area. This would reduce the required number of benches. The amenities line item should recognize this transfer of resources.

The cost difference for a bench customized with a graphic device to help convey the theme should be deducted from the graphics budget.

Though these numbers may seem insignificant, using a graphic element and foregoing an architectural façade treatment could offer substantial savings. However, graphics do animate the space. Without flair or added punch, architects would rely more on the architecture to build excitement. That can be much more costly.

Teamwork generally results in cost savings, which potentially benefits all involved. Everyone strives for the greatest possible project with the total funds available, while attaining a sense of parity among the efforts of each discipline. It is important not to “balance” the budget by cutting components to be purchased or installed later in the process to offset miscalculations. Appropriately considering hardscape in the beginning prevents budgeting headaches. Redevelopment becomes easier too.

Project renovation occurs about every 10 years, with graphics playing a major part. “It seems you can achieve a look and change a look quickly and less expensively by the use of hardscape and environmental graphics. They are temporary, “Deimer says.

Selecting pieces that are flexible allow for more versatility during redevelopment, and even for temporary seasonal changes or promotional events. A permanent, built-in piece is expensive to put in, expensive to replace and difficult to move.

For hardscape to achieve the highest level of success, the total assemblage of exterior design elements needs to work in conjunction with the architecture. All aspects of the project need to be composed in a collaborative design effort among all the design consultants.

The result is a retail facility that invites extended shopping outings and satisfies the patrons and the owner. Ultimately, this type of project yields a sense of pride shared by all members of the team.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Darrell Pattison is a third-generation architect with completed projects in 42 states. He has served as director of design at KA, Inc. Architecture for 15 years.

Your attention, please!

The strategic use of hardscape and environmental graphics plays a big part at Station Square, a lifestyle center in Pittsburgh.

Station Square sits on the south bank of the Monongahela River. The 52-acre, mixed-use facility includes 189,000 sq. ft. of specialty shops and restaurants, and 440,000 sq. ft. of office space. This project also includes a 6,500-seat amphitheater, a 4,100-car parking facility, a 550-seat restaurant and a hotel with 293 rooms.

The location of this project emphasizes the importance of the outdoor scene, playing up the value of hardscapes. Station Square lies within walking distance via pedestrian bridges to Three Rivers Stadium, and connects the CBD with the surrounding suburbs. This project invites tourism with historic landmarks, dining, shopping and entertainment.

“It has many interrelated pieces representing different venues along a connecting spine. We want each of them to have a separate graphic identity and at the same time, fit within a site graphic character,” says Will Voegele, regional director of development at Forest City Development. The graphics and hardscapes of each part of the project require careful consideration.

They bring Station Square together, while keeping its entities significantly unique. For example, each building will maintain its own characteristics, but a pedestrian and cyclist pathway will link all the buildings together.

All the pieces of the project will flow as one so visitors can find their way around. Each location within the project must be well marked for people to easily differentiate which facility is which.

Guests should enjoy their visit and take pleasure in the whole encounter. As a major part of this experience involves the outdoors, the hardscape and environmental graphics can make or break the project.

“We are just not willing to compromise. We care so much about the quality of the paving materials, the building and the lighting. We don't want to short change the project by not adding the right site furnishings,” Voegele says.