Extending the retail experience

A major extension and refurbishment to a shopping centre in Watford helps give visitors an exciting and even uplifting experience, including a range of leisure offerings, in a design that carefully blends the project into its setting

The physical retail sector is addressing a number of challenges, including the convenience of online shopping. These days, the UK’s best high street developments and shopping centres are adapting to provide destinations that continue to meet changing consumer demands. This also means they need to be designed carefully to enhance their context.

Most new retail schemes, such as intu Watford’s extended and improved offering in Watford town centre, incorporate leisure amenities such as cinemas and food outlets. Where this project succeeds is that it successfully integrates the scheme with the existing context, and uses its architecture to enliven the setting but also to provide a human scale and blend with the town around it.

Retail and mixed use specialist practice Leslie Jones Architecture, a practice well known to intu from several previous jobs, was brought in to bring more cohesion and legibility to this key town centre retail site. The development site comprised the 1970s Charter Place, an external shopping precinct that was dated both in its design and its relevance in the current market. Shopping centre group intu, which owned the successful centre next door that had opened in the 1990s, felt it was best placed to transform Charter Place into something which would delight customers and add to its existing offer.

The new scheme would see the majority of Charter Place demolished, and replaced with a purpose-built 400,000 ft² retail and leisure extension to the existing intu Watford centre.

The scheme presented a number of challenges including the requirement to retain and reconfigure key elements of Charter Place, namely the multi-storey car park which was to remain operational throughout the works. This concrete framed building underwent significant structural alterations to accommodate a number of retail units including a Debenhams department store over three floors. In addition to the car park, a grade 2 listed building fronting the High Street was retained and refurbished, creating an ideal new venue for a Côte restaurant.

Project architect at Leslie Jones Cos Constantinou explained to ADF that this project exemplified intu’s brand values: “We were working on this scheme just as intu’s brand was in its infancy, developing a new destination which looked at the brand and tried to build on it.”

He adds that the key drivers for the client were to bring “joy, fun and excitement.” Constantinou continues: “That gave us a really good brief to work with, it allowed us to bring some little bits of excitement in wherever possible.”

He says that while retail development trends are seeing “a lot of repurposing of existing buildings, projects are tending to add in a range of elements beyond retail. “People want to have an experience when they go out, they don’t just want to shop, they want to grab something to eat, watch a film; it’s more of a day out, so bringing in restaurants and leisure facilities is really important.” As well as 11 restaurants and retailers such as Hugo Boss, Hollister and Uniqlo, the new extended intu Watford includes a nine screen Cineworld cinema – complete with an Imax screen – and a Hollywood Bowl 10-pin bowling facility. Hi-tech mini-golf concept Puttshack will also open there next year.

The scheme comprises the extended intu centre – arranged along the high street, a triangular central public events space with a dynamic curving glass roof, and beyond it the remainder of what had been Charter Place, namely the car park building with two levels of retail below. This has been fully refurbished, including the Debenhams store which takes up a large part of the basement, ground and first floor.

“It’s so important that schemes relate to their community,” says Constantinou.

To this end, the new centre “needed to be much more part of the town.” It had to link seamlessly into the existing centre – which it does on ground and first floor levels, but it also needed to be “very permeable, very open to the local community.” He says it has achieved this, with improved linkages through from the streets to north and south, and provides better access to bus stops. The central space also provides a new hub for the community, an area that can host events from food festivals to live music.

A twist on tradition
The extended intu centre contains two floors of retail – facing into the central events space, and restaurants facing onto the High Street. Their frontages are broken up into a variety of individual buildings to better integrate the scheme into the local architectural vernacular.

Cos explains: “We articulated the buildings, taking some cues from the existing high street.” A number of the new facades have gable walls facing the High Street, and there’s even one with a Dutch gable wall, echoing others in Watford town centre. “Each one is distinct in its own way, and we tried to highlight each of the characteristics of those buildings,” for example using glazed bricks as the coping to the Dutch gables.

Sitting above the retail level of the two new buildings (beginning at first floor level) are, respectively, the nine screen cinema, and the bowling, although the brief was just to provide a ‘warm shell’ for Cineworld – including basic interior structures.

Cos says that the previous Charter Place needed improvement in terms of how it addressed the high street: “It was important to maintain the high street, the existing centre didn’t open up as much as it could have.” Being a south facing facade, “it really lent itself to creating some external space.” Working closely with the local authority, Leslie Jones designed a new piece of public realm allowing the restaurants along the front facade to spill out onto. This was a key part of activating the exterior and helping the development merge with the town.

The entrance to the development is signalled by a further twist on traditional buildings, providing an architectural statement. This penetration creates two forms, sitting next to the listed restaurant. Both have gable ends, but these are sharply bisected at their corners, the gables ‘turning the corner’ into the inner facade, with the result being unusual and eye-catchingly playful forms.

