Speed Readers

A Project Team In China Got Everyone On The Same Page To Quickly Deliver A Multipurpose Bookstore


There's a new chapter for bookstores in China. Publishing companies and chain retailers are creating an entirely new leisure experience by building so-called experiential bookstores in cities around the country. Shops like the Alt-Life Bookstore, which opened in Ningbo, China in May 2017, lure customers with versatile spaces for exhibits, performances, lectures and gourmet food events—along with shelves full of books.

“By combining the bookshop with lifestyle and cultural events and a flexible design, Alt-Life aims to bring people back to bookstores,” says Ian Yu, interior design director, Kokaistudios, Shanghai, China. “And it's a chance to bring online business offline.”

But beyond flexibility, the project team that delivered the US$2 million bookstore had to meet another challenging requirement: Build it really fast. The project owners—a Chinese publishing house and two private investors—gave the Kokaistudios team just eight months to design and construct the 2,400-square-meter (25,833-square-foot) store. The former underground bicycle parking lot at a shopping plaza had to be transformed in time to be part of a literary festival.



Faced with a compressed schedule, the project team switched gears to create efficiencies. The original plan included a standard drawing and site-survey phase between the design and construction phases. In the new plan, the design team worked alongside the client and construction contractor to conduct site surveys during the start of construction. It then took an iterative approach to quickly complete on-site changes to areas such as the grand staircase and the children's reading section.

Bound to Succeed

October 2016: Project launches

December 2016: Design development drawings submitted

January 2017: Architecture team moves on-site to collaborate closely with the client and contractor

February 2017: Construction begins

March 2017: The team builds the hanging staircase

May 2017: Alt-Life Bookstore opens

“Had we followed the original, typical project schedule and workflow, we wouldn't have completed this on time,” says Pietro Peyron, architecture design director, Kokaistudios.

Effective communication also helped the team stay on schedule. The project team used an instant messaging app to ensure a rapid exchange of information and status updates. “It was a curse and a blessing, in a way. The communication was nonstop, but that made things happen more quickly since everyone on the team got real-time updates,” Mr. Yu says.


Step by Step

The wide and winding grand staircase—suspended from the ground-level glass pavilion and main entrance to the bookstore below—was the centerpiece of an overall design that had to entice customers to keep moving and exploring the entire store. But the project's tight timeline meant the team had to design and build the staircase on-site.

“There was constant back and forth between our drawings and the contractor's measurements,” Mr. Peyron says.

The team generated two design iterations. The first stairway design led down to an auditorium-like seating area, but the auditorium design limited the use of the space. So the final staircase and auditorium designs were tweaked to steer customers to an auditorium that better flowed with the rest of the store areas—and could be used for a variety of events such as presentations or for customer leisure.

“Had we followed the original, typical project schedule and workflow, we wouldn't have completed this on time.”

—Pietro Peyron, Kokaistudios, Shanghai, China

“Because we redesigned the staircase and auditorium, it's now a very flexible space,” Mr. Yu says. “It can be used for retail or for people just to rest and enjoy the sun coming from the glass pavilion above.”


Next Level

Skipping the site-survey phase saved time. But it also meant the design team couldn't identify and locate site services, such as the air conditioning ducts and water lines, until construction began. The team had to integrate and change those services as needed while on-site.

“We had to work with a lot of pre-existing conditions,” Mr. Yu says.

The team also created an entirely new floor—the mezzanine—between the ground-level entrance and the bookstore basement. While the mezzanine created more retail space, it also contributed to a more wide-open design that created better customer traffic circulation throughout.


Designer Menu

The food and beverage spaces had to be in sync with both the functional needs of third-party food and beverage vendors and the bookstore's overall design aesthetic. To strike this balance, the team created design guidelines for vendors that specified the allowed types, colors and dimensions of materials. This meticulous approach ensured that nearly all tenants submitted renderings that were promptly approved. And in the few cases where vendors had to adjust designs, the guidelines helped them resubmit options that met all requirements.

“The design guidelines really helped with the schedule,” Mr. Yu says. “While the guidelines were created mostly to make sure the design language was consistent throughout the store, it also gave a clear starting point for third-party vendors.”


“The design guidelines really helped with the schedule.”

—Ian Yu, Kokaistudios, Shanghai, China


Custom Fit

The curving wall panels and bookshelves had to be built as modular pieces at a factory. Inevitably, there would be minor discrepancies between the designs and the manufactured products that might impact installation—but these differences wouldn't reveal themselves until installation.

Mr. Yu had a plan for that risk. Rather than attempting to design the panels and bookshelves to fixed dimensions that could trigger installation difficulties, he allowed buffer spaces so that the contractor could cut and manipulate the pieces during installation until they fit perfectly. “The contractor could play with the decorative panels to absorb the discrepancies,” Mr. Yu says. PM



Pietro Peyron, architecture design director, Kokaistudios

Location: Shanghai, China

Experience: 15 years

Other notable projects:

■ K11 Art Mall in Shanghai, China, completed in 2013. The project renovated the commercial podium of an office building. Mr. Peyron served as lead designer and project manager.

■ Tsinghua University Law Library in Beijing, China, completed in 2017. Mr. Peyron served as lead designer and project manager.

Lesson learned: “Working with the client more informally can save time in critical situations, and designing some of the project in real time on-site can help create efficiencies.”

“Designing some of the project in real time on-site can help create efficiencies.”

—Pietro Peyron



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