Archives for posts with tag: Architecture

1-Fragmented no more

Home improvement retailing had long been composed of local, or regional chains, specializing in a specific category or sub-category of the construction sector, resulting in a fragmented scene, populated by lumber yards, hardware stores, and various specialized home improvement retailers.

In the later half of the 1970s, a retail concept was born, challenging the status quo,  bringing several disparate yet interrelated segments together into a single store, under one immense over-arching roof.

In the early days, the entire raison d’être for The Home Depot (THD) was to revolutionize and reshape the industry, casting a long shadow over the competition through physical size. Entering the scene in 1978, THD did not have first mover advantage, as major competitor Lowes, founded in 1946, had a market advance decades long (source: wikipedia). Undeterred by its limited lineage, THD grew, expanded, and rode the housing and residential renovation/construction booms in the 1990s and 2000s to surpass all competitors, becoming the No. 1 home improvement retailer in the world.

DSC07660 THD THD Suburban store Aberdeen Maryland

The Home Depot, suburban big box format store, Aberdeen, Maryland

DSC04749 THD Reno Depot Vaudreuil Quebec

Réno-Dépôt, large format suburban big box store, Vaudreuil, Québec, Canada

DSC04329 THD Lowes Arsenal Street Watertown New York

LOWES, large format suburban big box store, Arsenal Street, Watertown, New York

DSC08746 THD Rona Mapleview Drive near Highway 400 Barrie Ontario

RONA, large format suburban big box store, Mapleview Drive near Highway 400, Barrie, Ontario, Canada

Along the way, THD fostered a store format that would be copied by several competitors, as the format responded to operational needs while presenting an emerging marketing, promotional and brand building opportunity.

2-size does matter

Armed with a mission to revolutionize the home improvement industry, THD undertook to aggregate several items of the various industries, synthesizing lumber yard, hardware, tools, equipment rentals, gardening supplies, into one single catch-all retail store. Size would be required to achieve this objective. In the process, economies of scale could be realized through volume purchasing and trade discounts whilst emphasizing product selection, availability and breadth.

The first locations were crafted within the retail spaces controlled or vacated by other retailers, such as J.C. Penney or Zayre, proposing a  massive footprint to house an assortment of home improvement products (source: wikipedia). Growing organically  was not an option. Getting big, fast, in order to achieve critical mass to outmuscle and outmanoeuvre existing and emerging competitors, was a primary requirement.

DSC10531 THD The Home Depot Apron and Logo

The Home Depot orange apron with logo

Entering the scene with size as its unique distinguishing feature, THD continues to use size to differentiate itself from the competitors. As evidence, The Home Depot’s 2,000+ stores range in size from 105,000 sq. ft. to 225,000 sq. ft., while major competitor LOWES’ 1,600+ stores have a smaller footprint, ranging from 85,000 sq. ft. to 120,000 sq. ft. (source: wikipedia).

DSC09501 THD THD Suburban store Route 11 near i81 Cicero New York

The Home Depot, large format suburban big box store, Route 11, Cicero, New York

DSC09661 THD Lowes Cornelia Street near i87 Plattsburg New York

LOWES, large format suburban big box store, Cornelia Street near Interstate 87, Plattsburgh, New York

Although the retail stores have evolved and altered in appearance since the initial store, eventually establishing an architectural aesthetic all their own, the immense size proposition as differentiator remains intact.

3-claiming identity

Long, deep, flat and expansive, The Home Depot stores are genuinely massive, supported by an equally large parking area. Integral to a retail power center development or stand-alone, the prototypical THD store is that found in suburban locations.

Reduced height combined with generous length and depth, these typical stores are sprawling, quite low to the ground and wide, creating an expansive floor area on a single level to display the breadth of products.

The architecture exudes a simplicity that is focused on expediting the retail transaction process. Initial approach reveals an expansive façade with minimal embellishments, a lack of visual clutter and limited articulation.

DSC08031 THD THD Suburban store Billy Bishop Way Downsview Ontario

The Home Depot, large format suburban big box store, Billy Bishop Way, Vaughan, Ontario, Canada

The main entrance, generally located below a marquee, typically step or gable, is spatially separated from the exit, thereby eliminating conflicting in-and-out customer traffic flows. As some of the items sold at THD are heavy, awkward or bulky, this one-way flow configuration is a boon to simplifying pedestrian/cart circulation patterns.

DSC08641 THD THD Suburban store Yonge Street near Bunshaw East Gwillimbury Ontario

The Home Depot, large format suburban big box store, Yonge Street near Bunshaw, East Gwillimbury, Ontario, Canada

Funneling clients for ingress and egress is taken a step further, as segmentation between retail consumers/home owners and contractors/building professionals attempts to minimize intermingling, reduce wait times, and alleviate congestion. Consumers and contractors often have conflicting needs and time constraints, as the browsing-to-buying ratio are inversely proportional from one group to the other. The contractor assigned entrance and exit is traditionally located on the opposing end of the façade, and is far less adorned than that for consumers, often consisting of as little as a single labelled door, and overhead door for forklift loading of sizeable quantities of building materials, at times, replete with a canopy or porte cochere.

DSC04912 THD THD Suburban store College Square Baseline and Woodroffe Ottawa Ontario

The Home Depot, large format suburban big box store, Baseline Road at Merivale Road, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

The inherent simplicity of the warehouse ethos, low expenditure on fixtures and equipment,  implicitly dictates the use of long-lasting durable exterior materials, such as concrete block, tilt-up concrete panels, precast panels, concrete, stone, metal cladding, steel, aluminum and glass.

The warehouse ethos continues on the inside, complete with exposed industrial style lighting, wide aisles for forklift and cart circulation, exposed concrete floors and tall pallet racking.

Inside and outside, the warehouse edict is fashioned and reinforced through the tone of the design language, as well as the use of colour. Embracing a vivid orange, for brand image, logo, signage, store fixtures and identifiers, bathes the interiors in a wave of orange that began from the outset. Blending lighter coloured building materials, such as white or beige, within the elevations with the intense orange colour palette applied to select and specific elements, such as exposed roofs, cap flashings and horizontal banding, aids in creating a cohesive branding focused architectural design effort.

THD THD Orange box logo

The Home Depot, Orange box logo (source:

For the most part, The Home Depot could hardly be accused of blending in seamlessly into the immediate surroundings. The massive footprint, expansive façade, low height, and predominantly bland elevations, accentuating the calculated use of overt colour, THD is emblematic of its “big orange box” moniker.

4-exporting the “big orange box”

A confluence of factors in the U.S., from the proliferation of real estate speculation and “flipping”, the introduction of specialty television channel HGTV in 1994 and an emerging do-it-yourself (DIY) culture, helped fuel an almost unmitigated thirst for all things “home improvement” starting around the middle part of the 1990s. Having built an aesthetic that clearly portrayed “The Home Depot way”, expansion of the retail model across North America would attempt to capitalize upon these developments.

DSC08371 THD THD Suburban store Wonderland Road near Southdale London Ontario

The Home Depot, large format suburban big box store, Wonderland Road near Southdale, London, Ontario, Canada

Entrance into foreign markets, Canada (1994) and Mexico (2001), followed very similar paths, consisting of the acquisition of existing home improvement retailers (Aikenhead’s Hardware-Canada ; Total HOME, Del Norte, Home Mart-Mexico) and conversion of the acquired enterprise to reflect the established THD standards (source: wikipedia, The expansion proved to be successful, as  The Home Depot Canada and The Home Depot Mexico have, through a combination of acquisitions and organic growth, become the No.1 home improvement retailer in their respective markets (source: For many North American DIYer’s and renovation professionals, THD has become the go-to brand.

