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Out with the red stripe

Barbara Marquand

Years ago, most Wal-Mart stores looked alike – blue-and-gray big boxes with red stripes around the buildings.

But a growing number of cities across the country are creating design standards for large-scale retail stores to get away from those literal big-box looks and to bring the stores down to human scale.

And the giant retailer has responded by presenting more differentiated designs from the get-go and then working with local planners to make sure the architecture reflects the surrounding areas.

“We are known for our efficiency and in the past we presented store designs that minimized our costs to produce,” says Wal-Mart regional spokesman Eric Berger.”Over the last few years we have found our customers appreciate designs that are unique to their communities.

In many cases we feel we’re presenting stores that are raising the bar for the design of big-box stores.”

Bottom line, too: working with a city on its design desires makes the local approval process move more smoothly.

It’s a development in cost savings, according to Berger, as well as a greater payback in community appreciation for the end product.

Reno and Sparks,with two Wal-Marts under construction and more on the books, are among the cities benefiting from Wal- Mart’s new focus on design variety.

One unique Wal-Mart will be the store on East Second Street in Reno, developed by the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.

The preliminary design features a gabled face, heavy timbers and an articulated roofline.

The use of different materials, as well as four entrances, breaks up the front of the building, so it’s not just a long, flat space.

In addition, the Indian Colony is asking Wal-Mart to incorporate some traditional Indian designs, such as geometric patterns, somewhere on the building or in the concrete sidewalks.

“They are keenly aware of the standards of this region,” says Indian Colony planning director Scott Nebesky.”This will be the one of the most progressive designs Wal-Mart is providing in the U.S.

now.”

The Indian Colony store will also feature a bus stop for seniors and people with disabilities right in the heart of the development, and a concept called four-sided architecture.

Although the sides and the back of the building will be more plain than the front, those three sides will still feature a variety of materials and rooflines to provide interest.

The Wal-Mart under construction on Pyramid Lake Road in Sparks also features a unique design, incorporating brick, varying textures and earth-tone colors to break up the space.

“We’re incorporating architectural techniques that minimize the size of the building and add more character,” says Berger.

“Different types of materials, for example, enhance the overall appearance of the store, so it’s not just one brick wall.”

Wal-Mart is taking this design approach all over the country.

In Syracuse,Utah, for instance, the new Wal-Mart store features brick elements and awnings that are similar to those on the community’s new courthouse building.

Design of the proposed Wal-Mart in Yelm, Wash., a town known for dairy farms, grain, cattle and mills, incorporates architectural forms that reflect the community’s history and character.

Parts of the fa ade resemble barns, and a variety of colors, textures and materials are used on the storefront.

The varied roofline and varied depths of the fa ade make the building look more like a smalltown main street than a big-box store.

A store in Poulsbo,Wash., a Norwegian community nestled in the valley between the Olympic and Cascade mountains, meanwhile, reflects that community’s heritage.

Each time Wal-Mart raises the bar in one community, the bar is raised all over the country for the giant retailer,Nebesky says, because communities track Wal-Mart’s activities so closely.

“What they do in Reno is probably going to be tracked in Idaho and in Arkansas,” Nebesky says.

Wal-Mart began introducing more differentiated designs about three to five years ago, Berger says.

The chain hires architects in the regions where it plans to build so it’s better able to respond to the local communities.

Although the retailer has done a lot to vary its exterior designs, it maintains a similar design of its interiors because customers like to know where to find things, Berger says.