This is particularly striking on the precast-clad unit, its gables “leading the eye into the entrance,” as well as helping signpost its presence. “As it turns the corner your eye does too, it entices you in,” says Constantinou. At night, this unit, which houses the eatery TGI Friday’s plus others, is very distinctive, with LED strip lighting placed along the front edges of the gables.

Behind the gable forms, the roof spaces house the copious plant needed to service the restaurant and spaces within – “always a bit of a challenge with commercial buildings,” says Cos. The architects resolved the need to enclose these steeply-angled roofs in a pragmatic way that also created an attractive roofline. Instead of using traditional terracotta tiles they arranged long terracotta battens with gaps between them to facilitate natural ventilation of the roof space.

Cos Constantinou comments: “We haven’t used that approach before, it hides plant but also creates an interesting roof.” He continues: “The planners were happy; we took them on a journey with us, and worked with them closely.” He says it helped that one of their key criteria was to create something with human scale on the high street.

The brick fronted volume completes a somewhat symmetrical framing of the entrance, with a similar corner gable, although only slightly returning past the corner. It also has a terracotta batten-constructed roof, but in this case it’s brass coloured. “Most of the buildings along the facade have taken the gable design and represented it in a different way,” says Cos.

A further significant challenge was integrating a nine screen cinema including iMax into a two to three storey high street. Leslie Jones pushed back the cinema building and used the architecture of the restaurants to mask the larger mass, ensuring a more human scale facing the street.

The triangular events space at the heart of the development is perhaps its most important gift to the town. Connecting all of the volumes, it creates a flexible, year-round resource for the public which has already been used to stage major events such as viewings of the Wimbledon and FA Cup finals, as well as a farmer’s market. There is moveable seating and lighting fixtures, and the entrances to the cinema and bowling overlook this space at upper level.

Visible from the high street, the continuous curving canopy above is constructed of square panels but has gaps between it and the structure below to allow natural ventilation. It curves downwards towards the main entrance, helping to signal it from within.

The interior of the car park, above the retail units, faces into the space, and rather than leave a mediocre enclosed facade, the architects continued the language of the multi-coloured battens from the exterior. Again having the double-whammy of also providing passive ventilation to the car park, this enlivening wall is highly effective, “bringing in a little bit of joy,” and thus fitting intu’s brief.

The architects wanted to make the connections between the existing and new additions to the centre “bright and airy,” and to this end they arrived at a solution to brighten up the soffits at ground floor level, which were lower than at first floor.

Says the project architect: “We used techniques to light the soffits to the ground floor, so they gain as much height as possible. They used Barrisol stretch fabric in “quite a dynamic design,” diffusing the light from ceiling LEDs, in a format which did not require a great deal of depth, so does not impinge on the space.

The design language of these soffits is echoed elsewhere, such as in the aluminium edging to the concrete slab in the events space, the vertical white stretch fabric in voids within the refurbished existing centre, and the soffit to the bridge link between the cinema and car park. The refurbishment was thorough, including stripping the older design motifs, and widening some voids between the two levels to improve sight lines of retail units.

Bringing further interest to the central space, the first floor colonnade has a GRP waveform soffit. “We’ve used colour and form to inject interest into the surfaces we have available to us,” says Cos. He sums up the approach both inside and out as trying to not upstage, but instead enhance the shop fronts: “We still want them to sing as the main point of interest, but you don’t want the background to be so monolithic that it feels dull.”

The basement below the site was “a vast servicing area,” but as well as improving its efficiency, the architects also created new retail space here, a further efficient use of existing structure. “It’s so important that buildings are able to adapt and be repurposed and reconfigured, and this concrete construction didn’t really lend itself to being reconfigured,” he says. Some “clever structural works” were required to address level changes, adds the architect, and shells were created for retailers “that they could configure really easily.”

The fact the majority of the project is naturally ventilated adds to its sustainability credentials, as does its reuse of a substantial existing building, i.e. the concrete car park and basement. However Cos Constantinou asserts that this is under-recognised by official sustainability accreditation – he notes that BREEAM “doesn’t include recognition of that.” Despite this, the project was designed to achieve BREEAM ‘Very Good.’

This major extension and refurbishment was finished on programme and to budget, with the full development cost being £180m including £13m for the refurbishment.

Client, public and the retailers have reacted “really positively,” says the project’s architect, adding that some of their fitouts “have really embraced what we were trying to achieve.” However while retail is at the core of this project, it represents a much richer mix of attractions and amenities to help ensure its place as a vibrant, and viable, long term proposition for the town.

Client: Intu
Architect: Leslie Jones Architecture
Structural Engineer: Waterman Structures
M&E: Hoare Lea
Gross floor area (extension): 400,000 ft²
Cost: £180m