THD THDM Bulevar Solidaridad 900 - 83280 Hermosillo Sonora Mexico

The Home Depot, large format suburban big box store, Bulevar Solidaridad 900 – 83280 Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico (source:

However, the experience in North America has not translated so well beyond the continent.

THD THD big box store China_1

The Home Depot, big box format store, China (source:

THD entered the Chinese market in December 2006 following the same path, acquiring local big box retailer The Home Way, with 12 stores spread across six cities (source: wikipedia / Yet, the story did not play out the same. The Home Depot failed to gain traction in China and began to progressively trim its store numbers until finally capitulating, announcing in September 2012 that it would be closing all remaining big box stores, which numbered seven at the time (source: wikipedia / Only two newer, smaller specialty stores, an HDC Store (décor) and a paint and flooring store will remain in China (source: wikipedia).

THD THD big box store China_2

The Home Depot, big box format store, China (source:

Experimenting with a variety of strategies to make The Home Depot retail model work, the company found itself competing in a different marketplace, where appeal for large format big box store waned and a DIY culture is less entrenched  (source:

Ironically, news that The Home Depot would be closing its big box retail stores in China was met with muted reactions from retail analysts who seemed unsurprised by the retailer’s inability to connect with Chinese consumers. The re-evaluation of the big box model, though a strategic business and operational setback, should not prove overwhelmingly impossible for a company that has some previous experience with altering its retail format due to localization considerations and urban planning limitations.

5-redefining the box

Although prototype buildings like The Home Depot’s big box retail model, reinforce and build brand awareness, the design does allow for some amount of localization and modifications, capable of responding to criticism and resistance, especially in historic/heritage districts, tourist enclaves, and established neighbourhoods.

THD THD suburban large format store Upgraded exterior finishes

The Home Depot, large format suburban big box store with upgraded exterior finishes (source:

The mental image of the “big orange box” serves the brand in several ways, yet does not showcase the levels of experimentation, modification and alteration made in localizing the brand.

THD THD 1020 Shoppes at Midway Drive Knightdale North Carolina

The Home Depot, large format suburban big box store with upgraded exterior finishes, Shoppes at Midway Drive, Knightdale, North Carolina (source:

The most acute example is the wholesale reinterpretation of the suburban big box model to function in an urban setting.

New York City truly serves as a proving ground/test lab for expanding the brand aesthetic and showcasing how THD can have a presence in areas where land is restricted and suburban style developments are unfeasible and impractical.

Serving a market that consists more of apartment dwellers than suburban tract home owners, the stores in NYC propose a sharper local focus on décor, curtains, paints, storage, kitchen and bath, rather than lumber, bricks, and hardware.

THD THD_A1 23RD Street and 6TH NYC NY

The Home Depot urban store, 40 West 23rd St between 5th Ave and East 23rd St, New York City, New York (source:

THD THD_A2 23RD Street between 5TH and 6TH NYC New York

The Home Depot, urban format store, 40 West 23rd St between 5th Ave and East 23rd St, New York City, New York (source:

The urban stores turn the big box model on its head, abandoning the single floor layout and the warehouse ethos, and instituting the idea of a multiple level design showroom complete with escalators and natural light. In conflict with the customary suburban model, the use of colours and materials is more muted, respectful and vernacular. Quietly integrating into established enclaves and neighbourhoods, the façade, scale, signage, colour, and design tone are consistent and complementary with the adjacent buildings.

THD THD_B1 980 3RD between 58TH and 59TH NYC New York

The Home Depot, urban format store, 980 3rd Ave between 58th St and 59th St, New York City, New York (source:

THD THD_B2 980 3RD between 58TH and 59TH NYC New York

The Home Depot, urban format store, 980 3rd Ave between 58th St and 59th St, New York City, New York (source:

Broadening the design palette to recast brand elements that can echo and reflect the characteristics of the suburban model, melding into established neighbourhoods and onto smaller parcels of land, should increasingly broaden the architectural vocabulary and visual representation of The Home Depot in the minds of consumers.

DSC07936 THD Rona Colossus Drive Vaughan Ontario

RONA, large format suburban big box store, Colossus Drive, Vaughan, Ontario, Canada

Perhaps as an acknowledgement that the big box model may benefit from some timely rethinking, Canadian home improvement retailer RONA, announced its strategic plans in Spring of 2012 to begin a move away from the format towards smaller, more locally attuned stores which highlight proximity over vast selection (source: The Ottawa Citizen, May 05, 2012).

DSC09473 THD Lowes Route 11 near i481 Cicero New York

LOWES, large format suburban big box store, Route 11 near Interstate 81, Cicero, New York
Although many of the “big box” home improvement stores are similar, repetitive, and undifferentiated, The Home Depot has a demonstrated history of being able, when warranted, to reinterpret and remix its aesthetic design language to better respond to its immediate surroundings. The challenges, setbacks and eventual retrenchment in China reinforce the need to protect and expand the architectural identity of the brand to further its market presence and preserve its No. 1 status amid competition on a global scale.

DSC10536 THD The Home Depot Gift Card wood crate with red bow

The Home Depot Holiday themed gift card, wooden crate and red bow

Disclaimer: All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.

1-Are we there yet?

For those familiar with prolonged highway travel, periodic stops, whether they be for refuelling, to grab a bite, to use the facilities or simply to stretch out for a bit, are an integral part of the road travel experience.

When travelling on some of the busiest highways, it is not a prerequisite to exit off the main thoroughfare onto secondary routes, and circumnavigate through a city or town in order to complete a necessary stop. Many of the most heavily travelled road networks, as well as most closed types of roadway networks, such as tolls roads or thruways, provide periodic designated areas for stops along the route.

Highway 401 West bound, near Toronto, Ontario, Canada

These designated areas carry different names depending on state or province, country and continent, but serve similar purposes. Whether they are labelled rest area, rest stop, oases, service center, service area, service plaza or travel plaza, all appellations refer to similar places (source: Simply stated, they are a transitory place where travellers can stop for a bathroom break, stretch, grab a coffee and a bite, refuel, get their bearings and resume their travel.

However, some of the similarities end at the functional component, as the built environment at each travel stop can vary extensively from one location to another, derivative of their particular geography, location, cultural history, and a host of other factors.

2-Rest. Relief. Refuel. Re-brand

Many rest areas along the most travelled highways were built in the 1960s, and are not relevant with today’s travellers. Thus, around 2007, coinciding with expiring oil company leases, the province of Ontario seized an opportunity to update many of the outdated travel stops along Highways 400 and 401 (source: On a typical day, in excess of 500,000 people travel the province’s two highways  (source:

View of the CN Tower and Toronto skyline on a hazy winter day, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

Acquiring widespread perceptions that are less than flattering, rest areas are additionally disadvantaged by low appeal and desirability. An almost unalienable limitation of road travel, they are not regarded as places where one longs to linger, or generally looks forward to visiting. Furthermore, they have become notorious for being unsafe, unkept and unclean.

In a two-fold attempt to rebuild and refresh the travel stops along one of North America’s busiest travel corridors, the updating plan included a complete re-imagining. Tackling entrenched perceptions, efforts would be expended to address long-standing negative connotations and shortcomings relating to safety, lack of comfort facilities, cleanliness, questionable lighting and parking.

