What comes to mind when you think of France? Delicious pastries? Soft cheeses? Gentle accordion music?
Well how about budget clothing?
We were tasked with helping to deliver a new flagship Primark store in Toulouse, which involved refurbishing a classic ‘Grand Magasin’ (otherwise known as a ‘department store’), designed in 1905 by George Debrie.
This was a huge endeavour, with the store spanning four floors and taking up approximately 8,000m2. The project needed to celebrate both the history of the building and the vibrant, modern life of the city. As it was essentially a listed building, we had to work closely with Architecte des batiments de France to ensure it complied with the French heritage requirements.
Here’s a video to show the scale of the store:
Aside from the sensitivities surrounding the heritage of the building, this project had a number of challenges. This was to be the largest of Primark’s French stores and, as such, came with a unique design concept that would deviate from the brand’s usual standards. There were limited ceiling heights and with a huge atrium and two escalator cores, which made for a complicated fire strategy.
But most challenging of all was the sheer number of changes that kept being made. The retail designers regularly changed the visual requirements and the whole vision had to work with the building and its heritage constraints. The client also had a complete change to their design team in the midst of the shell/fit-out works, who came in with their own views and solutions. This meant we had to build relationships with a completely new set of people.
In the end, our most effective approach was to design multiple flexible solutions and try them out in test areas of the store. We were then able to roll out successful designs across the project.
Anyone who has worked on a project with sensitive cultural requirements will know how tricky it is to balance heritage compliance with the designers’ vision, all while creating a building that actually works.
Designing a smoke extract system was particularly complicated due to restricted ceiling voids and the numerous architectural features. This had to incorporate flexible smoke curtains that came down around the escalators at third-floor level. We also designed a separate room to act as a firefighter control centre, which had to be manned at all times during trading.
Our cooling system needed to work with the ‘weak’ 100-year-old structural columns. We went through reams of solutions to split the chillers whilst avoiding any disruption to the historic Toulouse skyline. The noise levels were also a factor, with residential windows only 15 metres away. It pushed our lateral thinking to its limits.
We were able to use a dynamic thermal model to prove that the application of solar film over the windows would reduce the solar load by 70kw. This meant we could reduce the plant size and help protect that historic skyline.
This project took a run-down – albeit historic – building and breathed life back into it. Despite many retail stores closing down, we were able to help deliver a stylish new building that remains sensitive to its roots, and brings affordable clothing to the Toulouse high street. To top it off, the project created 300 jobs.
The team will never forget this project. Aside from the technical complications, we had to deal with 40 degree heat, thunderstorms, and city-wide strikes. We picked up some lessons about French culture, learning about ‘Toulouse minutes’ (“I’ll see you in 15 minutes” actually means 45 minutes at least!), as well as how common it is in France for people to change their minds or delay a decision. The project took five years and we’re immensely proud of the outcome.
We provided MEP, Acoustics, and Fire Engineering services.