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AIRPORT DESIGN Last modified on February 13, 2012

A new hobby

Houston Hobby’s soon-to-be completed development programme has breathed new life into a 50-year old facility, writes Jay Srinivasan.

The city of Houston's William P Hobby Airport has a unique history since its beginnings in the 1930s as part of the Howard Hughes aviation empire.

From serving as the city's first commercial airport to originating Houston's first international flight in the 1950s, the airport's early decades were marked by several aviation milestones.

However, the airport was unable to accommodate the tremendous growth in air travel to the city in the 1960s. According to the Civil Aeronautics Administration, insufficient parking, crowded ticket counters and packed boarding gate spaces made Hobby Airport inadequate for the new aviation travel market and, in 1969, all commercial aviation operations at Hobby moved to the new George Bush Intercontinental Airport.

Although Southwest Airlines fuelled Hobby's recovery with the initiation of an intrastate service in 1971, the airport was operating with outdated infrastructure.

Southwest's operations were split between two separate concourses, making it cumbersome for travelling passengers and expensive for the airline. Additionally, the building's engineering and communication systems had reached their lifecycle limits.

"The facility had become very congested and difficult to navigate," says Perry Miller, Hobby Airport's general manager.

"The airport really needed a facelift."

Airport improvements
In 1998, the Houston Airport System (HAS) decided to consolidate Southwest's operations and upgrade the airport's general infrastructure and overall appearance to contemporary standards. HAS commissioned Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam, Inc (LAN) and its parent company LEO A DALY as prime designer and architect-of-record to renovate, upgrade and expand the airport.

While some of the earlier design packages were bid conventionally, HAS later retained Clark Construction as a construction manager at-risk for the more complex phases of the project.

The $270 million project, which included approximately 640,000 square feet of renovation and new construction, featured a new 25-gate central concourse, an expanded and renovated central ticketing terminal, enhanced baggage claim facilities, additional concession areas, support spaces and kerbside check-in facilities.

Other infrastructure improvements included the extension of aprons, taxilanes and taxiways, replacement of building systems with energy-efficient equipment as well as technology upgrades for airport communications systems. As part of the project, the three existing concourses encompassing nearly 180,000 square feet were also demolished.

Of the 25 gates, 17 gates are currently operated by Southwest Airlines, which serves nearly 80% of all passenger traffic to more than 70 cities in the United States. Other carriers serving the airport include AirTran Airways (which recently merged with Southwest), Delta, American Airlines, JetBlue Airways, Frontier Airlines and private charter service Branson AirExpress.

Striking and simple design
To develop a design that was not only functional but also aesthetically pleasing to the nine million passengers passing through Hobby's doors every year, LEO A DALY collaborated closely with HAS, the city of Houston, Southwest Airlines and Hobby Airport executives and staff.

To maintain the airport's identity, designers retained most of the original Texas limestone façade in the new terminal. Arriving passengers are greeted with the façade of the 1950s terminal and an airplane sculpture resembling an oil-well pump jack to remind them of Hobby's aviation heritage and the importance of oil in the Houston economy.

A spacious, open lobby with soaring roofs houses the ticketing and security areas. Skylights and floor-to-ceiling windows fill the terminal with natural light and provide dramatic views to the airside. Consisting primarily of glass and exposed steel trusses and girders, the terminal provides a sense of contemporary design and grandeur to the passengers while maintaining an intimate scale."It's rare to walk into an airport and immediately be able to look at gates and aircraft movement," says Dean Schuerman, LEO A DALY's senior project manager. "It adds to the excitement of air travel."

Miller adds: "People who come here now experience a friendly, warm type of atmosphere. The openness of the lobby makes people feel like this is a place that they can sit for a while before rushing onto a plane."

An elliptical, reflective stainless steel halo past the security checkpoint draws passengers into the concourse via a connecting bridge. The 25-gate concourse, completed in July 2007, has a striking wing-shaped architecture that evokes memories of the test planes of the 1960s.

The Hobby Airport design is also noteworthy for its simplicity and intuitive wayfinding systems. Clear sightlines, views to the airside, concentrated amenities on the right-hand side of the concourse, separated arriving and departing passenger flows as well as a simple street-type gate numbering system enable passengers to move seamlessly to the different areas of the airport, minimising cross flow.