Rest Area, Existing, Along Highway 400 near Newmarket, Ontario, Canada

Modernized, with a full complement of amenities such as several Quick Service Restaurants (QSRs), fuel stations, separate automobile and truck parking areas, accessible washrooms, free WiFi, designated pet parks, convenience market, as well as seasonal picnic areas, the revised service centres are more welcoming and significantly improved in terms of accessibility, usability, and safety.

Redefining the user experience, the bulk of Ontario’s 23 service centres were scheduled for the redesign. With only a handful of service centres left to complete, many of these newly revised rest areas are already built and operational, welcoming travellers daily.

3-Holistic design

Starting with a collage of divergent designs, the assorted lot would be dismantled to usher in the newly re-imagined service centres. Bringing all the disparate parts together by adopting a holistic design was the primary task.

Rest Area, under demolition, Along Highway 401 to Newmarket, Ontario, Canada

Re-branded as ONroute, the service centres would align with an over-arching design guideline, stressing similarity, familiarity, and commonality between centres, as opposed to individual location specific idiosyncrasies.

ONroute service centre, under construction, Along Highway 400 near Newmarket, Ontario, Canada

A malleable inspired architectural form combining three principal elements of glass, stone and wood, the new service centres look inviting, warm, and familiar. Imbued with a sense of rhythm, with solid and clear portions within the elevations, back-of-the-house functions are tucked being the mostly opaque, solid mass walls. At the front, the sloped glass atrium accentuates the generous indoor court, flooding the indoor space with natural light. Low-rise, clustered close to the ground, the built form is quasi-transparent, approachable, and human scaled.

Scalable, the building design can adapt to encompass an incrementally greater number of restaurants and services, providing a big, bigger, biggest box, which can be housed by a different cast of characters. Medallions on the exterior wall display which concessions occupy that particular location.

ONroute service centre, approach view, Mallorytown, Ontario, Canada

The cumulative result is a flexible and malleable collection of buildings that espouse a cohesive exterior aesthetic, yet present configurable interiors, responsive to individual locales and adaptable to user needs. Putting some distance between the incongruent collection of past centres and the newer ones, the new guidelines communicate a different way forward.

4-Eyes on the street

Of all the ills and shortcomings that plague rest areas in general, the most common is the issue of user safety. More than any other shortcoming, from less than good-for-you food options, bad coffee, unclean washroom facilities, or limited item selection justified by being in a remote area, the most infamous undesirable attribute of rest areas is user safety.

ONroute service centre, Front 3/4 view, Trenton, Ontario, Canada

Therefore, increasing rest area user safety, both perceived and real, through anticipatory and thoughtful design would present a significant and desirable improvement. By providing large uninterrupted views of the activities, both from the outside in, and from the inside out, the expansive glass atrium aids in achieving that sense of safety.

The ability to see and to be seen dramatically increases the sense of safety, especially in unfamiliar surroundings. The concept of “Eyes on the street”, popularized by Jane Jacobs, ensures “natural surveillance” as the unobstructed views provide a direct visual link for all rest area users.

ONroute service centre, approach view, Ingelside, Ontario, Canada

Airy, accentuating openness and visibility, the glass atrium serves as a beacon through the night time hours, lighting the way for weary travellers, inviting them in to a safe space for a respite from the road.

5-Inconsistent becomes Interchangeable

In some locales, the built environment being unique, from quirky to memorable, could serve as makeshift mile markers, making it possible to locate oneself from landscapes and landmarks. In a not-so distant past, when driving along some of Ontario’s busiest routes, one could use travel stops as visual cues, or reference points, as they all featured their own quirks and anomalies.

The applied homogeneity in the ONroute re-branding effort, inherent in promoting the Ontario brand above all else, has paradoxically removed much of the individual sense of place.

ONroute service centre, side view, Ingelside, Ontario, Canada

Skilfully dispelling some of the most negative associations with rest areas, these new service centres may well begin the process of expanding the sphere of possibilities, and rewriting the playbook as to what might come to be seen as the new normal in road travel.

Yet, although the new design is miles ahead of its predecessors in terms of functionality, safety and usability, it has also purged uniqueness, regional charm and locality from the equation.

All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.

1-Formidable failure

Profiled in Jim Collins’s “Good to Great” business management book, Circuit City had earned an enviable position as best-performing stock for any 15-year period between years 1965 and 1995. In a dramatic fall from grace, then second largest consumer electronics retailer in the United States, the company declared bankruptcy mere weeks into 2009. Following a massive liquidation that would last into early March 2009, the 500-plus stores were shuttered and Circuit City ceased to exist in its current form.

In 1949, Samuel Wurtzel opened Wards Company, a Richmond, Virginia based television retail store, which would eventually morph into the Circuit City of the 1980s (source: Wards Company grew, acquired other retail stores and experimented with various retail formats, creating brands such as “Sight-n-Sound” and “Circuit City” along the way (source: Subsequently, the Circuit City name was formally adopted in 1984, and the company became publicly traded, listing on the New York Stock Exchange.

The Wards Company history of experimentation and reinvention would lead to notably significant retail innovations throughout the sixty-year history.

2-Stumbling onto warehouse format

Opening its first big-box format retail operation in 1974 was serendipitous. In an effort to utilize excess space in the newly purchased headquarters in Richmond, Virginia, Wards carved out some space for retail use, effectively launching “Wards Loading Dock” (source:

The positive customer reaction to the big-box retail model prompted the company to build upon the concept. The “Wards Loading Dock” model, renamed Circuit City Superstore in 1981, would prompt further expansion (source: Rolling out the concept and spurring a nationwide expansion, smaller “Sight-n-Sound” and “Circuit City” stores were displaced and replaced by the emerging and strongly favoured Superstore format (source:

Awash with department store retail space under lease, and acquiring additional retail spaces, the Circuit City Superstore concept proliferated.

3-From instantly recognizable…

The superstore concept’s main premise being size, the potential for greater selection, lower prices, as well as economies of scale become natural by-products. Likewise, large footprint, elongated, low-rise, basic rectilinear (square and/or rectangular) shapes are equally by-products.

In an attempt to brand the stores, Circuit City focused fervently upon the entrance point as the differentiation factor. In 1988, Circuit City began displaying the “plug” design Superstore (source: The design interpreted the entrance as an enormous electrical plug added to the basic storefront, a theme that was introduced and reinforced in television advertisements.

(1989) Circuit City The Intelligent Choice for Christmas Commercial

In its fullest expression, a bright red tower was effectively grafted onto the façade, stretching from the ground plane to above the roofline, stepping over the parapet and extending above and onto the main roof. Protruding towards the front, the entrance produced a pronounced change in plane against the flat façade.

Circuit City, Plug design, Los Angeles, California (source:

Cohesively, the plug entrance seemed embedded into the storefront. Bold and bright, the red “plug” was ever more vivid when viewed against the backdrop of a white, beige, tan, earth tone, or other significantly lighter field colour facade. The bulk of the architectural expression was concentrated at the arrival/exit focal point.

Ross, Former Circuit City, Plug design, Riverside, California (source:

Ross, Former Circuit City, Plug design, Los Angeles, California (source:

In some instances, the red plug element was truncated, limited to the section above the doors, resulting in a less dramatic effect. Projecting from the main building façade, the canopy element provided a place for signage and provided cover for customers during inclement weather near the entrance doors.

