By  on July 21, 2014

Les Hiscoe, president of Shawmut Design and Construction, wouldn’t disagree that the store construction process can sometimes be fraught with surprises, from delays to design revisions to hidden costs.

“Construction historically has had that bad rap,” Hiscoe acknowledged. “But our customers will tell you they had a good experience.”

To mitigate money concerns, “We are very proactive about budgets,” Hiscoe said. “When a customer wants to change something we tell them in advance how much money. Particularly in high-end retail, they are designing up to the last minute to have the latest, freshest, hottest, coolest thing. We have grown accustomed to dealing with customers, to hitting a date. You’ve got to let them continue to evolve their design while you are under construction, yet still give them some budget predictability and schedule predictability. It is definitely a skill of our firm. There’s a bit of an art to it.” 

Despite the rapid growth of the Internet and proliferation of store closings, Hiscoe said Shawmut expects another growth year across the company’s sectors, which include retail, hospitality, academia and sports venues. Revenues are projected to be up 12 percent in 2014 to $960 million. Among Shawmut’s clients are Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Apple, Kate Spade New York, Uniqlo, Major League Baseball, Le Bernadin, Harvard University, Yale University and Columbia University. The company has offices in New York; Boston; Providence; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; North Haven, Conn., and plans to open another in Miami in 2015. 

Here, Hiscoe discusses the company’s work, challenges ahead, and trends in brick-and-mortar design.

Shawmut works in several sectors. How important is the retail sector in the context of the entire company?

Les Hiscoe: Retail is about 30 percent of the company. At any given time, we have over 100 projects going on. In the course of the year, we do about 400 projects. We have really specialized teams in every division. There is a Louis Vuitton team, a Burberry team. Those teams expand and contract based on how many projects we are doing for that brand.

WWD: What’s the biggest challenge the company faces?

L.H.: The universities are trying to up their experience to attract students. Retailers are trying to up the customer experience. In a designer’s mind, it’s never perfect. They can always make more tweaks. The mind-set of continually perfecting the design is one we have gotten used to with so many retail luxury brands in our stable. Most other firms would say they are difficult. If you flip the mind-set, it’s the nature of how they are, to continually design. It’s a different vocabulary.”

What’s the pace of business for you?

L.H.: It’s picking up. We are seeing a lot of activity. Luxury is reinvesting in the U.S. They are really remodeling urban locations. It’s very, very busy in New York and Beverly Hills. We are starting to get busy in Miami in the design district.

There is a constant keeping up with the Joneses with these retailers, particularly on the high streets. There’s the need for bigger space to really showcase their entire collections. Retailers want to add men’s, women’s, accessories, home, jewelry. They want to create bigger shoe departments.

WWD: What are some key trends in the aesthetics?

To me, stores feel warmer versus more sleek. There has been a real trend to authenticity — the Louis Vuitton handmade craftsmanship. Louis Vuitton stores feature lacquered and artistic panels that are hand-created by artisans commissioned by the brand. These panels are hand-set into custom fabricated mill work. Hermès has used leather-wrapped, hand-stitched handrails in their stores and commissioned the same artisan who does the hand stitching on their world-famous handbags to create the handrails. Brands with deep histories are trying to reflect that in the stores with really high levels of craftsmanship. They want the stores to feel residential, so you can sit and feel more comfortable. Real stones, real woods, and less glitzy, shiny material.

WWD: How is the Internet impacting store design?

Brick-and-mortars still have to have a showcase for their product, a great experience showcasing the brand, certainly in the urban centers, to support their Internet sales. You can’t replace feel and touch, or sales associates who really get to know you. You are seeing less traditional cash wraps. It started with Apple having sales persons ringing up customers on mobile phones. Retailers need to think about the store flow and how to route customers to provide proper engagement and interactive moments during their shopping experience. Consumers are continually checking prices on their mobile devices to see what else is out there. Retailers need to combat this by providing in-store communications that offset the information available on people’s devices. It’s all about experience and sales associates need to be able to communicate intricacies about the item. For instance, where and how it was crafted. They need to create a better experience than what can be found online. Some level of technology in the store is necessary. It needs to be very fluid and integral to the store.

