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Mixed-use Developments Are the New ‘It’ Sector


By Cindy O’Hara, Construction Executive

Urban revitalization and sustainable philosophies, along with a stronger economy, are invigorating the mixed-use sector. In fact, these types of developments are so on trend right now that many architectural firms are finding it beneficial to bring in design-build construction experts to help bid more competitively.

Steve Klessig, co-owner and vice president of architectural engineering at Wisconsin-based Keller—a general contracting firm that has more than 50 years of experience in design-build and mixed-use construction—understands and subscribes to the value of combining human resources.

“We go to market with the principle that design-build is the best way to go,” he says.

Collaboration between architects and builders is key to avoiding problems—something that hasn’t happened until recently. “In the past, the two never met until the construction project was about to begin. Because of that, a lot of conflicts occurred onsite,” Klessig says.

Now, with collaboration occurring at the beginning of a project, conflicts can be headed off.

Like Klessig, Greg Meneffee, retired president of Architectural Glass & Metal Company, believes that going to a design-build approach has added value to what his firm can bring to any given project.

“There’s a lot more value placed on our company and companies like us for our expertise. We will do everything from design, to skin and glass, to the overall performance of a building,” says Meneffee. “We can model those things and provide that information to the design team.”


Perhaps the strongest element that is driving mixed-use development is the emotional and social impact that it has on professionals and residents within a community.

According to Michael Breclaw, principal with Chicago-based FitzGerald Associates Architects, mixed-use developments are springing up in cities and towns because people want a more urban experience.

“In order to achieve that, you really have to bring a variety of uses together, and I think that people are recognizing that as both a value for where to live and for where to do work, and that drives mixed-use development,” Breclaw says.

James H. Puckhaber, AIA for S/L/A/M Collaborative (SLAM), Glastonbury, Conn., agrees. “As work-life balance has given way to work-life integration, we want our work life to feel like a continuation of our lifestyles,” he says. “This increasingly means embracing vibrant and amenity-rich urban neighborhoods.”

In this way, Puckhaber notes, office tenants are often choosing walkable, urban locations over suburban locations, and suburban developments are beginning to resemble urban locations in development patterns. This is a far cry from standalone buildings that were the norm in post-World War II U.S. construction.

Russell Bloodworth, executive vice president of Memphis-based Boyle Investment Company, believes there is a trend toward more mixed-use construction opportunities, but he cautions that these projects can be daunting.

“It’s not particularly easy work,” he acknowledges. “It’s a lot easier doing single-use development on a freestanding site.”

In the end, however, he says mixed-use helps cultivate a deeper sense of community, and that vibrancy is key to development.


For Copley Wolff Design Group, integrating art into the landscape of mixed-use space is paramount to drawing people in and creating an experience—even if only momentarily—from one point to another.

“Developers, cities and architects are starting to realize and understand the importance of place and the impact outdoor spaces have on the community,” says Danna Day, principal and director of marketing for Copley Wolff Design Group.

“Thoughtful landscape architecture is essential to provide the public with cues to inspire the natural flow of foot traffic and to encourage circulation through a space,” she says.

In this way, landscape architects are often asked to create designs that provide links to surrounding neighborhoods. Sightlines are taken advantage of to draw people in, while visual connections are reinforced with tree-lined walkways.

This is why a large percentage of Copley Wolff’s projects involve connections to nature, amenities and adjacent communities, as well as from the inside to the outside.

The annual forecast by the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP) supports the trend toward incorporating nature into mixed-use spaces. “The top 2018 landscape trends reflect an evolution of the outdoor living trend we’ve seen grow in popularity over the last few years,” says Missy Henriksen, NALP’s vice president of public affairs.

“Property managers are innovating their landscapes in fun, new ways. Recognizing the tremendous value that beautiful and functional landscapes bring to commercial properties, today’s landscapes are built to last so they can be used and enjoyed through all the seasons, year after year.”

This is why, Day says, landscape architects should be involved as early as possible in the design process, as the rest of the project team might gravitate toward limiting opportunities for shared experiences between interior and exterior spaces.

Another reason for coordinating with the design-build team earlier rather than later is that mixed-use projects are extremely complex and require more coordination due to the overlapping programming of spaces.

“Spaces need to be multi-purpose and flexible, but specifically designed for intensive use, stresses from weather and vandals,” Day says.


Sustainable design solutions such as green roofs, rooftop gardens and rain gardens offer clients the ability to manage stormwater runoff, as well as decrease the urban heat island effect, and can also contribute to LEED certification on any project.

“Eco-friendly design is dominating the mixed-use space,” says Magued Eldaief, CEO of Prescient, a software and hardware technology company. “By focusing on designing buildings to comply with the principles of social, economic and ecological sustainability, you can better meet the needs of future generations.”

For Day, new and existing coastal developments introduce a number of site threats, including flooding, erosion, invasive species and pollutants. To this end, Day believes it is paramount to have some sustainable design options and solutions in place for clients.

“Taking advantage of simple strategies, such as limiting paved surfaces near the waterfront, preserving contiguous native plant communities, and designating space for the slowing and cleansing of stormwater, will help ensure the long-term health, function and beauty of waterfront sites,” she says.

Likewise, Klessig believes that sites with good pedestrian and transit connectivity can receive a head start with LEED scoring.

“Clients choosing these locations are more likely to institute a sustainability program,” Klessig says. The trick is to build energy savings into a project at the beginning.

“Having a builder with a team in place, and that can help see whether an idea is cost effective, is much more efficient than waiting until a project is ready to start and is going to blow the budget,” he says.

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