John Ryan meets Tesco’s new design chief and discovers why there’s nothing boring about green supermarkets

It’s been a few years, five in fact, since everybody was impressed by the appearance and eco-performance of Tesco’s wood-framed store in Wick. At the time of opening it was hailed by a number of observers as being the next stage in supermarket design, but there were also those who said that it would prove too expensive to roll out.

Fast forward to February 2011 and there are 16 energy saving/generating wooden stores in the Tesco portfolio, which may not sound a huge number, but the development progress has been remarkable. This week it opens its latest green store, a 95,500 sq ft, two-storey, Tesco Extra in Barnstaple.

The most obviously green of Tesco’s eco-stores is in the Cambridgeshire town of Ramsey, which opened at the end of 2009 and which is exactly what you’d expect of a store that wears its eco-credentials on its sleeve.

As well as being wood-framed, this one is flooded with natural daylight, owing to large numbers of windows, and has all the usual bells and whistles: biomass boilers, rainwater harvesting, automatic light dimmers and suchlike, which we’ve come to expect of an eco-store. The lessons of Wick have been learnt, so in this building there is remarkably little direct sunlight and this building’s physical orientation is such that glare is not an issue, according to Tesco architect Martin Young, newly installed at the helm of the design department.

Referring to Wick, Young comments: “It was an important thing to do, just to prove that we could do a timber store.” But it was expensive and the Ramsey store is the first that Tesco created on a bespoke basis instead of relying on a kit of parts from a supplier. It also therefore means that the seeds to value engineer the concept are beginning to turn into green shoots.

Going against the grain

Visiting the Ramsey store, Young is at pains to point out the wooden ‘Y’ columns (with the two arms of the ‘Y’ uppermost) that support the roof.

These are one of the major parts of the bespoke element that was unique to this store and are about aesthetics as much as engineering.

Now take a trip north of the border and as well as the Wick store, the second wooden store in the country is in Banchory in Aberdeenshire: it opened at the end of last year. In many ways, if it’s a question of aesthetics, this one is more pleasing, if only for the symmetry of the exterior. Young makes the point that part of the entrance foyer in this store has been faced with granite, in an attempt to use a local material and to see how its thermal properties compare with using wood.

He comments that the process of arriving at the current store design status quo has been a matter of evolving the original Wick store, with each new iteration being marginally different from its predecessors. Young says Tesco has also listened to shoppers’ comments and much of the feedback has been incorporated into the new Barnstaple store.

The point about all of this, however, is that we have come to accept energy-efficient stores, with the exception of showstoppers such as Ramsey or Banchory, as more or less a given. While there are signs therefore at the entrance to the Ramsey store welcoming shoppers to the “world’s first zero carbon store”, for most people the fact that there is a lot of recycled material and that a building is capable of generating its own energy seems not as comment-worthy as a couple of years ago.

And it is also worth noting that when it comes to shopping, the fixtures and fittings in a Tesco eco-store are identical to most of those that can be found in, say, a Tesco Extra or a superstore that doesn’t have a timber frame. From a shopper’s perspective, the only real difference is that the warmth of the wooden frame and the large amount of natural daylight makes things a little more pleasant than might be expected.

The question therefore is what is a typical Tesco store? Listen to Young and you might come away with the impression that every branch is, but that at any given moment there are a substantial number of different store design experiments underway. Take the newly-refurbished Wembley store, for instance. This features a low ‘curtain wall’ and glazing, giving the interior more daylight than might otherwise be the case. It is a remodelled store and incorporates a number of new elements, including a health and beauty area where there is a hairdresser and a nail and beauty bar. It is, however, a variation on a theme and there are similar trials taking place elsewhere including Cambridge Bar Hill, Milton Keynes and Manchester.

Pushing the envelope

All impressive, if a mite standard, but if things go the way Tesco wishes them to this could change at some point in 2011 or 2012. Following an international store design competition last year, Tesco chose Barcelona-based architects Mangera Yvars to create a store that would push the boundaries of what you might normally expect from a supermarket.

The outcome is a remarkable looking series of drawings that the planners in Nottingham are scrutinising. If they are given approval, Sneinton, a southeastern suburb of Nottingham, will be the fortunate recipient of Sneinton Piazza, an 86,115 sq ft green store that will have a filigree front, in an apparent reference to the city’s lace-making heritage.

Young says that the stores will be appropriate as far as its locations is concerned and adds that this is always a major consideration when building a new store. “One of the reasons they [Mangera Yvers] won was because they talked to us about Nottingham and they said that everybody must have done so. In fact they were the only ones to do so.”

The store will cost about £40m to build and will be a landmark for Tesco and for the area. What it does show is that large format supermarket design does not have to involve an edge-of-town-located faceless shed with a logo hoisted over it.

It is to Tesco’s credit that it has kept faith with the Wick prototype and developed it from a fairly workaday, albeit interesting, example of what can be done using a kit from a manufacturer, to a store type that it can claim as its own. It has also resisted the temptation to do what one other major supermarket has done - to take a metal-framed building, constructed along entirely conventional lines, and then to clad it with wood in order to create the impression that it is, in some way, eco-friendly.

In a retail organisation the size of Tesco, it is hardly surprising that there are a number of store design variations, even within a single market. But it is a measure of the emphasis being placed on store design within Tesco that there is such diversity. It is easy to join in the supermarket bashing that is indulged in in this country, but there is every reason to be positive when the direction that supermarket design is headed is subjected to closer examination.

Tesco’s green stores

Number of Tesco wooden-stores 16

First Tesco wooden store Opened in 2006 in Wick

First carbon neutral store Ramsey, Cambridgeshire, 2009

The future Sneinton, Nottingham - a futuristic piece of design with green credentials