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'Wall-Less Mart'
Concept transforms box stores into alternative community centers

This conceptual drawing of the “Wall-Less Mart” project shows a vacant big box store transformed into a community, featuring re-used building structures, green space and alternative energy sources.- Illustration Submitted
A lecturer from The University of Tennessee College of Architecture and Design is encouraging communities to think outside the box — the big box, that is.

“The amazing thing about the big box is what is implied by its nickname: it is a massive free plan space where almost anything can happen,” UT lecturer Matt Hall said.

Hall and a few colleagues, including Shane Elliott, Nathan Matteson and Chris Melander, among others, designed a conceptual idea called “Wall-Less Mart,” for a 2008 competition dealing with sustainability issues.

The “Wall-Less Mart” takes a new look

at vacant big box stores and transforms them into an entire community. The big box is stripped of its walls; now only a canopy, it holds community program space, offices and even recreation areas.

The roof and parking lot become green landscapes. Solar panels or even wind turbines supply energy. Shipping containers become modular housing.

“The key to any of this ever occurring in a real context was based on our major premise, or critique, of the whole ‘green’ movement: We must be sustainable people before we can successfully create and occupy sustainable environments,” Hall said.

The “Wall-Less Mart” concept won the “re-visions” 2008 competition.

The design is conceptual, but it is intended to encourage unconventional thinking about suburban wasteland and empty big-box stores, of which Farragut has several.

“We don’t all need to occupy rusty boxes in the parking lot of an abandoned big-box and tear down its walls to then farm atop it. It all seems quite absurd and definitely far-fetched when I state it that way, doesn’t it?” Hall said.

“A concept has the luxury of proposing the extreme in an effort to forecast what could potentially happen if motivations and values were different.

“We do not need to look to a potential disastrous future to understand the current reason for why big boxes are vacant. The reason for these things being left to rot in the landscape is in reality far more sinister: they are building a bigger one across the street,” he added.

Of course, a real-life “Wall-Less Mart” built somewhere in suburbia would be bound by building codes and regulations and economics itself.

And that’s why the idea is just an idea.

But Hall said empty big boxes do present a grand opportunity for redesign and reuse in communities such as Farragut.

“A good start would be to hold a community event in the parking lot of one of these vacant boxes and have an on-site discussion of what it could become based on the values, needs and perspectives of the people that it will affect the most,” Hall said.

“There is nothing wrong with wanting to have your own space outside of the density of the city. The issue is how we use space and how spaces are connected.

“The important thing is being aware; aware that resources are precious and that increasing convenience does not have to be the ultimate goal of life. Some things are worth working for: breaking down dependencies on centralized sources of energy and food, as well as being much more critical of our built environment and the goods we choose to buy. None of these ideas are new,” he added.

Hall’s design collective is Obstructures. For more information on the group or the “Wall-Less Mart” project, visit


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