Circuit City, Plug design, truncated, Vestal, New York (source:

The remainder of the building was fundamentally an afterthought, largely devoid of aesthetic relief or artistic expression. Minimal attention was expended to mask or break up the massive wall surface area into smaller sub-parts. A near complete absence of windows and natural daylighting was the norm. Limited articulation was requisite. Few architectural features of noteworthy value existed.

Circuit City, Plug design, truncated, Cheyenne, Wyoming (source:

Circuit City, Plug design, truncated, Spokane, Washington (source:

The “plug” design spawned a derivative design, popularized in the latter half of the 1990s that was referred to as the “half plug”. Of note, the “half plug” variant included interior changes resulting in more open showroom space (source:

Circuit City, Half plug design, Compton, California (source:

Circuit City, Half plug design, Cincinnati, Ohio (source:

Circuit City, Half plug design, Houston, Texas (source:

Circuit City, Half plug design, Saint Cloud, Minnesota (source:

However, from the exterior, the essential change saw the “plug” design turned 45 degrees, embedding deeper into the main building and projecting further outwards towards the front. The entrance/exit point typically would happen at the half plug element, but several examples exist where the access would be adjacent, leaving the bright red tower as an integrally whole design element.

Circuit City, Half Plug design with offset entrance, Fort Myers, Florida (source:

Circuit City, Half plug design with offset entrance, Port Richey, Florida (source:

The “plug” idea was a significant concept at Circuit City. Introduced in 1998, the “Pluggie” mascot appeared in television and in-store advertising, deliberately featured in television commercials plugging into the storefronts (source: The introduction of a new logo in 2001 saw Pluggie be discontinued (source:

Derided and vilified, the “plug stores” became instantly identifiable and recognizable, resonating with the brand and heritage. Establishing a clear brand association, the stores became iconic, unmistakably Circuit City.

4- … to intensely forgettable

Exiting the large appliance business in 2000, and attempting to respond to growing competition from Wal-Mart and Best Buy, Circuit City would recast its Superstore model with the launch of the “Horizon” store concept. Fittingly, a new circle logo, introduced in 2001, ushered in a new wave of Circuit City retail experimentation and reinvention.

Circuit City, Horizon design, initial version, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (source:

Many Circuit City stores were hampered by bad locations complete with store designs and layouts that did not fare well against newer competitors. The new Horizon stores featured a more open sales area, lower fixtures heights, upgraded interior finishes, self-serve shopping carts better attuned with the expanded product mix, a centralized checkout area near the front of the store, and the use of non-commissioned sales staff (source: The reinvention resulted in stores that were cleaner and less cluttered.

Circuit City, Horizon design, final version, Harvey, Louisiana (source:

However, the newer Horizon stores also elicited a me-too feel of its competitors that would become harder to ignore.

hhgregg, having taken over Former Circuit City, Horizon design, final version, Tampa, Florida (source:

Following the established trend of evolutionary changes, a new smaller footprint store concept that afforded the company greater flexibility in better serving newer and existing markets was introduced in 2007 (source: Dubbed “The City”, it would quickly dominate the new store opening mix by 2008 (source:

Embracing perpetual new concepts would prove costly for Circuit City, from a brand standpoint, and financially. An unprecedented projected 100 to 150 new store openings in 2007 and 2008, a ten-fold increase to the established trend, would prove unattainable (source: Already saddled with a glut of unused real estate spread across the country due in part to the relentless expansion phase of the 1970s-1990s, many of these newer stores opened in 2008 operate for several weeks, while others never opened at all (source: As it now emulated and copied so many of its competitors in so many ways, it became increasingly difficult for Circuit City to stand out, rapidly transforming from incontournable to incognito.


Glaring lack of foresight, questionable strategic business decision, overly-limiting and restrictive exclusive arrangements (gaming, cellphones, ..), stale product mix, non-anticipation of changing market conditions, less than ideal locations, declining customer service, numerous culprits could be blamed for the eventual implosion of once dominant Circuit City. As the business model changed around one of its pioneers, it never quite managed to reclaim its former lead position.

Former Circuit City, Half plug design, Compton, California (source:

Acquired out of the bankruptcy proceedings by Systemax, owners of the TigerDirect and CompUSA brands, the Circuit City brand name, logo and website have been repositioned and re-purposed as an internet-only electronics retailer, devoid of any physical bricks-and-mortar stores.

Suggesting that the downfall of Circuit City was due, even in part, to the safe and timid architectural redesign would be self-serving. Yet it is plainly obvious that adopting a me-too aesthetic, while striving to repair a falling business plan did not aid in protecting Circuit City’s built brand equity, ultimately escalating brand and positioning confusion.

Examples of re-purposed Circuit City stores

Although somewhat indulgent, but just perhaps, once Circuit City began to focus more feverishly on copying its competitors, it lost some of the boldness that once defined the company, and which was previously self-evident and vividly emblazoned across the Superstore storefronts. For better or worse, the “plug” association, which was exploited in graphical design, promotional communications, and in crafting an architectural identity, ultimately became ingrained and unalienable to the Circuit City brand.

Willamete Family Medical Center, Former Circuit City, Plug design, Salem, Oregon (source:

Willamete Family Medical Center, Former Circuit City, Plug design, Salem, Oregon (source:

Disclaimer: All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.

1-A road well travelled

Emphasizing premier service within the limited-service mid-price range of hotels, Hilton Worldwide’s Hampton brand has managed to pare itself an enviable position in a crowded marketplace. For the novice or seasoned traveller, Hampton’s immediately recognizable aesthetic makes it almost effortless to identify, connect and form a bond with the brand when far from home.

Founded in 1983, the Hampton brand, along with the Embassy Suites Hotels and Doubletree Hotels brands, was acquired by Hilton Worldwide in 1999 from then owner, Promus Hotel Corporation (source: Since then, the Hampton brand has grown larger within the Hilton group. Serving almost as an umbrella brand, the Hampton name has spread to comprise Hampton Inn, Hampton Inn & Suites, Hampton Inn “Hometown”, Hampton Hotels, and Hampton by Hilton.

Although the majority of the over 1,800 Hampton branded properties are located in the United States, there are locations in
Canada and Mexico, and a steadily increasing presence in European countries including Germany and the United Kingdom, as well as in Latin Americans countries such as Ecuador and Costa Rica.

2-Galvanizing an identity

Championing superior service that is genuine, one of the hallmarks of Hampton is to meet and exceed the requests of every single guest. In fact, it was so committed to the endeavour, that in 1989, it became the first national hotel chain to offer an unconditional satisfaction guarantee (source:

Gaining a reputation for exceptional service is impressive, but nonetheless, guests are still required to make their way into a Hampton to experience such stellar treatment.

Hampton Inn, King Street East, Kitchener, Ontario (source:

Consequently, the Hampton brand has strongly promoted and has been a steward of an exterior aesthetic that has bred familiarity, consistency and has become synonymous with the brand. Benefiting from a distinctive and unique silhouette, Hampton brand properties primarily revolve around the central theme of arrival with a quickly discernible, keenly identifiable guest focused entry experience.

3-Aggrandizing Arrivals

The arrival being foremost at Hampton, the prototypical standard was designed to accommodate the widest variety of sites proposing both side-loaded and end-loaded entrance options (source:

Hampton Inn, End loaded entrance, Service road south along Highway 40, Montreal, Quebec (source:

Generous parking, easy to navigate circulation patterns, soft and hard landscaping, tasteful site lighting, material variety and texture; a comprehensive design effort is expended to make the arrival process as warm and welcoming as possible.

