As our global society begins to recover from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, many big-box online retailers are adaptively reusing shopping malls that buckled due to e-commerce and mandatory lockdowns as fulfillment centers for online sales. This current practice parallels a Droneport concept developed by Brendan O’Grady and Hernán Molina in 2016—when they envisioned “the mall of the future.” As it turns out, they weren’t too far off.
Tell me a bit about your Drone port concept for online retail fulfillment.
Brendan O’Grady: In 2016, we looked at what the “mall of the future” might look like for an internal competition and decided what might happen as shopping malls began to suffer financially. For the competition, our team’s site was the now-defunct Six Flags Mall in Arlington, TX. The city was already planning to demolish the building— but we thought, why not repurpose the site in a way that still related to retail, added more value to the community and complimented the surrounding land uses? The surrounding context of the area is very industrial, not exactly somewhere you would want to visit with the family. Our re-envisioning of the site relates to the evolution of retail, and we saw that one of the main reasons these malls have failed is that their anchor stores go bankrupt or close, so why not use that as a starting point for our concept?
The demand for e-commerce is growing exponentially. One of the biggest challenges is the last mile: how do you get the goods to the customer? A traditional fulfillment center or warehouse requires multiple football fields of land area. Could we make it more compact and efficient, pack it into a footprint smaller than the existing mall structure and open the land for other uses to complement distribution?
We also noticed that many online retail giants, like Amazon, use robotics in their fulfillment process. At the time, they were beginning to experiment with drones. When it comes to drones specifically, we found that most of the energy used involves takeoff (like helicopters). Suppose we could consolidate the fulfillment footprint while elevating the takeoff and landing point to decrease energy consumption and increase range. In that case, we can open up the land area for other uses to maximize the site’s potential.
What are some of those uses?
Hernán Molina: When we started asking ourselves what the best program for the land would be, we had various options for this space. Some initial ideas included a motorsports park or a remote parking facility for autonomous cars; the site is very close to Six Flags Over Texas—a historical theme park. Ultimately though, we settled on urban farming to help address local food deserts and decrease the often-costly aspect of crop transportation.
BO: You can almost look at it as a new form of farm-to-table: fresh food is grown at the distribution center and delivered either to grocery stores or directly to the consumer.
What were some of the architectural concepts at play?
BO: There is only a specific height zone that drones can operate, which dictated our tower’s height. Besides being structurally efficient, it has a design that is expressive of the program—it is a hive of drone activity. It accommodates various-sized drones and has the storage or racking of goods happening underground, then transported to the upper ring by a vertical conveyor. The conveying system continues around the ring, distributes to each bay, and finally loads the drone. It’s automated, efficient and greatly minimizes the need for human workers creating a safer working environment.
HM: The geometry of the function and form is quite interesting, too – an arch beam supports the top of the tower instead of a typical vertical structure, making it both lighter and more structurally efficient.
BO: A lot of what we did here was speculation on what we’ve read or researched, but we’re seeing, as time goes by, that we’re getting closer and closer to having something like this in the market. We know that the demand for e-commerce is not going anywhere. Between the existing concept of the delivery “last mile” and the expanded range we could get by elevating drones, you can cover a good part of both Fort Worth and Dallas in this location. Developers select great sites for malls to serve customers (they’re also easily accessible from the highway), and I think, sooner than we realize, we’ll see online retailers taking over malls for maximum fulfillment in a similar way. It might just be a little longer before we see the drones landing on our doorstep.
Brendan O’Grady is an award-winning designer and Principal in CRTKL’s Dallas office. In his experience designing mixed-use, office, hospitality, resort, entertainment, retail and sports-related developments, Brendan pursues Performance-Driven Design strategies to create buildings of their time and place, responding to the challenges of their unique context. He consistently pushes the limits of design and fabrication while encouraging people to think about the interrelationship between architecture and the environment differently. His designs are in numerous publications, including Architectural Record, The Architectural Review, LA Architect, Texas Architect, Surface, Bauwelt and The New York Times.
Hernán Molina is an Associate Principal in CRTKL’s Dallas office, working on planning and design of mixed-use projects and commercial buildings in Latin America, the United States, and the Middle East. His work appears in Texas Architect, Columns, SEGD Design, among other publications. He has obtained several academic awards and scholarships to pursue undergrad and graduate research activities on morphology, digital fabrication, parametric design, and assisted computer design by the CONICET and CIUNT (Argentina).