Architecture for The Modern Retail Fuel Station: In times of uncertainty, one rings true – opportunity greets the world with the break of dawn and says it’s farewell with the sinking sun. Innovation, creativity and the awareness of the world and environment around us is the magnetic force pulling uncertainty and opportunity into a kaleidoscope of meaningful architecture – representing the spirit of the time (and to some extent, of its creator). The increased, but at this moment somewhat limited, travelling of today’s society makes nodes along both National and Local travelling routes more and more important. These nodes become an icon in the landscape – not because of its stature, hierarchy, intrigue, beauty or even spatial experience, but merely for the distinct fact that it succeeds in its function: filling up thirsty fuel tanks and hungry stomachs, providing vehicle-services and guiding road users on their journey.
Petrol retailing in South Africa began around the turn of the twentieth century. The first concept was based on the design of an underground storage tank with a pump and hose dispensing system and curb pumps placed on the streets. Causing congestion in the streets, fuel stations with an off-street, the road-side fuelling solution started to emerge – some even managed by pharmacies and chemical-shops (Wilsson,1995). Around 1930 a substantial development started to gain momentum in the United States and saw convenience stores and grocers providing customers with refuelling facilities as an additional service (Minale, 2000). Soon after, South Africa was influenced in the same manner and gave birth to the modern Retail Fuel Station as we know it.
The South African retail fuel industry is considered as a vastly sophisticated industry by the Department of Minerals and Energy with a solid infrastructure as its foundation (Human Sciences Research Council, 1992; Thomas, 2005 and Mbendi, 2004b). This industry has built an empire of more than 4500-6000 retail service stations spread through the landscape of South Africa but sadly finds itself in an exceedingly competitive environment, characterised by high stock turnover, low return on investment and an overtraded market. This comes as no surprise when analysing and gaining a better understanding of the key variables that influence this sector’s profitability. The impact of the size of the fuel station and its fuel price had lessened – still effective in its functioning, but replaceable in the minds of most non-loyal customers who seek other non-forecourt activities such as convenience stores, car washes, quick service restaurants, motor car sales, technological advances and ATMs (Smalley, 1999). Location, the size of the fuel station, Price Elasticity of Demand, different users with different needs, time of day and season – all of these and more are key variables that influence this sector’s profitability. In today’s society, the combination of good service, originality, technology, sustainability and the holistic sensory experience of its user governs above all.
An opportunity for meaningful architecture within the functional arise.
An opportunity for dialogue in the visual manifestation of society is presented.
Let’s stop for a moment and think about the mundane – yes, the most functional, non-esthetical, mind-numbing item you can think of. It is effective in functioning the way it was designed for but does not appeal in any way to the person utilizing it. In this state of limbo, this item becomes replaceable once a more appealing, exciting and innovative solution to the same ‘’problem’’ comes along, and offer its user a glimpse into a world of possibilities, enjoyment and self-discovery.
Effective marketing and advertisement of a strong brand name, good management, promotions and specials, security – these are all the intangible elements that attract and ensure the loyalty of customers to any fuel station. Shifting the focus to the tangible, we peel away the layers of the human psyche and find that we become emotional about our surroundings and engage in a dialogue with the environment. We connect the smell of freshly baked bread to blissful memories of Sunday-morning breakfast with friends and family, colour and texture awaken the child within you – a visual exploration accompanied by curious hands, the sound of cheerful chatter over a cup of coffee… These are the things that fill up the void of an architectural, functional building aiming to create a bold new image for its brand. Although this psyche-engaging experience is sometimes ephemeral, it speaks to the nature of us as human beings: a need for shelter, a place of solitude – a dwelling. In this dwelling we come to know ourselves; our likes and dislikes, we develop personalities and opinions, we build relationships, we love and make love, we see, feel, smell, touch. We are ultimately the product of our surroundings and shaped by the built environment around us in which all human activity takes place. It is important to note that because of this environmental, social and economic influence each person experiences elements of life in a different manner.
Architects around the world have taken it upon themselves to experiment with various concepts addressing the functional fuel station in a world governed by aesthetics and digital influence. Some ventured down the avenue of creating architecture that contrasts itself to other Retail Fuel Station designs, celebrating the building form itself and not the visual aesthetics of signage and graphics.
