Responsive Design: the Key to Maximising Enclosed Malls and Communal Spaces

The enclosed mall area, or common area, of a centre is customarily its most notable architectural experience; they are typically the tallest space, the most communal and architecturally refined. They are the meeting place, the sense memory which will embody a centre in the patrons mind after they leave. Yet all too frequently these areas are squeezed at the early design stage in order to reduce the outgoings of a centre.

We believe a responsive design approach should be undertaken that sees stakeholders – authorities/developers/designers – working together to design better, more sustainable common spaces.


Rouse Hill, NSW: semi-controlled dining with operable glazing / natural light and localized heat banks.

Internal Mall Spaces

A well designed entry and mall space will activate the majority of specialty shops and generate clear view-lines helping to increase rental values. A light-filled, well-planned, internal space will provide an uplifting daily experience for regular patrons – capable of instilling a sense of comfort and community within the local area. In this way common spaces are one of the development’s greatest opportunities to not only brand itself, but also add market value to the development and minimize vacancy.

Multiple Stakeholder Agendas

Authorities – Robbing Street Activation vs Placemaking?

Enclosed common areas, even small ones, are often not designed into the Precinct Structure Plan (PSP). This is a strategy to encourage maximum activation to the local street frontages since many councils consider the enclosed mall to be the enemy of the High Street typology.

In reality most local climates around Australia will require some sort of internal environment several months of the year to maintain retail convenience and comfort. Regional Melbourne can be very cold and wet in winter and warm internal spaces are a keen asset during these months. Vice versa for tropical climates or extreme summer conditions. A good centre should aim to blend the internal and external spaces meaning that they work to activate one-another. Enclosed malls can be a great bookend to Town Squares which will be the heartbeat of the local High St development.

Other times the PSP is too prescriptive in its nominal location of the High St/Town Square. Often this location, or siting, of the Town Centre does not maximize its potential and/or restricts good urban design outcomes. If authorities can be open to work-shopping potential solutions based on site responsivity (maximize access to sunlight, reduce wind loadings etc) the best result will be achieved. This outcome should create a strong sense of place, serve the retail offering all year round and also give back to the Main Street.

Developer – Costly vs Value Adding?

Increasingly, in early design meetings we are often told to cut this communal space down, reduce it, lower it, shorten it, and squeeze it in order to reduce the outgoings of the centre.

The common spaces, or mall spaces, are generally viewed as the most costly parts of a shopping centre development – both in terms of construction and holding costs. Apart from kiosks and casual leasing they do not generate on-going rent, at the same time they are costly to maintain and run – outgoings are typically estimated between $90-150/sqm.

When the proposed entry increases in size from a standard airlock to a communal space the perception is often that the developer’s outgoings must also increase dramatically. Most likely based on the theory that the space will require mechanical heating and cooling all the time, all year round.

Responsive Design Approach: Semi-Controlled Mall Space

In reality, through responsive design the mechanical heating/cooling outgoings of a centre can be greatly reduced.

In Melbourne’s climate for instance, there should be no need for mechanical heating/cooling for up to 4 months a year in a well-designed enclosed mall space. The diagram below illustrates the traditional approach and design of a standard airlock mall compared with the preferred ESD outcome.


A well sited space will employ a number, if not all, of the following measures to achieve a higher quality indoor environment with substantially reduced outgoings of up to $20/sqm:

• good passive lighting(to reduce artificial lighting requirements and increase quality of space)
• suitable glazing types (double glazing and low-e where necessary)
• suitable shading solutions (to avoid heat gain in summer, maximize it in winter)
• operable glazing (to allow passive ventilation, capturing of breezes and/or night purging)
• thermal massing (to maximise passive heating and cooling)
• smart technologies (to create a responsive system to minimize mechanical usage)

The table below illustrates some nominal cost savings and development value using environmentally sustainable design (ESD) based on a typical NAC of 5000sqm.


A reduction in outgoings of this scale can add substantial value to a centre.

A way Forward – more Designers, not less!

This type of design needs to be engineered according to its particular environment and this input needs to begin at the front end, in the earliest design stages. Nick Deeks from WT Partnership (a project management consultancy) confirms ‘”Sustainability needs to be ’embedded in a project from the early design stages rather than considered as an add-on’ …. ‘the price comparisons over an asset lifecycle become equalised between the … services required for a sustainable build and those required for one where energy and water efficiency are not prioritized”.

Whilst the engineering services, systems and materials will cost more money upfront, your bottom line will thank you for it in the long-run with the creation of higher valued centres, better indoor environments and lower running costs.

Incorporation of sustainable and progressive design into these types of spaces requires a genuine team approach, with buy-in from all the parties involved at a very early stage in the project. With this mindset, a truly unique and responsive outcome can be achieved which will add value to both place and hip-pocket.

Ben Hunter, Project Designer