Retail, restaurant and mixed-use facilities

What are the trickiest aspects of retail, restaurant and mixed-use projects and what trends lie ahead? Read on for solid advice from experienced professionals.

By Consulting-Specifying Engineer June 25, 2019


Jason GerkePE, CxA, LEED AP BD+C 

Practice Area Leader – Mechanical/Plumbing | Principal  




Wayne GriswoldPE, CFPS 

Principal Fire Protection Engineer 




Jonathan Robertson, PE, LEED AP BD+C 

Associate Principal, Mechanical 

Integral Group 

Austin, Texas 


Sunondo Roy, PE, LEED AP 

Vice President 

CCJM Engineers 


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

Wayne Griswold: The overall trend for buildings/projects is versatility. We are consistently discussing with clients how best to use the built environment, with an eye on what the space can be used for in the future. To the extent fiscally feasible, building owners and developers try to retain a certain level of transformability, expansion and change of use, to quickly adapt to new trends in the market. The use of mixed-use projects allows for flexibility via varying revenue streams and is a great way to protect the investment of the building. The restaurant and retail industries are particularly prone to reinventing themselves in an effort to attract additional or new patrons. 

Jonathan Robertson: The experience is what is being focused on right now. With online shopping and an abundance of meal delivery services being the new norm, there must be something more than a simple exchange to entice customers in. Developers and owners are realizing people will pay for an experience. This trend of focusing on the experience will continue, particularly around creating more inviting spaces and tailoring the experience to the individual customer. 

CSE: What trends do you think are on the horizon for such projects? 

Robertson: Customers want the stores and restaurants they visit and the places they live to be a representation of who they are. Healthy living is on the rise and, as we spend more and more of our lives indoors, people are wanting buildings to reflect this. From a mechanical, electrical and plumbing design perspective this means using heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems with enhanced air filtration and that provide better thermal comfort, responsiveness to each individual need, a focus on water quality and access to it, highquality lighting and building materials that do less harm. 

Griswold: I think increased versatility related to functionality will be a general trend new construction takes. It isn’t always feasible; however, mixed-use developers and owners are naturally more cognizant of this due to the financial constraints associated with tenant improvements. The use of core, shell and tenant improvement packages is a design/construction feature that allows owners to get a building built while also building in some flexibility in regard to what to put in the space. It’s not uncommon to see a master plan with anticipated occupant types be completely disregarded by the time the building core and shell is completed. 

CSE: Brick-and-mortar stores seem to be declining as online commerce increases. What sorts of features are retail project owners adding to make their properties more enticing?  

Jason Gerke: Our company is involved in a number of mixeduse projects in the Milwaukee area. Redevelopment of an indoor and outdoor shopping center originally constructed in the 1960s is intended to convert the facility to a completely outdoor shopping and lifestyle center. Conversion of the existing indoor mall to outdoor stores and an addition of a fitness facility, along with residences, an office building and free-standing junior anchor stores are expanding the pedestrian circulation to all corners of the site. Another redevelopment project includes the conversion of an indoor mall in a downtown setting to a mixeduse facility with office tenants, indoor public market style food hall and retail tenants. 

Griswold: Location has always been key to successful retail and now that is true more than ever. Destination stores are becoming less plausible and accordingly less likely to be successful; however, if the location of a store happens to also be near other potentially appealing establishments, then the likelihood for patronage improves. This is particularly true for newer retailers that are less likely to have substantial brand awareness and may be more reliant upon adjacent attractions to aid in brand propagation. 

Robertson: Amenities like valet parking, electric vehicle charging stations, Wi-Fi, hydration stations, dog treats, car washing, package pickup/drop-off locations and other similar services are becoming the norm. 

CSE: Diners seem to be more into fast-casual restaurants at the moment  how is the trend of going away from more upscale restaurants affecting your work? 

Sunondo Roy: Almost all of our recent restaurant work has been small, grab-and-go type outlets at airports, even for highend restaurant chains. This shift from only fast-food to fast-foodie outlets at airports allows visitors get a meal from the latest trendy restaurant at the airport even if they weren’t able to snag a reservation in town or maybe get a quick meal-to-go from a great dining experience in town. As such, our firm has been doing reasonably well with this trend as there are more, though smaller, opportunities. 

Gerke: A recent restaurant concept has brought the use of shipping containers to a fast-casual scene and another has brought a food truck concept indoors. These restaurant styles bring several MEP complications to the design as they create unique indoor environments and require focused coordination for routing of utilities. 

CSE: Movie theaters, large retail stores and even banks are adding restaurants within their existing footprint. What unique challenge do these “shoehorned” restaurants present? 

Robertson: These spaces were never envisioned or intended to be restaurant spaces when they were designed so the challenges normally revolve around the infrastructure required to operate these spaces. Restaurants consume considerable resources; HVAC systems, plumbing water and sewer systems, electric systems and fire protection system usually all have to be upgraded to accommodate this usage. Additionally, adjacencies to neighboring properties can be an issue from an odor perspective. 