A well-defined, prominent porte cochere typically frames the arrival, providing a covered focal area, sheltering guests from the elements. The main entrance juts out from the body of the building, slipping under the near edge of the porte cochere, seemingly stretching out to welcome guests and thus drawing out the arrival process from the outside to the inside of the hotel.

Hampton Inn, Partial front elevation with porte cochere and extended front entrance, Route 31, Clay, New York

Additionally, softer somewhat pale colours, sourced from a palette of warm, neutral earth tones washes the arrival and reception process in a comforting and relaxing aura.

The main floor level acts as a base element to anchor the building to the site, providing a sense of heft and sturdiness. In most cases, the base is clad in a more durable, lower maintenance and abuse resistant material such as brick or stone, complementary to the lighter materials such as stucco or EIFS, used at the guest floor levels above.

KS Bank, Front elevation showcasing use of base and complementary materials, Brightleaf Blvd, Smithfield, North Carolina

The alternate material and divergent aesthetic at the main floor also tends to telegraph the activity inside. From the exterior, the larger window openings, or lack thereof contrasted with the guestroom windows above, makes it is discernible that the spaces behind hold a divergent use and activity.

Although the base may at times subjugated to adhere to the prescribed footprint of the guestroom floors above, the base still retains a greater geometric flexibility than that afforded to floors above grade. Almost universally, hotel footprints are dictated by the room type mix and room adjacency, resulting in some natural articulation in the floor profile and building elevations. However, the base or podium may stretch and contort with further articulation to encompass supplemental spaces for additional guest amenities such as an indoor pool, or building other functions.

Hampton Inn, Rear elevation with mechanical room projection at base level, Route 31, Clay, New York

Nonetheless, whether the building geometry is maintained from bottom to top, the base is generally noticeably distinct, with a horizontal beltline visually separating the base from the upper floors. This distinguishable beltline allows from the guest floors to spring upwards from this point, allowing some flexibility in the final volume of the building and floor levels, without compromising established brand elements.

4-Edge definition

Sprouting from the podium level, guest suite floor levels can be stacked as layers while remaining legibly distinct from the base. Thus, a multiplicity of floors can be accommodated within the branded framework, making the design flexible and adaptable, yet recognizable.

The use of pilasters, which originate close to, or below the ground plane, extend through to all floor levels aiding to ground the building, effectively anchoring it to the site with vertical corners stretching the full height of the building. The architectural element vividly punctuating the entrance, pilasters provide further relief and depth in the façade. Favouring narrow linear floor plans with central corridors, pilasters are employed to clearly delineate the building ends. Consequently, they are also utilized to break up the bulk horizontally in extended length guestroom floor footprints.

Hampton Inn, Front elevation and porte cochere, Route 31, Clay, New York

Projecting upwards, the pilasters seamlessly combine and merge into elongated flattened arches near the roof level, adding character and alleviating some of the potentially bland expanses within the building elevations. The pilasters and arches adds another level of surface change beyond the floor articulation, creates massive shadow boxes, frames portions of the elevations, and defines hard edges within the facades.

Hampton Inn, End elevation demonstrating pilasters and arches with shadow lines, Route 31, Clay, New York

Altering the depth perception, creating rhythm and balance, framing material transitions, compartmentalizing the elevations, serving to book end the edges, the judicious use of the pilasters and arches results in an aesthetic that is architecturally distinctive and instantly familiar.

Mars grocery store, Facade making use of pilasters, stepped parapets and cornices, Aberdeen, Maryland

In addition to the vertical edges, horizontal edges are also created through the use of parapets and cornices. Although parapets may also serve a practical function, such as screening mechanical rooftop and HVAC equipment, as well as mechanical penthouses and elevator overruns, Hampton has integrated massive parapets into the general aesthetic. Capped by protruding ornamental cornices, the overall result is a hard, well-defined, horizontal edge terminating the building against the sky.

Hampton Inn, Front elevation, Exeter Road, London, Ontario

The massively tall parapets, with the highest typically equivalent to an additional floor height, are stepped in height, again creating rhythm while giving primacy to that which frames the main entrance, bringing attention and focus back to the main arrival point. Not surprisingly, the highest parapet lends itself practically to further identify the property from a distance affording prominent placement for signature brand signage.

5-A degree of localization

As Hampton has built up an enviable reputation amongst competitors and guests alike, it has also amassed a portfolio of similarly styled standardized hotels that speak with one unified design and architectural identity. Suburban locations inherently better suited to newer stand-alone hotels, densely urbanized sites may require further finessing and localization, or wholesale re-imagination of some of the brand marks.

Notwithstanding the preponderance of hotels exhibiting the full slate of signature architectural brand elements; deep pilasters, stepped parapets, heavily ornamental cornices and pale earth tones, Hamptons also exist in less prototypical states. Given particular site and market realities, some reasonable compromises may achievable.

Although the brand has a vested predisposition to maximize the equity within the established aesthetic, under the right circumstances, it is not an absolute prerequisite. Indeed, in some markets beyond North America, the familiar Hampton has been overhauled and heavily reinterpreted.

Marketed under the “Hampton by Hilton” name, established brand elements have been distilled and reworked. The focus remains on the entrance, complete with a covered arrival point, yet the look and feel lacks some of the warmth. The base component remains apparent, set apart with a different colour, material and openings. The earth tones have been substituted with bolder colours. The pilasters have been replaced by thin fins projecting from the façade grafted onto a floorplan devoid of natural articulation. The hard edges, both horizontal and vertical, have been made crisper and unambiguous.

As the Hampton brand spreads further into new territories, the push to increase brand awareness with European and Latin American guests, especially those previously exposed to the distinctively styled North American architectural identity, could result in some brand confusion. Thus, despite all the built architectural equity, supplemental efforts are likely required to untangle the ingrained mental model and win over guests, old and new alike, one memorable arrival at a time.

All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.

1-Rediscovering priorities

The financial crisis in 2008-2009 that thrust many industries into a tailspin and many consumers to the brink was unkind to the automotive business. At the height of the financial crisis, Honda embarked on a radical cost-cutting plan which acquired the acronym D.I.S.C. (Does It Sell Cars?). The culling would be wide-ranging. No sacred cows would be spared, not racing, not advertising, not sponsorship, not product development. If the activity did not clearly contribute to the stated objective, it would be vulnerable.

Nonetheless, Honda does not solely manufacture automobiles, it is a diversified company involved in many areas including motorcycles, scooters, power equipment and more recently, corporate jet aircrafts. However, Honda’s automotive business remains the most recognizable and visible part of the organization.

2-Divide and specialize

Diversified as Honda is, it is set up with many divisions, each existing under the parent Honda moniker, but specializing in a very specific niche. Honda Cars, Honda Motorcycles, Honda Marine, Honda Engine, Honda Power Equipment, Honda racing, even Honda’s premium brand, Acura, exist separate and apart, and carry their own unique identities. It is worth nothing that in some markets Acura’s presence is non-existent and the models are branded as Honda (Honda Legend/Acura 3.7RL).

Historically, all have had a common thread to the parent brand, a consistent colour, red, similar typeface, and stacked block logos for parent and segment. The cohesive colours and text styles help to craft a visual identity for all brand segments and reinforce the brand position.

Only the more recently launched Honda Jet has deviated from this order for a singular type and a blue colour, admittedly more in line with blue sky travel.

