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Aesthetic considerations for speculative industrial buildings.

In the 1850’s, the merchandising of consumer goods through a “dry goods”, “general store” type of model was beginning to be displaced by the emergence of “Department Stores”. These establishments were bigger, often quite opulent and had a great many more items to offer than their predecessors. They still had to attract customers however and Americas rapidly growing cities were becoming hotbeds of competition for an emerging retail phenomenon.

Around 1890, two young men, L. Frank Baum and Gordon Selfridge, were working at a department store in Chicago known as “Marshall Fields Department Store”. Competition being what it is, the two men began to develop ways of attracting customers through the imaginative use of window displays. Their work was so successful in doing so, that an entirely new industry was born. Baum began publishing a journal called “The Show Window” in 1897 and formed the “National Association of Window Trimmers” in 1898. Baum had a background in theatre and Selfridge was known for his creativity in setting up the displays. Selfridge started the first “Display Department” at the store and along with Baum, began applying the nascent field of advertising psychology to their window designs. The window designs dramatically drove traffic and sales for the store. Gordon Selfridge went on to found “Selfridges Department Store” in London, taking the display savvy with him over to Europe, where it was wildly successful. L. Frank Baum went on to write “The Wonderful Wizard of OZ”. “Marshall Fields Department Store” was eventually absorbed by another retail establishment called “Macy’s”.

What the two men, along with others, helped to measurably demonstrate, was that aesthetic considerations can and do influence human behavior. They demonstrated that “catching a person’s eye”, can lead to increased sales. One could argue that this is no less true for “leasing” sales in speculative buildings.


Frank Baum (L) and Gordon Selfridge (R) Source: Wikepedia

There are essentially two aesthetic “philosophies” as it pertains to Industrial buildings among developers. One belief holds that aesthetic considerations have no monetary value to the business of leasing Industrial properties. It is informed by the perfectly understandable position that anything that causes an increase in the lease rate, makes the building less competitive in the market and is thus counterproductive to the goal. During a discussion about whether to spend money on a decorative canopy on a project of mine years ago, this attitude was starkly expressed by a broker friend whom I have always admired for his acerbic sense of humor. He said, “If it has a hole in front with a door in it, and loading doors in the back, then I can lease it. Anything else is a waste of money”. Well, there you go, that’s one perspective.

The alternative view is that if a few cents per square foot of building cost can make a property more likely to attract potential tenants, then it is money well spent. This view holds that if cost effective solutions for making an Industrial building more attractive to potential tenants can be devised, even if it places the lease rate toward the upper end of the market, then you’ll likely get more “hits” and that gives a speculative property broader market appeal. After all, you can’t lease your building if no one wants to call it home.

So what’s the trend? Between the two approaches, what I have been seeing lately is a trend toward approach number two. Why? Same old reason, competition. Many markets around the country are beginning to show some signs of life after a punishing seven year drop off in Industrial Real Estate growth. National Industrial Real Estate firms are starting to show interest in a number of areas and have scooped up some land parcels at bargain prices. But they all know that they are “pioneering” in a sense and they also know they are not alone; and they’re looking for an edge. That edge is better, more “bang for the buck” Architectural design. If they’re going to come out of the ground first, they want building designs that “catch the eye”.

So, as an Architect, how do you do that cost effectively? I mean, it “is what it is” right? Just a box.  For one thing, you concentrate your efforts on ONE side of the building of course, like a storefront window. Let’s face it, Industrial buildings are functionality driven. Three sides are essentially pre-determined. I have developed a few “principles” over the years that guide my approach to getting more cost effective design impact out of site cast concrete boxes. These “maxims” are based on Tilt-Up structures, which dominate the Industrial market. There’s no voodoo here, these are just a few things I try to keep in mind when developing a concept. I hope you find some of them useful. Here they are:

  1. If you can site cast it, do it.
  2. Break down the scale. Modern Industrial buildings have a fundamental proportional conundrum. I call it : “Monumental scale, modest function”.
  3. Your most cost effective friend is what I have come to call, (with apologies to David Letterman), “Stupid Paint Tricks”.
  4. Design the building you want to see and worry about how to lift it later. (This assumes you have knowledge of the tilt-up process).
  5. Don’t let the structural grid “regulate” the façade design. (This also assumes you have a good understanding of the reasons the grid is important).
  6. Don’t let the two dimensional nature of site cast slabs keep you from thinking in three dimensions.
  7. Make a deliberate choice about how you’re going to “panelize” the façade and reinforce that approach with subsequent design decisions. (More on this in part 2)
  8. Your second most cost effective friend is texture.
  9. Don’t “decorate” the box. “Sculpt” the box.
  10. Your third most cost effective friend is “layering”.

I realize that some of these “rules” may not be entirely clear as to what I mean. In the next post, I’ll elaborate on each one and try to flesh out the concepts a little bit.

So then, it seems like the current trends are pushing us Architects to come up with ways of making our clients “boring boxes” more “eye catching”. I’m sure Baum and Selfridge would approve.

Next post: “ But it’s only a warehouse……………………” Part 2

Design techniques for speculative Industrial concrete buildings.

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Published on April 01, 2016

Topics: Commercial

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