CallisonRTKL re-imagines a historical Washington, D.C., space, delivering an urban oasis for outdoor enthusiasts. Photograph by Aaron Leitz Photography.

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Stepping into the Washington, D.C., flagship REI store, it’s clear that 
the company takes its retail environments as seriously as its customers take the outdoors. Within the historic structure of the Uline Arena—a concrete barrel vault supported by flying buttresses, where the Beatles played their first U.S. concert in 1964—REI and CallisonRTKL offer up a natural progression of spaces that open new pathways of retail discovery for REI’s guests.

“We wanted it to feel like the outdoors where you’re going up a path, or hiking, and you don’t know what’s around each corner,” says Elizabeth Dowd, divisional vice president, retail experience for the outdoor goods co-op. “You’re discovering things: a beautiful tree or a great moss-covered rock or a little stream or a waterfall. That’s what we wanted our store experience to be—like you’re just meandering.”

One of the major building challenges was headroom: REI’s wish for high ceilings wasn’t possible within the confines of the physical structure and the developer’s plans for office space above the ground floor. So CallisonRTKL suggested excavating downward into the concrete below the former ice rink—which 
achieved the desired heights, but introduced the new problem of leading visitors from the ground level down to the main floor below. A series of terraces (and coffee from local roaster La Colombe, which is tucked just inside the front door) ease that transition, and ramps provide accessibility to the main retail area.

An immersive retail experience
The 51,000-square-foot space derives its retail concept from European market halls that Dowd encountered on culinary expeditions abroad. Within the walls, micro-shops act as repositories for gear and expertise. “You can be under one roof but have multiple different experiences,” Dowd says. “You can get a cup of coffee, go shopping, and read about a trip. It’s a multidimensional experience, where you can use all your senses.”

REI and CallisonRTKL prototyped these micro-shops in REI’s innovation lab in Seattle, testing them as pilots in a nearby store and adjusting based on customer feedback before deploying the concept more broadly. In its Washington, D.C., store, REI installed micro-shops for camp cooking, water, backpack fitting—where backpacks spin on repurposed rebar to allow 360˚ inspection—and an onsite bicycle repair shop. REI found that the community, enjoying the nearby Metropolitan Branch Trail, wanted a convenient place to get their tires pumped up, check gears, put some oil on the chain, and get going again. “Biking is really important,” Dowd says. “The community told us they wanted this, and now the bike shop is right in the front.”

When it came to design elements, REI and CallisonRTKL opted for reductive finishes. Basketball court flooring previously used to cover the ice rink was meticulously stacked and stored, acquiring decades’ worth of patina; these were cut into four-foot squares to clad a community meeting room toward the back of the store. And the team installed T1-11 siding on a bias for another micro-shop’s wall, creating an over-scaled herringbone pattern.

Bringing the outdoors inside
When REI and CallisonRTKL first began their work, the site was in a state of relative abandonment, having existed through iterations as an ice manufacturing and storage facility, a host to the local music scene, and waste transfer facility before being relegated to covered parking. During the first site visit, Alex Shapleigh, senior vice president for CallisonRTKL, recalls discovering a sliver of light coming from a door eight feet off the ground: “I climbed up and stuck my head through the door opening, and saw a garden in this little capture of space,” he says. The idea: “What if we made this an indoor/outdoor courtyard?”

The discovery, while modest in square footage, is one that adds big value to the REI store. Lined with murals by local artists, the courtyard brings daylight into the ground level while celebrating a pair of the arena’s original flying buttresses. Shapleigh calls it a “community give-back,” as it’s open to the public, providing a pocket of tranquility where visitors can dream and scheme their next adventure.

“It was a challenge to balance our desire to showcase what’s really a unique piece of architecture but not overwhelm what needed to be a great shopping experience for consumers,” Shapleigh says. Telling the story of the building’s history, while still bringing forward the stories of REI, the space was designed to connect with Washington, D.C.’s fast-growing outdoor community.

who Architect and interior designer: CallisonRTKL. Project team: Alex Shapleigh; Miku Suzuki; Ryan Benson; Douglas Dohan; Carlos Castaneda. REI store design and visual merchandising team: Elizabeth Dowd; Amber Rollo; Jared Pearce; Joe Kenny; RC Rogers; Barry Shuman; Bebet Caguin; Matt Powell; Nikki Easterday. Contractor: James G. Davis Construction Corporation. Engineering: Hargis Engineers, Inc. (MEP); DCI Engineers (structural). Lighting: Oculus Light Studio LLC.
what Wallcoverings: Homasote. Paint: Benjamin Moore; Sherwin Williams; Matthews. Wood flooring: Terra Mai. Lighting: USAI; Pathway Lighting; Tech Lighting; Reggiani; Lucifer; Amerlux; Spectrum Lighting; Finelite; Restoration Hardware; Hevi Lite; Lumenwerx; Tory Lighting; Hi-Lite. Exterior lighting: Barn Light; Tokistar. Doors: Raynor. Architectural glass/glazing: Courtyard Windows; Marvin. Fixtures: Stylmark; Stageplan Inc.; Northwest Building Tech Inc.; EYELEVEL; PD Instore. Plumbing fixtures: Kohler; American Standard; Zurn; Duravit.

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