How is COVID-19 affecting retail, restaurants?

With consumers frequently enjoying delivered meals and shopping for goods online, brick-and-mortar restaurants and retail structures need to be more advanced than ever to compete

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer June 15, 2020


  • Scott Garrison, principal, Peter Basso Associates, Troy, Mich. An electrical engineer for more than 30 years, Garrison heads up his company’s Commercial and Government Buildings market sector group. He has worked on a range of projects including large corporate headquarters, data centers, casinos, sports and entertainment venues, municipal and educational facilities.
  • Jessica Iversen, PE, Seattle office leader | project engineer, RTM Engineering Consultants, Seattle. As RTM’s Seattle office leader, Iversen Jessica manages a team of engineers and designers working in a variety of market sectors across the country. Her portfolio encompasses design in retail spaces, educational facilities, multifamily residential, restaurants, and and a range of tenant build-outs projects.
  • Bradley D. Williams, PE, vice president, Bala Consulting Engineers, New York City. In his role of vice president of MEP, Williams manages the overall New York office operations and oversees a broad range of projects, encompassing the infrastructure, hospitality, data center and, and corporate markets. His more than 27 years of experience includes projects for high-profile clients like Deloitte, JPMC and Rockefeller Center.
  • Jason Wollum, PE, LEED AP BD+C, retail practice director | senior vice president, Henderson Engineers, Kansas City. Having joined the company in 1997, Wollum is now a senior vice president responsible for the design, management and, and coordination of several programs. He also mentors young engineers at the company.

CSE: What’s the current trend in retail, restaurant and mixed-use facilities?

Scott Garrison: Lighting that is highly integrated with the architecture and interior design is a definite trend that we have witnessed for destination dining. Modern design with strong graphics, clean architectural design and well thought out lighting has steadily progressed.

Furthermore, lighting design has gained prominence as an important tool in enticing both retail and restaurant tenants to rent space in mixed-use buildings. Using lighting to make a building’s façade attractive at night offers a marquee location that the retail and restaurant tenants perceive as valuable in creating a destination space. This has proven a successful technique in downtown Detroit.

Jessica Iversen: Many retailers and mixed-use facilities are moving toward a focus on additional services and experiences that cannot be achieved via the internet and online shopping. This could be a reconfiguring of product areas or an emphasis on spaces that provide other services, like classes or product maintenance/servicing. Restaurants are finding ways to more seamlessly leverage outside delivery services, as these continue to change the face of an industry.

Bradley D. Williams: It’s an interesting time to address this question. The thought process for these market sectors is changing in response to recent COVID-19 pandemic concerns. Because in the more expensive real estate markets the rental cost per square foot and energy prices drive space and system efficiency decisions, an interesting dichotomy will develop between the need for efficient use of space and the need to increase ventilation and filtration for these spaces.

Owners will be looking for increased occupant spacing (but not necessarily increased space), while being required to operate systems in a less efficient manner using increased ventilation and higher levels of filtration to protect their spaces. This will be a challenge for our industry moving forward.

Jason Wollum: A current trend that we are seeing is for a brand to create unique customer experiences in the physical space that connects the customer and the brand. This is being done through interactive technology, through customizable experiences and customizable products and through great customer service that helps tell the brand’s story that helps to express what a brand’s values are and helps drive customer loyalty. Today, it’s less about a customer walking into a store and buying a product that they need and more about the customer going into a store, having a great experience and getting exactly the product that they want from the brand that they love. Watch this video to learn more about retail trends.

CSE: What future trends should engineers and designers expect for such projects?

Wollum: Increased demand for technology-driven systems, as well as a need to design around brand standards in a wide variety of building types and design situations. Both building owners/operators and customers are demanding greater interaction and connection to building technology and data. We see those trends continuing to grow. We also see retail, restaurant and, and mixed-use facilities going into more diverse spaces including dense urban environments, which creates design challenges and typically requires a higher level of design to create successful projects.

