Don't Trash Big Boxes, Repackage Them!
The Washington Post assembled a team of artists, architects, engineers and developers to think creatively about what to do with spaces once occupied by big box stores -- our most common, underrated and increasingly available major buildings. Below are some of their ideas. | Read More About the Project Here
Build a Town in the Parking Lot

By Christopher B. Leinberger and Darrel Rippeteau Enlarge Image

As a developer, what Leinberger hates about parking lots is that they just sit there not making him any money. Fortunately, that can be fixed. The vast acreage of big-box parking lots seems almost providentially proportioned to be turned into walkable city blocks, he says. What you have to do is lay these blocks out with parking garages at their core, and encrust those with an outer layer of shops and apartments on all sides. That makes one block. Put together a whole bunch of these blocks, with the shops and apartments facing each other across the newly defined streets, and you've got a chunk of city. As it happens, prefabricated parking deck trusses span about 60 feet. So let's say you make your parking deck a loaf 60 feet wide and 120 feet deep. If you face it on all sides with shops that are 50 feet deep, well, voilą -- you've got yourself a walkable city block, with just enough space left over for sidewalks, bike lanes and streets. Then you build apartments or offices over the shops. Didn't you always want to live a croissant's throw away from a Target? We thought so. The great challenge is that big-box stores always have excellent automobile accessibility. So there's that enormous highway out there at the edge of your former parking lot. You want to make that into a boulevard -- a Champs-Elysees.

The Estates at Place W

By Roger K. Lewis Enlarge Image

Windows? Windows? Big boxes don't need no stinking windows. If humans want to live in this building, however, they do. So the first thing is to core out the center of the big box, so you have a garden open to the sky for people to look into, suggests Roger K. Lewis, the emeritus professor of architecture at the University of Maryland who writes The Post's Shaping the City column.

By Roger K. Lewis Enlarge Image

The exterior walls are not hard to punch windows into -- structurally, they're just steel uprights sometimes reinforced with diagonal struts. Then you punch skylights in over the interior walkways, and the apartments almost start laying themselves out. You add a balcony here, a second floor there, a sleeping loft over yonder, and you're looking at the niftiest affordable housing ever. Unless you make them too nice. Then the yuppies are going to want to move in, and there goes the neighborhood.

The Garden of Gaithersburg

Decide for yourself what this says about the zeitgeist, but everybody wanted to make these things into gardens. You want a growth industry? This takes the "eat local" movement to a whole new level.

By Darrel Rippeteau. Enlarge Left | Enlarge Right

Organic gardeners routinely lay down weed-suppressing black plastic into which they poke holes to plant their seeds. Asphalt is just like that, only a little thicker, observes Darrel Rippeteau, principal of Rippeteau Architects. So in the process of creating a truck garden (below), the parking lot becomes an orchard. Under the parking lot you find an elaborate network of drainage pipes -- if you think big-box owners want to see women in high heels slipping on ice, you are out of your mind. In its new incarnation, the system collects rainwater for irrigation. In fact, the water can be piped into the fire-suppression sprinkler system in the big box, which now serves as a monster mister. (You could also go hydroponic.) Much of the roof, of course, has become glass or translucent plastic. Those gigunda halogens make great grow lights. The concrete slab floor works as a heat sump. Major-league climate control comes with the package. Much of the produce is packed up in the back and shipped to farmers' markets. But you can also pick your own.

Once it sinks in how big that roof is, one's thoughts quickly turn to solar voltaic, as demonstrated by Phil Esocoff, principal of the architecture firm Esocoff and Associates, who also adds a recharging area for electric cars and a veneer of apartments for people who really want to get near their groceries. He also specifies that everything be easily disassembled and moved as the economics of the box location changes. Once you get into how high those ceilings are, Harold Linton's mind turned to letting the grow space of the big box become the Virginia Arbor Conservatory. Yes, trees. Linton is chair of George Mason University's Department of Art and Visual Technology. Or how about a vineyard? Rusty Meadows, an engineer by training who is director of the Washington office of Perkins + Will, an outfit that specializes in commercial buildings, loves the idea of the Clos de Germantown.

Variation on a Garden

(Esocoff & Associates|Architects) Enlarge Image

This additional garden transformation is the work of Esocoff & Associates. The vast roof supports solar voltaics, which enables not only a greenhouse, but a recharging area for electric cars, and a veneer of apartments for people who really want to get near their groceries. Everything is designed to be easily disassembled and moved as the economics of the box location changes.

The SoHo of the Suburbs

By Peter Winant and Tom AshcraftEnlarge Image

Give this assignment to artists and they start thinking about buildings comparable to circus tents that are sitting in former rail yards and pretty soon they wind up with ideas for artists living and working and exhibiting that are possibly unlike any other on Earth. Peter Winant and Tom Ashcraft are both sculptors and associate chairs of the Department of Art and Visual Technology at George Mason. Thinking about how "the circus tent opens and folds and closes," they got the idea to open up both ends of the big box, and start rolling in railroad freight cars and trailer-size freight containers. They're cheap, fairly maneuverable and stackable, like a kid's blocks.

If you pile two or more, the upper ones can be for living and eating and entertaining, and the lower ones given over to studios where the art is made. The big center sliding doors of the freight cars can open up to galleries in which the public interacts with the work of the artists.

By Peter Winant and Tom AshcraftEnlarge Image

The ways you stack these things in turn define courtyards and stages and display spaces where people can sit and converse and make music and have small-scale performances. The inside space would transition to the outdoor space, which could be filled with basketball courts, tennis courts, gardens and green space.

All of this would be the product of artists' hands, work and money. Nothing would cost any single artist much more than $30,000 or $40,000, Winant estimates.

But wait a minute, you say. If you open up the ends of the big box to the weather, even if you have a roof, won't that place get awfully cold in the winter? "They'll have wood stoves," says Winant. "They're artists, right? They'll get pallets, break them up and burn them." After all, what is art without suffering?

Hydroponic Truck Farm Market

(By Darrel Rippeteau )Enlarge Image

Architect Darrel Rippeteau suggests a garden center that provides seasonal vegetables and fruits to local markets.

The big box stores' roofing panels could be swapped out for translucent skylights. Consumers could walk through the space to browse the offerings as at any standard farmers market, or make drive-through purchases with the aid of a small road through the middle of the space.

Fruits and vegetables could be grown hydroponically and continuously all year, allowing for good horticultural practices. The space's existing sprinkler system would become a mechanism for daily watering.

La Vigne de la Grande BoÎte

(By Rusty Meadows and Tammi Kim)Enlarge Image

Imagine a big box in which the roof as well as the parking lots are covered with wine grapes.

That's what Rusty Meadows and Tammy Tim, of the Washington office of Perkins + Will, did.

The interior of the big box has plenty of space for a retail outlet as well as areas for bottling, case storage, processing and shipping. It also features a wine-making school and a cafe.

Virginia Arbor Conservatory

By Harold Linton Enlarge Image

An expansive selection of plants native to Virginia grow inside and outside this tree-hugger's paradise. The facility's roof has been rolled back to form skylit portals for various groupings of trees and plants. The space would serve as both a commercial outlet for shoppers and an educational institute for individuals and communities seeking to learn more about landscape concepts and environmental applications to residential and commercial design plans.

(By Darrel Rippeteau)Enlarge Image
Got Your Own Suggestions?
We'd like to hear our readers' ideas for future uses of big box store space.

E-mail your plan in words and/or an illustration to us at

Be sure to include the phrase "Big Box" in the subject line of your message.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company