Taking a closer look at Italian practice Damilano Studio’s contemporary ‘Gasoline Petrol Station’, located in Cuneo, Italy, the retro continuous ribbon of asphalt makes a discreet nod towards the American Retail Fuel Station and continues to link the concept of utilitarian, continuous flow and urban landscape.Offering a café and various dining areas and a striking strip of red steel announcing restroom facilities to its visitors, this Retail Fuel Station is the embodiment of sculptural form. The curving reinforced concrete shell is cast in special moulds while the remaining walls are enclosed with glass shopfront facades. Essential facades area shaded by horizontal metal louvres, placed strategically to allow plentiful natural sunlight to filter into the centre of the retail area.
Of course, no fuel station will be complete without the iconic forecourt canopy, the pinnacle of the site. Mimicking the notion of its visitor’s speed and sculpted geometric form of automotive engineering, a visually dynamic image, point of hierarchy and orientation is created as an oasis in the landscape to offer its user the unprecedented service station experience to be forever associated with its brand. A single free-standing metal-clad column stands proud, supporting the rudimentary forecourt canopy.Another interesting example of the dramatic exploration of sculptural form and imagery in retail fuel station design is the United Petroleum Retail Fuel Station, design by Peddle Thorp Architects. Located in Corio, Australia, this 1650m² development was completed in 2016 and was the first in a series of the innovative fuel station and convenience retailing outlets showcasing a new bold image. Architect Antoine Damery describes the concept as being geometric in design and defined by two unfolding, lightweight sculptured wings that form the forecourt canopy – the dominant visual form being the building itself. The upper wing is the clear marker and signature as you enter the site through its slim faceted edges and a visually tilted and ‘dissolved’ grid of columns. The material palette of high tech ETFE 100% transparent material that is self-cleaning, lightweight and recyclable provides both the user and owner with an unprecedented service station experience. Flooded with a red glow, ETFE cushions and bright red cladding of the C-store building transform the station’s holistic image at night, reinforcing the beacon effect and gently drawing travellers in. In this solution, the retail outlet and age-old functions of a basic fuel station are masked behind a sculptural form to create a second corporate mast – reigniting the 1970’s Venturi-Brownm-Izenour debate of the ‘’ decorated shed’’. Imagery and sign. But it this the glue that keeps retail fuel stations together and promises its customers’ return in the future? Is this what cultivates a loyal and recurring customer?
The other side of the coin and as the past years’ of published architectural projects revealed, architects and their clients are extensively experimenting with ‘natural’ materials to create warmth in colour and touch, soft environmental textures and the combination of landscape design and ambient elements. This offers a glimpse into the kaleidoscope of the dominant man-made surroundings and natural environment. The combination of age-old basic architectural principles and high-tech building solutions have brought forth a hybrid architectural approach to sustainability and human intrigue. Sustainability in building design has entered the mainstream and has become the goal for many architects and clients. The objective of this goal must be weighed against the outcome: does your client want to make a difference in his environmental footprint; or is this intervention brought on by Western influence. Wanting to promote environmental innovation we need to understand the conceptual challenges of it first, and then only can we manoeuvre our way on the pathway to sustainable design and a lower environmental impact.
Sustainable architecture and the interlacing concept of environmentally friendly elements has brought the measuring of physical performance to the forefront of several contemporary models. This image is grounded in two core expectations: environmental issues are only physical in nature and on a global scale; and secondly, that environmental ‘’bads’’ can be corrected by understanding the ‘rational science’ behind such environmental crimes. Believing that the ‘’greenness’’ of a building can be predetermined by objective technical analysis of a buildings life-cycle, carbon and ecological footprint, or any other assessment method can help architects shape and determine a model of sustainability that directly address issues of energy efficiency. Whether your client opts for on-site wind turbines, photovoltaic panels, heat pumps, passive solar and daylighting strategies, or merely bulking up on insulation or passive ventilation over a cooled exterior water body – we need to consider the ‘’health’’ of the building and its user or occupant. This, however, becomes a linear model of sustainability and needs to acknowledge the specific social context in which these fuel stations are placed, both in time and space.
The Sustainable Gas Station, designed by Architect practice Knevel Architecten, is located on a prominent location in the industrial area between the Provincial Road N99 and the Mainroad to Den Over in the Netherlands.Situated on an elongated plot with a two-sided orientation to the Havenweg (main road to the village), the envelope of the building is designed as layered façade, covered in wooden slats and coloured cladding. The offering of a layered construction adds relief to the user of the building while the main supporting construction consists of cross-laminated timber panels, wooden ribbed floor slabs and engineered structural timber roof elements. The local context as influencer, concept and developmental basis is crucial in assessing the applicable environmental benefits of buildings and ultimately makes for meaningful, thought-through architecture in its natural landscape. Ideology, values and ethics form part of the contested concept of sustainability and must be acknowledged when making any attempt at designing or constructing a sustainable-driven building.