Iversen: When it comes to retail, these facilities will continue to push the boundaries of how technology can be leveraged to streamline a customer’s experience in the store. Technology will also be used to gather data for the owner, both for stocking and ordering purposes, and and also to better understand and serve customers in the future. This level of connectivity needs to be anticipated and planned for in design.

Williams: The traditional design thought process of efficient ventilation and filtration balanced with energy costs will now shift. The challenge will be to balance the energy efficiency and cost to owners. We will need to educate owners on the design paradigm shift that could lead to potentially higher first costs and higher operating costs to satisfy the “new normal” occupant expectations of their spaces.

CSE: How is the growth of immediate-delivery services impacting retail, restaurant and mixed-use projects?

Wollum: These services are impacting the way customers define convenience and are creating a new standard that all retailers are being judged by. It is only one of the items that people use to evaluate brands they like, but it is vitally important. Convenience is a major driver that connects people with a brand.

Iversen: In the restaurant industry, companies focused specifically on delivery-only kitchens are becoming more common. These facilities, known as ghost kitchens or cloud kitchens, can house multiple restaurants under one roof, with no dining areas. The focus is entirely on delivery services, with multiple kitchens grouped in one building. These facilities create their own engineering challenges, with more cooking areas, larger coolers and freezers and often a need for greater flexibility than you would find in a standalone restaurant.

Garrison: We live in a world where one-click shopping and next day (or in some cases same day) delivery has influenced expectations in just about everything we do. Many restaurant and retail clients, particularly specialty and boutique retailers, who do not regularly engage in design and construction projects, have these expectations. Although advanced software and instantaneous information sharing among design team members and the clients can speed up the process, it still takes time to properly develop the design, coordinate amongst disciplines, solicit bids, procure materials and construct a space. The design and construction teams must skillfully manage these expectations.

Once the client makes a financial commitment to develop a space, they want the space functional and generating revenue as soon as possible. Many times, these financial goals and associated timing are determined before consulting with a design team or a contractor, further reinforcing the expectation.

CSE: In your opinion, how do you think COVID-19 will change the future design of retail, restaurant and mixed-use facilities?

Iversen: Avoiding unnecessary contact will be a major design consideration moving forward. Touchless checkout will become much more prevalent, along with the use of smart technologies to maximize employee time spent out on the retail floor. Dining areas in restaurants will need to be modified to accommodate required social distancing measures. Designers and owners will also be more cognizant of mechanical ventilation standards and we may see these becoming more stringent.

Williams: COVID-19 will absolutely change the face of design moving forward. To support the well-being of occupants, we must consider spreading out our work spaces and increasing ventilation rates. Filtration of the air entering spaces will be paramount to the engineer’s basis of design, where emerging technologies may play a part. Technologies such as ultraviolet-C light, bi-polar ionization, high-efficiency particulate air filtration and perhaps other new technologies will be studied for their immediate impact and implementation ability. As engineers we have spent a large amount of time exploring how to densify spaces and save energy, while the “new normal” may work counter to some of these efforts.

Garrison: It seems that the term social distancing will be here to stay. As recent trends toward maximizing the use of rentable square footage has led to more compact seating, it is unclear how the reversal of this may affect the design of such spaces. It is likely that workflow, circulation, spacing, the ease of cleaning and sanitizing surfaces may start to dominate the design objectives.

Also, it is likely that both food service and retailers will continue to have options for curbside pickup and delivery in addition to the traditional dinning or shopping experience. This may certainly affect the design of the spaces and the amount of financial resources committed to the space. While the mechanical, electrical and plumbing needs for design will be similar, it will most certainly affect both the amount of space that is being designed as well as the sophistication of the design.

Wollum: There is no question that COVID-19 will have an impact. Simply put, we all view the world a little different now. Things that people were resistant to before — things like ordering produce online, for example — changed during the pandemic. Instead of picking produce one-by-one, people may now prefer prepackaged produce that has had limited contact along supply chains. This is going to affect the design and merchandising of a store.

