Fit-out work in the retail sector is demanding on two fronts: tight timeframes and tough demands from clients. Here Barbour Index and Scott Brownrigg go through the priorities

Fit-out works are some of the most fraught and potentially difficult operations in the construction sector. Timeframes are often short and requirements demanding. This means attention to detail and timing is crucial and should be drawn out clearly and carefully analysed at the earliest opportunity. The most crucial element for the specifier is to correctly define the quality of the fit-out the client requires.

Most retail designs have a limited life and will be matched to the client’s business plan and marketing – always pay attention to the branding elements as these will be essential to the client and cannot be changed in any way. The aim of the fit-out is to create a theatrical set so as to give an illusion, many will not need to be “complete” in the normal terms of construction. Do not spend the client’s money on items that customers cannot see unless they are expressly part of the brief.

Equally important is the practicality of the specified scheme. Most fit-outs will be used by a large number of people, so specify accordingly. For example, changing rooms, restaurants and toilets will need hidden fixings, strong fittings and sealed finishes.

1 Hard items

Start by dividing the specification into two: hard items such as display units and lighting, and soft items such as soft flooring and seating. Derive the specification for the hard items first. The priority is to match the image required and then the durability. Look at sizes, fixing, joints, and the strength of the installation required.

2 Soft items

Then select the criteria for the softer items in the same way and consider how these elements will come together. Durability and soiling are significant issues and should be thought through carefully. Many good designs are ruined by premature wear resulting in a shabby and unattractive appearance. Soft flooring, furnishings and ironmongery are particularly affected.

3 Prototyping

Mock ups of the fixtures and fittings can be useful to identify sequencing and the practicality of proposals. This is particularly valuable if a fit-out programme applies to multiple stores, and it could be worth prototyping a complete store. Working models will help establish the quality and appearance that the client requires, clarify the specification and identify any faults. The client can be invited to review the prototype and any comments incorporated into the final scheme. Dry runs of major assemblies should be undertaken wherever possible to see how these will fit together on site. Include the application of paints and finishes as these are likely to cause delay to the programme and may have to be rethought.

4 Programme

Most fit-out work is time-critical, and many programmes have to run around the clock, or at least involve some night work. The scheme should be carefully reviewed prior to roll-out, as having a sequence of operations is fundamental to a successful project. Ensure that adequate provision is made for simple assembly that can be undertaken in poor conditions and avoid any processes that use wet trades or long drying periods. The use of “intelligent fixing systems” and adhesive tape rather than glue can be more reliable and save time. Also, avoid processes that are potentially hazardous – for example, heavy solvent glues and additives that will contaminate a constricted work area. Any materials that produce significant amounts of dust when worked should be avoided. Be particularly careful about work that has to go on in close proximity to the general public, as a duty of care exists to prevent hazards. Any hazardous processes should be undertaken off site.

Ensure that materials and fittings can be delivered to suit the programme. As time is normally tight, the pre-ordering and stockpiling of materials is highly recommended.

Specifying materials or systems that can be prefabricated is always a good idea.

Operations may have to be phased. This calls for the careful co-ordination of finishes and junctions. Consider the implications of each phase including the temporary edging of completed sections and the protection of new work prior to handover. It is imperative that previously installed materials are not soiled or damaged between phases. Protection needs to be robust and well fixed. Ensure there are no rough edges, sharp corners or trip hazards.

5 Services

The integration of services can be tricky, as lighting, ventilation and IT all come into the specifier’s remit. Wherever possible, make all the electrical fittings clip-on and the wiring component-based, as this promotes safety and flexibility. Display lighting can use hot lamps. Ensure that the surrounding materials can tolerate these temperatures over the working day, which may be from early morning to well in to the evening. If the lamp has its ventilation restricted, its life can be cut dramatically short. Also certain lighting assemblies can generate so much heat that it causes discomfort to the customers. Consider the use of LED lighting as this does not generate significant amounts of heat.

6 Disability Discrimination Act

Remember that the Disability Discrimination Act needs to be considered, as retail outlets must be accessible to all. Be careful about using glossy finishes, bright lights or effects designed to distract or give a false impression, as these could be considered to cause hazards under the act. An audit of the near-completed design is recommended and the implications fully discussed. If these discussions are recorded they can be offered as proof in defence against potential litigants. Also avoid features that can trap or trip children when climbing or crawling around the shop or up fixtures. Parents are entitled to expect a safe environment when shopping.