3-United colours

Auto manufacturers are known for having design cues that carry through entire model lines from grilles, window details, sheet metal kinks, that serve to unify and create a family/brand look to their vehicles that is instantly recognizable. In Honda’s case, one could make an argument that it carries all the way into the architectural design.

Honda Car Dealership, Boulevard des Sources, Dollards-des-Ormeaux, Quebec

Honda Car Dealership, Boulevard des Sources, Dollards-des-Ormeaux, Quebec

Honda Car Dealership, Boulevard des Sources, Dollards-des-Ormeaux, Quebec

Honda dealerships are, from a design standpoint, subdued, un-hurried and unaffected by fads and trends, very clean and clutter free. Stressing balance, they are in many ways very Japanese in their approach to positive and negative space. From a maintenance standpoint, the choice of white for the exterior is somewhat impractical, and will require additional upkeep and cleaning to retain the crisp and clean white hue. Yet, it also lends a lightness to the building, and assists in blending quietly into the surroundings.

Honda Car Dealership, Bank Street South near Hunt Club Road, Ottawa, Ontario

The showroom seldom seems overpowering or overbearing. Much like visual art galleries, the unadorned and inconspicuous showroom exists to showcase the product and not draw unwarranted attention towards the surroundings. The blockish, sometimes cube like dealership structure remains low-key, usually finished with long wearing metal cladding without visible fasteners lending a very sleek look or a combination of metal and concrete, never commands attention from the product while lending an aura of solidity and seriousness consistent with the purchase decisions beholden within.

Honda Car Dealership, Carling Avenue near Preston Street, Ottawa, Ontario

Honda Car Dealership, Carling Avenue near Preston Street, Ottawa, Ontario

Like any functional automobile dealership, large doors and drive ramps are present for vehicle showroom access, but consumers would be hard pressed to mistaken one of these access points for the main entry. Honda dealerships are characteristically ascribed a cylindrical form, highlighting the main showroom entrance. The cylinder form, pronounced though at times quite softened, makes the focal entry point clearly identifiable. This simple orientation aids in creating a calming aura upon arrival as nothing is more frustrating than circling around a building trying to find the front entrance.

Honda Car Dealership, Boulevard St-Joseph near Freeman, Gatineau, Quebec

Honda Car Dealership, Boulevard St-Joseph near Freeman, Gatineau, Quebec

Oddly though, the main entrance is almost never centered in the front façade. Asymmetrical on purpose, the Honda name is customarily spelled out on the shorter side, omitting the logo altogether. This approach, with limited signage, is very clean, clutter free, simple, and remarkably effective in setting an inviting tone to draw consumers and prospective buyers inside.

These general design cues are repeated across dealerships, whereby the white tone is complemented by a bright red in Canada (Honda Canada), and substituted by lighter greys and beige base colors combined with a soft blue in the United States (American Honda Corporation).

Honda Car Dealership, Henry Clay Boulevard, Clay, New York

American Honda Corporation’s approach, complete with an additional ornamental wave, physically and visually anchors the opposing ends of the dealership façade, also imbuing a whimsical sensibility.

Honda Car Dealership, Genesee Street, Syracuse, New York

Honda Car Dealership, Genesee Street, Syracuse, New York

4-Enterprise scalability

Borrowing a term from the computer industry, Honda’s design approach to dealerships is endowed with “enterprise scalability”. These repeatable cues function in multiple locales, from tight urban lots to sprawling suburban sites, they are both versatile and adaptable.

Honda Car Dealership, St Laurent Boulevard near Ogilvie, Ottawa, Ontario

Stretched over several bays, or constricted to a narrow site, the design is inherently flexible and can respond as needed. Establishing the off-centre entrance component as the main focal point, the remaining elements fall into place on either side, instantly benefiting from a common identifiable lineage.

Honda Car Dealership, Mapleview near Highway 400, Barrie, Ontario

Another essential brand element, the stylized flared Honda “H” logo, resides practically exclusively on the foremost pylon sign. Wholly ingrained in the overall identity, the pylon sign is also used in sales brochures and newsprint advertising campaigns.

Honda Car Dealership, Oxford Street West near Wonderland Road, London, Ontario

5-Unified aesthetic

Honda, as well as the dealer body benefits from the unified aesthetic, singular look approach. Clean, consistent, cohesive, the architectural identity reinforces the brand message and in effect, gives a sense of unity to the ownership experience. Optimistically,  a sense of attachment may develop, whereby every Honda dealership looks like “their” Honda dealership, instilling a comfort level for consumers.

Consistently presenting a common front for the brand, the dealerships serve as the face of the company, the touch points, and the way in which the majority of consumers will develop with and experience the brand. Whether or not Honda has found their automotive mojo after having been lost in the proverbial dark for several years is a discussion better left to automotive scribes and Honda’s brand fans.

2013 Honda Accord sedan model (source:

2013 Honda Accord sedan model (source:

Notwithstanding, the unified aesthetic approach, in red or blue, will continue to serve Honda in countless ways to focus attention on the product, draw in curious shoppers, and establish a level of seriousness and stability for the task at hand.


All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.

1-Rise of the road use tax

The decade after the Second World War (WWII), which gave rise to the Baby Boom generation, along with technological innovations and rising wages and employment, resulted in unprecedented growth in consumer demand, and consequently, freight. This demand for additional freight was felt by all transportation modes, and saw the growth of heavy truck traffic. With consumers in North America adopting automobile use at a much more rapid pace, and truck traffic increasing, the road networks saw increased use.

Traffic gridlock, as seen from behind Tractor trailers on Highway 40 near St-Lazare, Quebec

As an initiative to make road travel safer for all concerned and reduce accidents, laws specifically written to address heavier commercial vehicles started to surface in different jurisdictions to enforce height, weight, length, and width of commercial vehicles. Enforcing these requirements would give rise to weigh stations, checkpoints to be located along established and emerging road-based shipping routes.

Semi-tractor trailer with dump trailer (source:

In many jurisdictions, heavier commercial vehicles were required to pay road use taxes  based on weight, which highlighted the need to weigh this particular class of vehicles.

However, the International Fuel Tax Agreement (IFTA) created an integrated system to replace road use taxes (source: Although taxes may still be paid at weigh stations, tax enforcement, vehicle inspections, safety violation detection and operational compliance, are bigger components of their mandate (source: In effect, promoting motorist safety and assisting in the prevention of the premature degradation and deterioration of the road network has overshadowed tax collection.

2-Approach with caution

Almost exclusively located along major road-based shipping routes or highways, most weigh stations, or permanent truck scales, are still in use to enforce weight restrictions. Although temporary “portable” scales may also be used, either for remote locations, special purposes, or as a supplement to existing scales during a peak period or season, most weigh stations are fixed to a defined location.

Typical locations are in relative proximity to jurisdictional borders, such as State, Province or Country. Additionally, many weigh stations are located at choke points, preferably with few alternate routes accessible to prompt would-be evaders, or the freight origination or destination points (source:

Weigh Station, Westbound direction, County Road 17, near Alfred, Ontario (source:

For automobile motorists, the haphazard locations of the weigh stations, dotting the route along the highway, may serve to break up the monotony of a lengthy trek without much concern. However, for heavy equipment operators, freight movers and truckers, these seemingly unobtrusive stops are more problematic.