Restaurants will adjust seating to allow for more social distancing and mixed-use facilities will adjust traffic patterns. Things like automatic entry doors and restrooms with no doors to enter into the space will become more commonplace. We’ll also see products emerge that deal with sanitation of the space. Things like HEPA filtration, humidification and UV light sanitation will be things that are designed into these spaces going forward. Watch this video to better understand the impact of COVID-19.

CSE: What are professionals doing to ensure such projects (both new and existing structures) meet challenges associated with emerging technologies?

Wollum: It is our obligation as design professionals to do the things necessary to keep up to date with emerging technologies. At Henderson Engineers and Henderson Building Solutions, we work very hard to help our engineers and designers stay current and even ahead of the curve through our Henderson Research Initiative and our practice-based structure that encourages our staff to lead the field in solving problems for our clients. Understanding emerging technologies is key to implementing them into projects and educating owners on the benefits of these technologies.

Iversen: The face of retail and restaurant facilities are rapidly evolving as increased connectivity and smart technologies become more prevalent. Having open communication with owners about both current and future goals helps the design team to understand how best to prepare a facility for this changing landscape. This often includes information technologyIT and electrical systems with room to grow.

Williams: There will be a heightened sensitivity to the indoor environment moving forward. Since many of these systems are typically out-of-sight/out-of-mind to the general occupant, engineers will need to adapt to the new awareness of these systems by the public. We need to be prepared for new standards, such as a building ventilation rating system or scorecard, similar to the food industry rating system that could identify a building’s level of filtration or indoor air quality.

CSE: In what ways are you working with information technology experts to meet the needs and goals of a retail, restaurant or mixed-use facility?

Wollum: At Henderson, we offer full technology services including audio-video, telecom and, and security design. Additionally, we are fortunate to work with many of the top retailers in the world who use technology in a variety of ways — from creating unique customer experiences to space heat mapping and inventory control.

CSE: Tell us about a recent project you’ve worked on that’s innovative, large-scale or otherwise noteworthy.

Iversen: My team is working on a restaurant right now located on the first floor of a pier out over the water. One of the unique challenges for a space like this is coordinating the sanitary plumbing routing when there is no “underground.” The project uses a number of ejector pits set into the pier, with heating elements to help protect against the weather. Coordinating piping routing to avoid unnecessary penetrations while also avoiding the pier supports proved to be a challenging puzzle.

Williams: We are presently completing the design of a historic playhouse in Larchmont, N.Y. The design will incorporate components of energy-efficient design, filtration and alternate energy sources as part of the project. As part of New York State’s 2030/2040 Carbon Reduction Act, the design is based on renewable energy sources, will include a photovoltaic array on the roof and implement current ventilation and filtration techniques to maintain an enhanced indoor environment. The finished space will restore the building to its historic roots while implementing modern technologies to support the facility to be used for community events, first-run movie premiers and social functions once completed.

CSE: Are you receiving requests for retrofit of buildings due to COVID-19?

Garrison: We have not yet seen requests for retrofit due to COVID-19. This is all still very new and the retail and restaurant markets in particular, are still in survival mode. We have, however, seen office space projects currently in design begin to re-consider the density goals.

Williams: Bala has been contacted by numerous clients and real estate firms to help develop best practices for reentry into the workspace. We have researched and collaborated with industry partners and health experts to develop some of the most effective ways to make our buildings safer. From filters and air changes in HVAC systems to sanitization and touchless toilet fixtures as well as technology integrations for access control and bio-scanning, there are short and long-term strategies building owners can implement to increase the safety of their building.

These building systems strategies, coupled with architectural strategies, will reassure occupants that the buildings they are returning to have evolved to keep pace with the latest in health and safety guidelines. Bala has published a white paper on recommendations.

Iversen: Most projects currently in design are undergoing at least minor modifications to what was originally planned for, to react to the current situation. These have included changing out all plumbing fixtures to touchless sensors and adding automatic doors to facilities that did not previously have them.

