Architecture

What is micro-retailing and why is it a growing trend? 🍃

It's hardly news that the retail industry is going through significant contraction of selling space as an uptick in bankruptcies and outright liquidations forces hundreds of locations to close en masse. In addition, dozens of struggling retailers continue to shutter outlets hoping to improve profitability or avoid a similar fate. In fact, there is a pretty good chance that the number of store closings this year will exceed last year's record pace. While there are plenty of new store openings, the net downsizing of retail space in certain categories is clearly significant (for a deeper dive I recommend this excellent report by Coresight Research).

Another factor that is starting to affect vacancy rates is that some brands are "right-sizing" their prototypical store, in what I affectionately label the "Honey, I shrunk the store" phenomenon. Some of this is a sure sign that the retailer has run out of ideas for the space it has and is hoping to shrink to prosperity. Good luck with that. Others are wisely optimizing their footprints to address the rise of e-commerce and other fundamental changes in shopping behavior.

What's new—and fundamentally more interesting for retail's future—is the rise of much smaller and very much reimagined formats from well-established brands. I first delved into this last year writing about Nordstrom Local, the storied retailer's new service-focused micro-concept. Nordstrom has since disclosed plans to open additional locations and hinted in its recent investor presentation that Local could be a key part of the company's portfolio strategy to drive market share on a city-by-city basis. Ikea joined Sephora, Target and others who are hoping to spur outlet growth by announcing a smaller format that holds the potential to unlock many additional urban locations by having fundamentally different economics and site-location requirements.

In some cases these retailers are dealing with the harsh reality that their concepts are maturing and it's becoming impossible to find locations where they can generate an ROI from their traditional format. Without reengineering their underlying economics, their store growth plans come to a screeching halt. In other cases they are mirroring aspects of the playbook employed by many digitally-native brands as they began opening physical stores: locate closer to where the target customers live or work, make services a key component of the value proposition, harmonize the experience across digital and physical channels, minimize inventory and use technology as a differentiator.

Over the years, many retailers have chased the notion of a smaller store as the key to spurring outlet growth. Where most went wrong was delivering a watered-down version of what the brand was known for. Saks' Main Street strategy is an expensive lesson in what not to do. The smaller box did encourage them to open in locations that could not financially accommodate a "real" Saks store. In theory, this strategy held the promise of increasing the luxury retailer's store count by some 50%. Unfortunately customers were underwhelmed by the offering, seeing it as a "baby" Saks. Eventually all the expansion sites were closed.

Five Incredible Buildings Inspired By Nature 🌱 #Biomimetic

Biomimetic architecture uses nature as a model, measure and mentor to solve problems in architecture. It is not the same as biomorphic architecture, which uses natural existing elements as sources of inspiration for aesthetic components of form. Instead, biomimetic architecture looks to nature as a model to imitate or take inspiration from natural designs and processes and applies it to the man-made. It uses nature as a measure meaning biomimicry uses an ecological standard to judge the efficiency of human innovations. Nature as a mentor means that biomimicry does not try to exploit nature by extracting material goods from it, but values nature as something humans can learn from.

  1. Milwaukee Art Musem

Credit: Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Credit: Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The elegant Milwaukee Art Museum’s most eye-catching feature is its huge sunscreen roof – the Burke Brise Soleil – which is reminiscent of great white wings thanks to an open and closing mechanism controlling the 90 tonne screen.

Architect Santiago Calatrava wanted to incorporate both the urban and natural features of Lake Michigan, which the building overlooks, and took into account the “culture” of the lake front including boats and sails.

Gabriel Tang, an architect and senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, describes why this US building is among his favourites: “Although expensive and technically complex, this is a delightful way in which architecture can be inspired by observations and ideas from nature to create pieces which are interestingly functional, functionally practical, and practically beautiful.”

He adds: “I love the direct and straight-forward legibility of the building. The opening or closing mechanism is gracefully poetic, but yet performs a function – that of protection.”

2. The Gherkin

Credit: Getty images

Credit: Getty images

“This was one of the first environmentally progressive buildings in the UK city of London,” says Tang of 30 St Mary Axe, the UK’s iconic skyscraper more commonly known as “The Gherkin”.

Completed in 2004, the 180m tower has an air ventilation system similar to sea sponges and anemones, Tang points out.

These creatures feed by directing sea water to flow through their bodies. And similarly, The Gherkin is supported by an exoskeleton structure, and is designed so ventilation flows through the entire building.

3. The “algae house”

Credit: Novarc Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Credit: Novarc Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Germany’s extraordinary “algae house” or BIQ building in Hamburg actually incorporates living matter – microalgae – into its design.

One side of the green-hued tower’s largely transparent surface contains tiny, growing algae which can control light entering the building and provide shade when needed.

It’s the world's first example of a “bioreactor façade”.

Algae produced within the transparent shell are continuously supplied with nutrients and carbon dioxide by a water circuit which runs through the building’s surface.

The algae creates a sun filter, explains Cruz: “In winter for instance, when there’s hardly any light and Hamburg is pretty grey for a long period, then the algae will not propagate and the façade screens will be very transparent, and so light comes through.”

When enough algae have grown they can be harvested and used to make biogas (a renewable energy source made from raw materials) to supply the building.

The ingenious design was completed as a prototype for the International Building Exhibition in Hamburg in 2013.

4. Eden Project

Credit: Caitlin Mogridge / Redferns via Getty Images

Credit: Caitlin Mogridge / Redferns via Getty Images

The Eden Project, nestled in a clay pit near the hamlet of Bodelva in Cornwall, UK, houses an extraordinary collection of plant species from tropical rainforest and the Mediterranean.

But the domed building itself is a large part of the spectacle: its “curvilinear” shape is an example of “softer edge” geometries which fascinate architects today, says Cruz.

Architect Nicholas Grimshaw’s huge transparent semi-spherical creations were inspired by the shape of soap bubbles, and the building’s “Core” education centre mimics the Fibonacci spiral pattern found in many natural objects such as pinecones, pineapples, sunflowers and snail shells.

5. Downland Gridshell Building

Credit: Steve Speller - Alamy Stock Photo

Credit: Steve Speller - Alamy Stock Photo

The light and airy Downland Gridshell Building, part of the Weal & Downloand Open Air Museum in Singleton, Chichester, UK was completed in 2002 and uses oak laths bent into shape to create the double-curvature, lightweight shell structure.

“This is perhaps not a building that was inspired by natural observations but with its timber cladding on the outside and being located within the woods, this building strikes a very close relationship to its natural setting and has been described by critics and architects themselves as an armadillo,” says Tang.

Tang, having worked extensively with gridshell design, explains lightweight shells such as those seen in the Downland Gridshell Building, are typically made with timber or steel. “Imagine how a bird creates a nest from separate pieces of straw. These structures usually have light-filled interiors but because of the number of connections, can be difficult to make weather-tight.”

Design is a human ritual of understanding.
— Maggie Macnab, Design by Nature: Using Universal Forms and Principles in Design