Griswold: From a fire/life safety perspective, these are challenging projects from the standpoint that these are not occupancy uses that we are used to seeing in the same building or within the same footprint. Restaurants pose unique and varying fire hazards than traditional business or assembly type occupancies. Specifically, kitchen hoods and hood suppression systems need to accommodate varying types of cooking media (i.e., wood, gas, oil, etc.). 

Gerke: While the addition of these types of spaces into sometimes unused area of existing facilities is a great customer experience concept, properly designing these additional amenity spaces may be a challenge. The exhaust requirements for a restaurant are vastly different from a retail space or theater. Routing exhaust ductwork up through an existing building can be difficult to coordinate. The power requirements for a restaurant are intense compared to those of an open retail space. A restaurant for example requires a grease interceptor. 

CSE: Each type of project presents unique challenges  what types of challenges do you encounter for restaurant, retail and mixed-use projects that you might not face on other types of structures? 

Gerke: A restaurant provides a number of HVAC related challenges not experienced on other project types. Routing grease exhaust duct through a building while maintaining a fire rating and clearance to combustibles is challenging as well as the amount of outside air required for the occupants and the amount of makeup air required for cooking kitchens.  

On the electrical side, the lighting for these spaces can be unique and teams are always striving to be different from the last. This lighting goal can create challenges in standardizing light fixtures but provides an opportunity to look for unique solutions to the various spaces created within these building types. 

Roy: Space is a premium at restaurant airports. Rents are sky high, so restaurant concessionaires are trying to cram transformers and every other MEP system into the smallest spaces possible and sometimes, what seems impossible. The clearance requirements for electrical equipment alone causes constant pressure to stack equipment or double up to have the code clearance serve as maintenance clearance for something else. The pressure to squeeze the proverbial 10 pounds of “equipment” into the 5-pound bag is taken to a whole new level in these spaces. 

Gerke: For mixed-use projects, one of the most challenging aspects is futureproofing without overdesigning. By the name itself, mixed-use can be any sort of occupancy. An example — which is not as uncommon as one would think — is what was once thought of during design as an office gets leased out as a gym space, or fastforward some years after construction and what was a clothing store becomes a restaurant. Knowing what systems to focus in on to provide the building owner or developer this flexibility is critical for the success of the project. 

Griswold: Mixed-use projects present the challenge of the unknown more so than for other types of occupancies. To establish founded fire/life safety requirements, the comprehensive use of the facility is important to qualify as part of the design and construction process. In many cases, the owner/developer isn’t entirely certain what the tenants will entail. As a result, it becomes a bit more difficult to succinctly specify fire/life safety requirements, particularly related to hazardous materials, occupant loading and fire detection and suppression system requirements. A level of conservatism is needed in these instances to allow the building owner future flexibility that otherwise may not have been necessary if all tenants and associated functions were known. 

CSE: What are engineers doing to ensure restaurant, retail and mixed-use (both new and existing structures) meet challenges associated with emerging technologies? 

Robertson: Emerging technologies allow these building types to operate more efficiently, provide better occupant health and reduce their carbon footprint. Collaboration and embracing of new technology are required for the most successful implementation, which sometimes involves the blurring of discipline/scope lines.  

An example of this would be a waterharvesting system that is normally scattered across several disciplines of civil, plumbing, landscape and structural. This setup leads to many points of failure if done in silo. However, if each one of these disciplines overlaps the other a little bit through collaboration, then the chances of the system being implemented correctly dramatically increase. 

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

Robertson: For a confidential mixed-use project in Austin, Texasour company provided MEP, energy/comfort modeling and commissioning services for the base building as well as design services for a portion of the tenant improvements. To provide ultimate flexibility while minimizing HVAC space impacts, the building uses a dedicated outside air system for building ventilation in conjunction with a variable refrigerant flow system for heating and cooling. Additionally, through energy modeling and using a performance-based energy compliance approach, the building was able to deviate from the city’s prescriptive window requirements (which mandated dark tinted glass) and use a more transparent glass yielding a more inviting and desirable space. 

Gerke: Our company is currently engaged in the construction phase of a major facility conversion in downtown Milwaukee. This facility includes a combination of buildings dating from the 1890s to the 1980s that were converted into an urban shopping center. This facility is currently being converted to a mixeduse occupancy with upper floors of office tenants and lower floors of retail and food outlets. The project is further complex because of the developers goal of obtaining historic tax credits.  

The design team worked to reuse and repurpose major MEP systems in appropriate locations, but many of the systems were approaching 40 years in use. Design for installation of new systems into an existing building, as well as keeping systems concealed in areas for historic purposes added challenges to this project at each turn. 

CSE: How are engineers designing restaurant, retail or mixed-use projects to keep costs down while offering appealing features, complying with relevant codes and meeting client needs? 

Robertson: From a core and shell perspective, cost controls can be put in place by not overproviding on systems. By limiting core and shell systems to essentially risers and infrastructure, cost efficiencies are gained by not installing temporary equipment that the tenant would likely have to either relocate or rip out and replace otherwise. This approach also has the benefit of leaving a blank canvas for tenants and giving them to flexibility to design their own space with minimal constrains. 