CSE: How are engineers designing these kinds of projects to keep costs down while offering appealing features, complying with relevant codes and meeting client needs?

Iversen: Start each project or series of projects with a kick-off call or meeting to help make sure the client has an opportunity to communicate their priorities to the design team. We’ve worked with many different clients across these market sectors and priorities can vary wildly, from focusing on rebranding and a new look, to a narrower focus on certain services, to pushing to be a leader in sustainable design. This helps the engineering team know where costs can most effectively be applied to achieve a client’s goals.

Wollum: Providing high value in our design is always a goal. To achieve this, communication is really important. Understanding the wants, needs and values of our clients before designing the project helps us discuss different design options in ways that help them make informed decisions about their buildings. Value has different meanings to different clients. Some hold construction costs as a driver in decision-making, while others look at long-term operation costs or functionality. By asking the right questions during design, we strive to deliver a project that the owner feels has a high value for the cost.

Garrison: From an MEP perspective, particularly in the restaurant space, we have to design systems that work to support the needs of the space and meet codes. We have found the most successful approach is to identify those necessities and make sure that proper budget allocation for MEP is made up front. After a project is designed and bid, the exercise to “bring it back into budget” often produces results that the owners and the designers are not happy with. It is best to design a project to the budget and budgetary concession are made in the design process, rather than in the post-bid process.

CSE: When working for a large company, such as a chain restaurant, what techniques do you employ to ensure multiple buildings meet the owner’s requirements across variable locations while still meeting local codes or building system needs?

Williams: We find that in New York City and other major metropolitan areas, each project location is different and will be driven by the various individual building specific limitations. Although the basis of the design of the systems is similar in most locations, the application and implementation of the systems becomes the challenge. Kitchen exhaust requirements, the need for exhaust air filtration such as precipitators, makeup air requirements and treatment of this outside air can be challenging in older or historic buildings with less shaft space, roof space or available louver area.

Iversen: It’s important to establish an organizational system for each series of projects. Part of that system should be to ensure that necessary due diligence has been performed independently for each site, including reviewing local codes and site-specific quirks. It’s also important to make sure each project receives proper quality analysis/quality control, to help avoid project-specific differences from slipping through. As much as possible, having consistent teams work with the same client helps ensure client standards are being upheld from project to project. If there are enough locations or projects to require multiple teams, having the same person act as a point of QC and coordination can help establish this consistency.

Wollum: Development of client standards and/or prototypes helps us maintain consistent designs across multiple buildings and across various areas of the country. Additionally, Henderson has worked on hundreds of projects across the United States and Canada. That experience has helped us to create a knowledge base of local codes and construction requirements for every region that we rely upon to design code-compliant building systems.

CSE: Has COVID-19 impacted your work to date? If so, please share details.

Williams: Bala is operating as a 100% remote workplace across all five of our office locations. We were fortunate that we were already positioned well for this virtual transition and were able to implement our virtual workplace strategy within 24 hours. With a robust IT strategy in place, we find that much of what we do can be effectively accomplished remotely through the use video conference software (Teams, Go-to, Zoom, Webex, etc), and our workplace guidelines. However, working remotely also takes more rigor and discipline which has taken some time to adapt to. Being in the service business, our focus is on assisting and guiding our clients return to work, as it is our clients who drive the global economy we all want to return to.

Wollum: We have seen some project types slow down or go on hold, especially restaurant and health and wellness-related retail. We have also seen projects slow down with retailers that do not have an online presence. We have seen a surge in COVID-19-related healthcare work. Warehouse projects and retailers with a strong online presence have strong project workloads during this time. Projects that have funding secured, such as education and venue projects, are trending normally.

Iversen: RTM already had infrastructure in place for offices to transition to remote work. Daily collaboration among our internal MEP team has gone from something automatic and informal to something that needs conscious and deliberate attention. We have implemented a daily MEP video call amongst each project team, to ensure that a small coordination item that would have been a quick conversation in the office doesn’t fall through the cracks. This has helped make sure teams are keeping up the quality of communication usually found around the office.