As some jurisdictions require every commercial vehicle to stop at the weigh station, possible back-ups and issues regarding heavy trucks re-entering the flow of traffic need to be addressed. As such, circulation into weigh stations is typically designed to flow in the direction of traffic, thus attempting to minimize traffic flow disruptions.

Weigh Station at Eastbound direction, near St-Lazare, Quebec (source:

There exists some recent examples of median scales, which are placed between the opposing lanes of traffic, accessible from either direction of traffic, resulting in heavy vehicles exiting and re-entering the roadway from the left lane (source:

Notwithstanding emerging median scales, favouring one side, generally the right hand side of highways in North America, weigh stations tend to operate wholly with unidirectional travel, stressing one-way in/one-way out traffic. Unfortunately, this does entail that traffic in the opposing direction must complete a U-Turn when required to stop at weigh stations.

Weigh Station, Westbound direction, County Road 17, near Alfred, Ontario (source:

Designated signage, at a distance that preferably would allow for safe merging, alerts motorists to the presence of a weigh station ahead, as well as instructions regarding whether stopping requirements are in effect. Coming up to the weight station, featuring an approach lane of varying length, truck traffic is diverted off the main route onto the lane. Depending on volume, trucks may need to line up, perhaps out into highway lanes, depending on the queuing space allotted.

When finally reaching the head of the line, the inspection and weigh station comes clearly into full panoramic view.

3-Punching above its weight class

When seen at speed along the highway lanes, weigh stations seem rather small, with motorists spotting them up ahead and perhaps once again as they pass by with little attention paid. Their built footprint so small, they do not elicit a long visual pause, but rather a blip, along the route.

True to form, even at close range, many of these enforcement posts are physically quite miniscule compared to massive task they are called on to perform. In this instance, small but mighty is a very real idiom.

Weigh Station, Westbound direction, County Road 17, near Alfred, Ontario (source:

Sparse, stoic, utilitarian and set in rather unglamorous or remote surroundings, the architectural design direction would seldom be labelled as colourful or cheery. In fact, it compounds and reinforces the rather sombre and serious nature of the exercise.  Task driven with a focus on administration, enforcement and compliance, the architecture for the building is secondary, derived entirely from the functional needs.

Weigh Station at Eastbound direction, near St-Lazare, Quebec (source:

Efficiently sized, the outpost itself is but one component within a significantly larger site intended to accommodate several tractor trailers, complete with adequate space and requisite equipment for safety inspections, along with administrative tasks.

4-Establishing authority

One of the most striking architectural features is an expansive glass area, customarily wrapping the approach side. This massive unobstructed scene affords the weigh station operators an unparalleled, 180 degree or greater, view from within, to visually scan vehicles approaching. Implicitly aware that cameras or other surveillance equipment are in use at these legal enforcement points, the glass wrapped façade asserts explicitly that few things will be out-of-sight.

Superseding the basic needs of natural lighting or ventilation, the design sets an imposing, if not oppressive tone, stressing visual control, whereby users are keenly aware that every movement is potentially and purposely being viewed, documented, interpreted and analyzed. Amplifying this aura of authority is electing to make use of one-way looking glass, thus promoting probable feelings of powerlessness and apprehension from some queued users.

Weigh Station at Eastbound direction, near St-Lazare, Quebec (as seen from Westbound lanes)

Numerous weigh stations in current use are constructed as single storey structures, allowing easy and rapid access to the exterior for staff from within, as well as for transaction activities by incoming users. However, by situating the access point at the furthest most point from the approach, each incoming user must forcibly travel the span of the glazed expanse, sensing peering views the full length. Not without intent but by design, the authoritative aura is again reinforced and made unambiguous with every footstep.

Weigh Station at Eastbound direction, near St-Lazare, Quebec (as seen from Westbound lanes)

The imposing thematic can be noted in the use of other building materials, electing to make use of materials that communicate strength, durability and stability, such as concrete, stone, brick and CMU block (concrete masonry units). Moreover, the use of some lighter materials such as steel can sometimes be present, but the preponderance of high mass/heavier weight materials is evident.

Weigh Station at Westbound direction, near Alexandria, Ontario (as seen from Eastbound lanes)

In cases where weigh stations are spread out into two-storey structures, the lower portion tends to make ever more use of solid materials, limiting openings and adopting an almost bunker like aesthetic, furthering the authoritative mantra. The upper portion takes on a rather delicate, light and airy aesthetic, clad almost exclusively in glass. Nonetheless, the massive glass expanse accentuates the feeling of being watched, ever more attentively from above, as it is set solidly on a seemingly quasi-impenetrable base.

5-The weigh forward

From their initial scope of commercial vehicle weight and road-tax collection to their current mandate which includes enforcement and public safety, weigh stations have expanded in size, stature and scope.

Weigh Station, Indiana, circa 1950s (source:

The advent and adoption of newer technologies, such as Weigh-in-Motion (WIM) scales, electronic bypass systems (PrePass, NORPASS, or simply A.V.I.) are increasing efficiency, and revolutionizing the process and, by extension, progressively altering the role of weigh stations (source:   

The primary need to establish an authoritative presence combined with a continuous line of sight for those entrusted with enforcing public safety regulation will continue to influence and be reflected in the built environment design decisions. Therefore, the architectural identity and tells that define weigh stations will continue to be evident and trace a reference to the past, even as the scope of services offered may continue to be redefined into the future.

Two lane stretch of Highway 17, near Hawkesbury, Ontario, heading Westbound, night time view 

All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.

1-Automotive moon shot

After several years of faltering small car sales in its home market, witnessing their market share being unmercifully eroded at the hands of Japanese manufacturers, American automobile manufacturer, General Motors (GM), embarked on a novel experiment that would involve evaluating, challenging and rethinking everything it knew about the automobile business. This would be, to paraphrase former US President JFK, General Motors’ moon shot.

What began as discussions of a “revolutionary new, small-car project codenamed ‘Saturn’” in June of 1982 would evolve into the founding of the Saturn Corporation in the first few calendar days of 1985 (source: wikipedia). The linchpin of the plan was the requisite objective to recapture buyers who had shunned General Motors brands in favour of their Japanese rivals.

Unlike General Motors established automotive divisional organization, Saturn was to operate as a distinct and separate entity, fundamentally separate from the GM parent company. The Saturn Corporation would have its own assembly plant, manufacturing process, labour contract, unique models, and dealer network.

Saturn LOGO (with Retailer reflection beyond)

Additionally, by locating the dedicated Saturn specific assembly plant in Spring Hill, Tennessee, physically remote from the entrenched operational base in Detroit, Michigan, GM provided Saturn with a clean sheet to achieve its lofty goals.

2-From different to division to divestiture

Initially, Saturn cars proved to be popular with buyers. However, with 41% of Saturn buyers already owning a GM vehicle, it turned out to be Pyrrhic victory as sales were cannibalistic (source: wikipedia). Moreover, Saturn’s operational independence combined with its $5 billion start up cost, which ultimately diverted financial resources from other divisional projects, lead to growing resentment within the sprawling GM universe.

Saturn S-Series, First Generation, SL Sedan model

The S-Series, which consisted of a 4-door sedan, wagon and 2-door coupe, all built on the same platform, was the first Saturn model line. Touted as “different”, the initial Saturn models featured dent-resistant plastic body panels. Surviving in part on the strength of a single model line, the S-Series would be complemented by the larger L-Series, introduced in 1999. Built at a non-Saturn plant and sharing a GM-derived platform, the L-Series would prove to foreshadow the undoing of the Saturn experiment.