Roy: In our experience, the only “feature” where we have direct input is incorporating USB charging stations into every conceivable furniture element and obviously every convenience receptacle. We have discussed with architects and concessionaires that these charging stations are the magnet to draw customers into their establishments in food courts and other places where there isn’t a huge differentiating factor in the environment. They come in for a charge and hopefully stay for a snack or drink. 

Gerke: Many projects are using few areas of ceiling and creating open structural concepts visible to building occupants. This aesthetic design concept results in many HVAC systems being exposed. Additional coordination is required in the design phase, but this concept allows for a quicker installation of systems that tend to be simpler in distribution layout.  

Lighting options are increased when ceilings are not incorporated, however the options for light fixtures does not always result in a lower cost solution, though it can if effort is put forth. The challenge remains on some lowcost restaurant concepts where it is a challenge to treat outside air properly and comply with national and local codes. Many times, it is very difficult to comply with standards on mechanical systems such as those set forth by ASHRAE due to the lowestcost option mentality. Engineers must work to make the best decision for their systems in these situations. 

CSE: How has your team incorporated integrated project delivery (or virtual design and construction into a project? 

Robertson: IPD is a project delivery style our company is very familiar with. Through the shared risk/reward relationship the contractor and engineer share, tighter bonds are formed allowing for alignment between not only the individuals building the building the individuals designing the building, but also with the ownership group and other disciplines. This has been incorporated into projects through colocation where all team members work in the same space together and through shared responsibility during the design process. As part of this collaborate approach, the owner’s project requirements provides a roadmap, in a sense, for the project team to know exactly what is important the ownership group and helps to remove some of the ambiguity and assumptions made in the typical design process. 

CSE: How are restaurant, retail and mixed-use buildings being designed to be more energy efficient?  

Roy: Primarily, the energy efficiency is being pushed by code requirements, particularly increases in efficiency requirements in lighting and makeup air energy recovery. With margins as tight as they are, owners are not voluntarily going above and beyond code requirements. LED lighting for functional, as well as accent lighting, is the norm in every project. This is one of the few design aspects where owners, architects and engineers are in 100% agreement. In this day and age, there are very few one-hit homeruns. The name of the game is incremental improvements across the board that add up to the energy code requirements and supplemental corporate targets. 

Robertson: Segregation of systems, for example separating building ventilation from building heating and cooling, has had a dramatic impact to energy efficiency of these spaces. DOAS coupled with heat recovery VRF heat pumps is a great example of this. The VRF heat recovery systems allow separate zones to be in heating and cooling mode simultaneously and reduces energy dramatically by sending heat from one space in cooling mode to another space in heating mode allowing refrigerant to bypass the compressor (and associated energy use) all together. VRF systems also allow for smaller zoning to provide heating or cooling only to a specific are in lieu of to the entire space. 

CSE: What is the biggest challenge you come across when designing restaurant, retail or mixed-use projects?  

Griswold: To label one item as the biggest challenge is difficult to pinpoint, particularly given that each design team and owner has varying strengths and weaknesses. However, common discussion points early on that are important to the overall success of the project are a combination of the following: expectation of the building, all intended uses, construction delivery method and phasing. Once those topics are vetted, it makes the code application process less arduous and the evaluation of various project traits can begin.  

As an example, where buildings may not be required to be sprinklered, there may be benefits that the owner/design team wants based on additional flexibility built into the base building code for sprinklered buildings (i.e., increased travel distances). For unique projects where a prescriptive code path isn’t realistic, a performance-based approach is taken.  

Robertson: Innovation for these building types can be extremely challenging at times as there is no driving force to embrace them other than code or to incentivize innovation. From an owner’s perspective, utility cost is often passed to the tenant and therefor the building owner typically doesn’t become too interested in innovation. From a tenant perspective, obtaining revue is the most import goal and, since energy usage is typically a small portion of the overall economic balance of these types of spaces, efforts to embrace innovation and reduce energy use within them can be seen as a risk or as a compromise to the business leading most to embrace the business-as-usual lowest first cost approach. 

CSE: Retail firms seem to be moving from traditional stores to more logistics-centered facilities. How has that affected your work on such projects? 

Gerke: Our company has seen the size of retail footprints shrink on a few of our current projects. Stores are becoming a display area where limited stock is available and more of a place for viewing. This change results in lower capacity requirements for HVAC, which may result in more limited temperature control zoning. The preference of our current society to order items online has resulted in an increase of warehousing and distribution type projects to have the products stored in a facility not far from population centers. 

Robertson: Storefronts are caring less stock as result of this becoming more a showroom with products being directly shipped to the consumer. This is changing the space layout within retail stores but has not had a significant impact to MEP design strategies. 

Griswold: Retail firms are continuously reinventing ways to be more efficient while maintaining visibility in their respective markets and in many cases that includes strategic and centralized warehousing. As a result, we’ve seen smaller mercantile/storefront footprints accompanied with more warehousing space to accommodate consumers’ trends of online purchasing. That combined with the propensity for retailers to be located near other retailers in an effort to increase patronage (i.e., malls) continues.