"The airport is extremely easy to navigate," comments Elwin Dobson, LEO A DALY's senior aviation project manager. "You walk through the front door to the ticketing area, past the security and straight to the gates via the connecting bridge. It really doesn't get any easier than that."

Schuerman agrees, noting: "What we have tried to do is to limit the decision-making points to a minimum. There are only two decision-making points for passengers in the entire airport: one at the entrance to determine which airline ticketing area to go to, and the other at the end of the connecting bridge to determine the gate location."

The airport also features an impressive arts programme that enhances its appeal as a gateway to the city. At the airport boulevard, travellers are welcomed by a huge stainless steel bird's nest sculpture by Paul Kittelson and Carter Ernst. A large, suspended metal and acrylic panel sculpture installation by Luca Buvoli, which represents the contrail generated by a man flying with open arms, attracts exiting passengers to the departures level.

Six 12-by-20-foot art glass pieces by Gordon Huether, composed of abstracted imagery from aerial photographs of Houston and the surrounding region, adorn the glass walls of the connecting bridge.

One of the most prominent aspects of the Hobby facelift is its relocation and expansion of the concession areas. Before the project started, the few concessions the airport had were mostly located on the non-secure side of the airport.

However, passenger profile studies determined that the optimal location for the majority of concessions was in the concourse beyond the security checkpoint, and as a result, four different concession core areas were incorporated into the concourse with each offering a number of food, beverage and retail shops. "I remember when I was here years ago, there was one cafeteria in the middle of the terminal," said Miller. "Now, there is a wide variety of concessions, and I can see people lining up to get a taste of Houston."

And, the expanded and relocated concessions have significantly increased Hobby's revenue, according to a new customer service study, which reveals that 69% of passengers spend an average of $16 or more on food, beverages and retail.

Project challenges and solutions
The scale and complexity of the project presented a number of challenges. Foremost among them was constructing the project while keeping the existing concourses in operation.
After co-ordinating with HAS, the city of Houston, Hobby Airport personnel and the various airlines, the project team implemented a carefully orchestrated construction phasing plan that included eight separate design and construction packages.

A sequential process of construction, relocation and demolition was followed. For instance, the phased construction of the central concourse allowed the relocation of aircraft from existing concourses, which were then demolished. To achieve this phasing plan, temporary loading bridge extensions, prefabricated hold rooms and temporary buildings were constructed at various stages.

"The Hobby phasing process was like performing a heart surgery," says Dobson. "You have to keep the patient alive throughout the process. Similarly, we had to keep the airport functioning with all the necessary operating gates while maintaining basic passenger comfort, amenities, concessions and support services."

Following 9/11, the airport's original design had to be revised to address the various security issues. LEO A DALY designers worked with the TSA to determine and co-ordinate new passenger and baggage screening standards. A secondary screening area was incorporated into the existing footprint to provide space for inspections and additional equipment. Upgrades were also made to the make-up areas of the outgoing baggage system.

"The project evolved multiple times due to 9/11, shifts in the industry and the economic climate," admits Schuerman. "We have been as flexible as possible with our design to be able to accommodate these unforeseen changes."

This flexible design approach also helped the project team when changes in the airline industry required HAS in 2007 to shelve its future plans for an east concourse and instead increase the number of gates in the central concourse from 20 to 25.

Schuerman adds: "None of the mechanical rooms or amenities in the existing central concourse had to be relocated. The existing exterior walls at the concourse were simply removed and five gates were added on."

Today, the transformation of the William P Hobby Airport is nearly complete. The airport's final phase of the project, which will be completed in late 2012, will include the completion of the new baggage claim areas with larger baggage conveyors, a $6 million capital improvement project to its ticket-level entrance ramp, additional pre-security concessions as well as a new parking structure.

How successful has it been to date? Well, in 2009, ACI-North America conferred Hobby with two awards for being one of the region's top five performing airports and for providing premier customer service.

The airport is also now recognised as a significant economic generator for the Houston region, the latest HAS figures indicating that it supports more than 52,000 jobs and generates an economic output of $4.5 billion annually.

In essence, Hobby's facelift is an excellent example of how an existing airport can be transformed into a first-class facility while minimally impacting the passenger experience.

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