At this moment in the architectural world, environmental architecture is widely debated and causes a split between an Arcadian marginal intent and that of the rationalist approach of technologies and contemporary environmental design. In a South African context, the third dimension of this approach is probably the most influential on the outcome of an authentic, proudly South African Architectural masterpiece: the act of giving a voice to the different values of those individuals and landscape involved in the design and construction process. Although this is not the primary concern for the majority of South African designers and developers who seek to realise Westernised ideas of Architecture in an African context, we should aim to distinguish South African Architecture is an approach deeply rooted in ecology and not mainstream environmentalism. To reshape the Retail Fuel Station typology, the design strategy must be adjusted to specifically or concurrently emphasise socially cohesive design that promotes the health of its building and occupants, values and respects nature, maximises the efficient use of resources and minimises its environmental footprint.
But sadly, the conundrum remains: how can we as architects create a new, relevant, environmentally sustainable and visually striking retail fuel station typology in a meaningful manner while improving the overall service orientated experience and reducing the cost of building maintenance by incorporating technology into our buildings?
Although no simple answer is readily available to this complex question, we can aim to approach each future project with a unique concept, tailored to a specific type of fuel station in its unique setting. The spectrum of applicable Retail Fuel Station Architecture stretches far and wide, searching for inspiration in, well, just about anything. Contrasting the human frailty and scale, with that of the scale and ruggedness of the industrial and mechanical elements of a fuel station, it is clear to see why a more forgiving and gracious approach to built elements are needed. If it’s an eye-catching, dramatic exploration of sculptural art amidst highway industrial architecture, or a delicate road-side intervention of principles of sustainability, specific crafts from the region and climate-neutral buildings – the message is clear and the warning loud: designers of the future must seek to celebrate their inheritance of climate, culture, and knowledge. A more holistic and influenced approach is strived for, hoping to create a relatable typology of inviting comfortability, safety, warmth and relaxation for its users. The proposal is to create an architectural language of vernacular simplicity, environmental engagement, technological innovation and human interaction.
In taking this approach to design it is important to note that a combination of various complex actors come in to play, together with funding regimes and locational constraints and opportunities. Locally owned farm-to-table restaurants are proposed for the Quick Service Restaurant, juice bars, meditation and resting pods, electrical device charging ports, community shops, gyms, clinics, medical care and lodging are just some of the interventions being implemented today. Modular building design and implementation can easily provide a plug-and-play solution for any Retail Fuel Station Developer looking to mitigate risk and test the market or location of their fuel station. Creating a campus of permanent and temporary activity on such a development, like music festivals, can provide the backdrop for many future opportunities and customers. Fuel stations are no longer just about refuelling vehicles. Fuel station milieus have transformed into experiences of interaction, relaxation, and receiving the best possible service, in the shortest amount of time. Although they strive to provide people with what they need in one-stop, or longer, Fuel Stations design is aimed at providing all-in-one experiences that maximize people’s time and money. In this way, we as architects might begin to grasp how different logics, influences, locations, technologies, social groups and green design is mobilised and combined to assist other designers, developers and planners with distinct architectural approaches and strategies for future retail fuel station typologies.
Attempting to offer its user the best experience, the Retail Fuel Station of the future will focus on the wellbeing of motorists and not just their motor vehicle. Service and convenience are at the front line of this experience and should be reflected in the building design, offering a motorist and their companion the age-old requirement of comfort and information – but with the focus on the human enjoyment of this offering. Referencing our basic human need for shelter, carefully selected materials must provide a feeling of warmth, safety and relaxation to contrast the industrial context of the exterior function of the service station. Protected spaces, designed to enhance the re-fuelling, purchasing and ‘resting’ experience is seen throughout the interior but focusses mainly on convenience food outlets and public seating inside and out. Although the refuelling of one’s motor vehicle is the primary attraction of a fuel station, modern society has become bound and motivated by time and money and therefore seeks a place of convenience, quick service and low cost. The opportunity exists to re-route this thinking of a retail fuel station customer and present to them an end-destination, rather than a stop-over point. By adopting this perspective of building design we can begin to recognise the hybrid nature of the Retail Fuel Station Typology and pave the way for meaningful architecture – even in the mundane.
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Wilsson, O., (1995), Full tank, Tago Förlag, Stockholm