There’s been a lot of noise in recent years about the widespread construction of Wal-Marts and other big box stores. A new development is the rise in vacated megastores. Recently, resourceful communities and individuals are re-imagining better uses for these behemoth structures.
A body of data and stories has been collected by Julia Christensen, author of the recently published Big Box Reuse. Her book, published by MIT Press, offers a detailed overview of ten communities that have transformed vacated Wal-Marts and Kmarts into civic structures.
In many cases, store sales weren’t bad; business just demanded additional space, and it’s easier to build another cookie-cutter Supercenter than to add on to an existing store. The new buildings, some of which which can comfortably fit four NFL football fields, are often erected just down the road.
Keeping the Commandment
Why is reusing these stores such a big deal? The short answer is that a lot of natural resources have been used and destroyed for their construction, and since communities need to do something with the shells, their most sustainable alternative is to find the best use of the space (as long as someone is willing to upkeep those mammoth roofs). If we must “reduce, reuse, and recycle” to combat waste, then big box reuse is keeping the commandment on the macro level.
The most typical scenario is for a church, school, or community center to move into the vacated stores. Among the more interesting reconfigurations are the Spam Museum, in Austin, Minnesota, and an indoor Go-kart track, in Round Rock, Texas.
Christensen’s research didn’t stop with those ten success stories. At the web site BigBoxReuse.com, she has provided a cool resource called wikireuse, which is open for the public to post local stories about reuse projects. By last count, there were over 20 reports of reuse projects.
The Best Reuse Design
In November, a team of experts recruited by the Washington Post was inspired by Christensen’s project to let their imaginations run wild and repurpose our “temples of consumption,” as reporter Joel Garreau calls them. Artists, architects, engineers, and developers sketched out their best ideas with brief explanations to reuse “our most common, underrated and increasingly available major buildings.” Visit the site to choose your favorite plan.
I personally liked the one labeled “The Garden of Gaithersburg.” Architect Daniel Rippeteau imagines that holes can be punched into the parking lot’s asphalt to make way for an orchard planting. He also knows that running underneath that parking lot is a vast drainage pipe system (originally installed by the big box developer to prevent wet and icy conditions). Those pipes can be reused to collect rainwater and redirect it inside the building to irrigate the enormous greenhouse that Rippeteau has imagined, complete with pre-installed sprinklers (formerly a fire sprinkler system).