Saturn L-Series, First Generation model

In the subsequent years, General Motors would reset Saturn under a divisional arrangement, thus stripping its independent operational status, and fill the product pipeline with shared GM designs. Launching with a single American-built model line, the Saturn brand found itself flush with multiple rebadged European sourced products across several model lines in its final year.

General Motors, struggling for its survival during the financial crisis of 2008, declared its intention to divest the Saturn brand. Although a deal had been announced in June of 2009, the sale to Penske Automotive Group proved to be unsuccessful. The Saturn division and all dealers were scheduled to shut down by the end of October 2010.

3-Laying the groundwork

When Saturn launched, it was revolutionary for General Motors. However, except for the space frame and the use of plastic body panels, the initial Saturn cars were widely panned as being rudimentary and raucous. What the cars lacked in refinement would be compensated for in customer experience at the dealer level.

Saturn Vue, First Generation model

Part of the Saturn offensive involved offering premium customer service, something common in the luxury automotive dominion, but unheard of at the lower end of the pricing spectrum, Benchmarking the hospitality industry for customer service, Saturn quickly gained a reputation for best-in-class sales experience, even though it was hampered by a portfolio of average product.

Committed to changing consumer perceptions about small cars, particularly, American-built small cars, as well as the sales experience, Saturn became a champion of the “no-haggle” pricing policy. Saturn effectively removed the negotiation component of car buying that many consumers found off-putting. The sales process was transformed, and became welcoming, inviting, no-pressure, removing significant apprehension for many would-be first-time buyers.

Saturn Retailer, 9415 av Papineau, Montreal, Quebec (source:

Building the brand from the ground up, Saturn presented an opportunity to recast everything. The dealer body would be all-new, and every Saturn dealership could be clearly consistent, and on-message for the nascent brand.

Saturn Retailer, 814 Guelph Line, Burlington, Ontario (source:

In Saturn parlance, dealerships would consistently be referred to as retailers, as the customary confrontational sales process would be turned onto its head. Catering heavily to first-time buyers, Saturn would need to introduce and define the brand, as well as have an opportunity to shape the buying experience for many consumers.

The architectural approach of Saturn retailers would help to define this experience in many subtle and not-so subtle ways.

4-Setting the stage

Irrespective of the Saturn naming convention for dealerships, the retailers still required the functional trappings of standard automobile dealerships. Showroom area, service bays, sales areas, support functions, large parking areas for warehousing cars, all the traditional components of a typical automobile sales operation would need to exist in the Saturn experience.

Thus, a fairly simple, functional, cost efficient geometric building shape would be anticipated. Capable of accommodating vehicular access and interior circulation, a large column-free showroom and service area, the architecture would be limited by additional factors such as lot dimensions, orientation, street access, and other zoning and planning requirements.

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Used car sales), 3/4 Rear View, Highway 417 and Innes Road, Ottawa, Ontario

Nonetheless, it would still be possible for Saturn to be “different”.

A hallmark of the Saturn approach was transparency, in the sales process, and in the manner that the company sought to interact with its customers and stakeholders. General Motors having made a significant investment to form Saturn from the ground up, its activities were being closely scrutinized, internally and externally.

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Used car sales), 3/4 Front View, Highway 417 and Innes Road, Ottawa, Ontario

The architectural identity highlighted this need for transparency with squat buildings with large glass expanses, resulting in a respectable glass to overall mass ratio, opening up the storefront of the retailers.

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Used car sales), Front View, Highway 417 and Innes Road, Ottawa, Ontario

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Used car sales), Partial View, Highway 417 and Innes Road, Ottawa, Ontario

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Used car sales), Partial Front View, Highway 417 and Innes Road, Ottawa, Ontario

Another fundamental architectural element of communicating transparency was the distinctive protruding customer delivery and inspection area. Completing the delivery process inside, while providing some protection from the inclement weather, allowed for an added dimension of the Saturn sales process. Recasting the process indoors, Saturn created a de facto stage setting, elevating the delivery into an emotional event, rather than a simple transactional one.

FORMER Saturn Retailer, Front View Right, Genesee Street, Syracuse, New York

Saturn retailers earned a reputation for performing customer reveals inside the delivery area, unveiling the customer’s new Saturn by pulling off a car cover with much fanfare and glitz, engaging staff and onlookers to witness the event. Putting the customer on the spot with an enthusiastic souvenir photo opportunity, complete with instant Polaroid photographs available from the Saturn retailer, added to the overall experience.

Upon taking possession of the vehicle, the exterior scenery in the background and foreground, visible through the wall of glass, customers could figuratively picture themselves driving off in their new Saturn. In most instances, the process was quite literal, the large aluminium and glass doors permitting the vehicle to be driven straight out of the delivery area.

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Isuzu Commercial Vehicles), Front (far), Boul. des Sources and Highway 40, Montreal, Quebec

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Isuzu Commercial Vehicles), Front Left, Boul. des Sources and Highway 40, Montreal, Quebec

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Isuzu Commercial Vehicles), Front Right, Boul. des Sources and Highway 40, Montreal, Quebec

From the exterior, the projecting delivery area commanded immediate visual attention, and with its glass box aesthetic, allowed for would-be window shoppers to peer upon the activity within. Conversely, with such a prominent architectural appendage, it could easily be mistaken for an oversized vestibule area at the principal entrance.

Saturn Retailer, 19550 Langley Bypass, Langley, British Columbia (source:

However, the main entry typically proposed a covered walkway, or cantilevered roof element, framed by columns and tie-backs, reminiscent of one half of a suspension bridge. Additionally, a similar element would be repeated to form the roof element at the delivery area.

5-leading the way

Unfortunately, as the brand matured, the product range grew tired, and competitors started copying some or all of Saturn’s customer service practices, such as no-haggle pricing, too few customers were finding the entrance to Saturn retail stores.

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Used car sales), Partial View at Entrance, Highway 417 and Innes Road, Ottawa, Ontario

In 2005, Saturn would attempt to restart its stumbling sales numbers by revamping their dealership experience. Embracing multimedia displays and new technologies, improving interactions with sales staff and adding new interior themes and aesthetics, Saturn’s ultimate salvation hinged on new products. The transformation was more than aesthetic, as Saturn needed to be reinvented into a full line automobile brand, selling everything from entry-level vehicles to SUVs and performance vehicles to survive and thrive.

Saturn badge

After having starved Saturn product development for several years, General Motors finally recommitted to the Saturn brand and by the latter half of the decade would source European influenced (2007 Saturn Aura), and European designed (2008 Saturn Astra/Opel Astra, 2008 Saturn Vue/Opel Antara) for sale in North America.

Weathered and damaged Saturn Customer Parking Only signage

The decision could not have been more ill-timed, as the recession of 2008-2009 would soon take hold, crimping credit and decimating car sales in America. General Motors would wind down the Saturn brand before the first full decade of the new century was complete.

Saturn Retailer (Now converted to MINI Dealership), Mount Laurel, New Jersey (source:

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now MINI Dealership), Mount Laurel, New Jersey (source:

The Saturn legacy lives on in business practices adopted throughout the industry, as well as the democratization of high levels of customer service as a luxury vehicle exclusive experience. Furthermore, the protruding glass appendage delivery enclosure stands as a prominent architectural testament to the brands ideal of transparency.

FORMER Saturn Retailer (Now Used car sales), Partial View, Highway 417 and Innes Road, Ottawa, Ontario


All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.


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