When outdoor apparel company nau asked Skylab Architecture, Portland, Ore., to design its stores, principal architect Jeff Kovel, AIA, took on the challenge with utmost care for the environment.

Steve Cridland

Nau encourages customers to browse and try on clothing in the store, find out what looks good and walk out empty handed. Patrons are given a 10 percent discount to order online and receive items through the mail. Skylab’s task was to translate the online sales experience into what nau calls a “webfront” that would support the store’s three core values—beauty, performance and sustainability—and minimize the construction impact of the national retail outlet. “We really wanted to reconnect people into the natural environment,” Kovel recalls. Nau’s Web site features a grid design, which inspired Kovel to design the store in the same fashion. Each store’s design begins in a geometric grid pattern, representing the structure of urban environments. It then evolves into landscape panoramics as a metaphor to the natural environment. “The store is seen as a 3-D realization of nau’s Web environment. We see nau as being a play between those zones,” Kovel says.

Steve Cridland

“We really wanted the store beautifully designed and more in a boutique format than in a typical outdoor retailer format,” Kovel continues. For example, instead of displaying the same item in many sizes and colors, cabinets under displays house clothes that can be purchased in the store. That allows nau to keep only a few garments on display and maintain the less-dense look of a boutique.

The store also projects the user friendliness of a Web site. Customers can walk into nau, select clothing and self check-out without talking to sales associates, or they can have a completely assisted shopping experience. “It allows people to enjoy the experience how they want,” Kovel says. “It becomes a user-friendly experience, like a Web site.”

Steve Cridland

When considering sustainability, Kovel and his team not only wanted to use environmentally friendly materials, they also wanted to minimize construction waste. Often, when a space is vacated the store is gutted and rebuilt, entering into a vicious cycle of waste generation. “We came up with the idea that environments could be in modular, prefabricated components and set up more like a trade-show exhibit. By doing that, we could leave as much of the existing material as possible. Demolition could be considered on a case-by-case basis then,” Kovel says. Stores can be disassembled then reassembled in a new location because they’re built out of 4-foot (1.2-m) modules.

Nau was founded under the principle of merging sustainability and social responsibility with business practice. Five percent of each sale goes to an environmental, social or humanitarian organization the customer selects from a list at the time of purchase. The store appeals to those who care about the environment, community and planet but want to stay connected to the consumer world. Kovel says, “The storefront is a window into this idealized vision of the world where you have these activist people and the nau product is a simulation of the natural environment.”

Nau / Locations in Bellvue, Wash.; Boulder, Colo.; Chicago; Los Angelese; and Tigard, Ore. / (877)454-5628 / www.nau.com