Describe one of your more demanding projects.

L.H.: We have been working at Barneys on Madison Avenue. We did the first floor for accessories, jewelry, small leather goods and we did the beauty floor. The first floor was a complete gut. We did it in phases, a third under construction at a time. This kind of full department store is something we have done in the last three or four years. We’ve done a lot more stand-alone boutiques. The biggest challenge is you never shut down an entire floor. You need to enclose in a third of the floor, barricade it off and make it look pleasing with some graphics, some shelving, to try to be invisible to customers. There are a lot of mechanical and electrical issues for the contractor and the engineers. For the client and the customer, it’s all about being invisible, so the store still feels shopable and so the construction doesn’t turn shoppers off.

How about discussing one of your standout specialty store projects.

Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen hired Shawmut to build the first retail location for their luxury label, The Row. The 4,700-square-foot midcentury retail conversion, situated on Melrose Place in Los Angeles, proved to be a hands-on endeavor for the Olsens. The flagship was designed and constructed to keep in line with The Row’s simplistic style and understated luxury, featuring clean designs with a residential feel. Guests entering The Row walk along a gorgeous, narrow brick courtyard where there’s one of the store’s more stunning features, the 11-by-22-foot pool. The pool was an existing element that was painstakingly protected during construction and restored and modernized. Motorized glass panels along three sides of the pool allow light to travel throughout the east and west galleries of the space. The charcoal-gray plaster liner allows the water to achieve a warm, welcoming hue that complements and enhances the peaceful environment of the courtyard.

Throughout the massive conversion, we were challenged to maintain the integrity and charm of the mid-century space, blending existing elements into the retail concept. The stucco building isn’t so much a building as it is a home. In fact, it once was a home to Neil Diamond. The original bones and facade were kept in place but renovations required extensive shoring, bracing, and structural steel work. The brick work at the entry corridor was protected, salvaged and reused for the project.

The Olsens incorporated their personal design touches into the project and selected many custom and antique materials, including a handle for their custom-made glass door. All of these custom materials and the challenging structural work were completed on a compressed 15-week construction schedule.

WWD: What store designs impress you, that Shawmut wasn’t involved in?

L.H.: I really appreciate the Fendi store designs from the last several years. I love the way the stores flow and their use of curved ribbon stone valances. They’re really gorgeous.

With the work Shawmut does on college campuses, what are some of the objectives?

One of the key drivers in the construction is the need for colleges and universities to stay competitive in the amenities and experiences they offer. We are seeing more luxurious dorms, state-of-the-art athletic facilities, enhanced common area meeting spaces, and technologically-advanced classrooms.

Brown University set out to create a world-class, state-of-the-art athletic complex to foster a spirit of community among the athletic department while seamlessly integrating the existing architecture of the campus. The project encompassed ground-up construction of a 92,000-square-foot athletic facility with an ornate brick façade and a copper roof incorporating a 51,000-square-foot natatorium housing the largest Olympic-size swimming pool in the region and a state-of-the-art student fitness area, a varsity strength/conditioning center, a restored cupola from the 1927 gymnasium, and a new landscaped quadrangle. It was designed and constructed with the utmost level of sustainability and achieved LEED Gold Certification. This facility boasts the largest hybrid solar-powered electrical and heating system in the U.S., the first ever at a university.

Harvard University commissioned Shawmut to build The Plaza, a centrally located outdoor common area, with the goal of strengthening the sense of community on campus. This transformation included landscaping, a foundation system for large tents, sidewalks, benches with edge lighting and power and data-communication outlets throughout, resulting in safer pedestrian and bike access across The Plaza, while providing a variety of informal seating areas and a flexible, open space.

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