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AIRPORT DESIGN Last modified on January 14, 2016

Design and innovation

Stantec’s Stanis Smith reflects on the evolution of the terminal building since 1995 and considers what the future might hold for airport design.

Airport World’s 20th anniversary prompted me to turn the clock back to 1995 and look at some of the most significant milestones in airport design and aviation history over the past two decades.

Although it seems like only yesterday, 1995 was actually the year that the B777 first entered service. It was also the year that the new Denver International Airport (DEN) opened and the now much heralded international terminal at Vancouver International Airport (YVR) was nearing completion. 

In their respective ways both DEN and YVR are landmark projects against which other airports continue to be benchmarked, and both are among the top 100 airports in the world by passenger volume.

By any measure DEN has been remarkably successful. Architecturally, it was one of the first airport terminals to create an identity through its physical form. Its iconic and distinctive fabric roof – evocative of the nearby snow-capped mountains – has become the airport’s ‘brand’, and by extension, part of the ‘brand’ of the city. 

At the same time, its Grand Hall has been impacted by changes in security since 9/11 that have created a sub-optimal passenger experience, and changes in technology that have resulted in a significant amount of the ticketing space being unused. 

Different from Denver, YVR was an airport with an existing 1960s vintage terminal, and the masterplan that was put in place contemplated a series of incremental ‘just-in-time’ expansions to the terminal that would respond to demand as-and-when needed. These expansions are clearly illustrated in the graphics on page 28.

With respect to the YVR ‘brand’, the airport felt it was important for the terminal to create a memorable passenger experience through its architecture, interior design, artwork and exhibits. That goal has been realised and YVR (pictured above) continues to be recognised around the world as setting the standard for creating a distinctive ‘brand’ and a unique and memorable ‘sense of place’.

Key trends to date

Sustainability and technology are two trends that have dramatically impacted the design of terminals over the past 20 years, and DEN and YVR illustrate both. 

Sustainability has become a mainstream design philosophy. DEN has extensive arrays of photovoltaic panels and is one of the few airports worldwide to be certified under ISO14001. While YVR has implemented numerous sustainability initiatives, of which geothermal and solar energy, daylighting strategies and displacement ventilation are some of the more noteworthy. 

Technology now dramatically impacts on the way that terminals are designed. Most passengers these days check in online, and in some cases self-tag their bags. As a result both DEN and YVR have significant spare check-in capacity. 

Indeed, many airports are looking at ways that they can reconfigure their terminals to take pre-security space and reallocate it post-security, where passengers spend most of their time and money. 

For this reason, a process is currently under way to reconfigure Denver International Airport’s Grand Hall under the structure of a Private-Public-Partnership (P3) project.

Over the past 20 years, air traffic has increased more than 250% worldwide, from 1.3 billion passenger-trips in 1995 to an estimated 3.6 billion passenger trips in 2015. While that level of growth is unlikely to characterise the next 20 years, with the emergence of a middle-class in China and India, there is every reason to believe that the long-term growth will continue. 

YVR-1995-to-2015 PRESS-2

Stantec believes that the key trends that will shape the design of airport terminals in the next 20 years are as follows:

– Synergism

Both DEN and YVR are leading this trend. Both have built light-rail connections to their respective cities. Both are building or planning non-aeronautical and complementary facilities such as hotels and shopping centres that operate in synergy with the terminal. 

The airport of the next 20 years will become a city in itself, with diverse, vibrant and synergistic uses.

– Streamlining 

Technology is transforming terminal design and will enable existing infrastructure to be streamlined. 

In addition to self-service check-in and bag drops which are now standard, a single example will suffice: YVR’s proprietary passport-reader technology enabled the airport to accommodate a huge spike in volume during the Olympic Games without building
a costly expansion. 

The terminal of the future will be right-sized, taking full advantage of technology to get more use out of less space.

– Sentience

The airport of the future will be sentient – knowing who you are, where you are, and how best to provide you with relevant timely information along your journey. 

Technologies are already being implemented that customise and personalise information, and make it available to you based on your location. Other technologies are being tested that produce ‘heat maps’ that depict passenger flow in real time, enabling adjustments to be made to ease congestion. 

– Sustainability

There are two aspects to sustainability – environmental and financial. While environmental sustainability is now widely accepted and adopted, there are no significant airport terminals that are ‘net zero’ in their energy use, a target that has already been achieved in other building types. The airport of the future will be net zero, or possibly even a net exporter of energy. 

In terms of financial sustainability, many airports have made great strides in enhancing their non-aeronautical revenues. The airport of the future will continue that trend, by offering diversity, quality and convenience in its retail offerings that are comparable to the very best downtown retail environments.

– Serenity

The airport of the future will bring the serenity of the business-class lounge experience to the average traveller. The use of ‘acoustically noisy’ interior surfaces, for example, will be replaced by sophisticated materials that create a soothing and serene environment. 

Airports will reduce or eliminate annoying and often unintelligible audio announcements and replace them with visual paging and information that is delivered through hand-held devices. 

– Sensational

The airport of the future will incorporate a ‘wow-factor’ that will appeal to all of the senses. That ‘wow-factor’ will be achieved through a combination of architecture, interior design, artwork, exhibits and media, digital or otherwise. 

At the same time, the airport of the future will achieve its ‘wow-factor’ in authentic and relevant ways that communicate a unique and distinctive ‘sense of place’ that is relevant for its city and community.

– Safe and hassle free 

Finally, the airport of the future will be secure in ways that are transparent to passengers. While there is almost universal understanding of the need for security processes in airports, it is fair to say that there is a universal dislike of their intrusiveness. 

We are optimistic that the creative use of technology will enhance security while making it less stressful to passengers.

Like all your readers I look forward to the 40th anniversary issue of Airport World in 2035 to see how accurate these predictions have been! 

About the author
Stanis Smith is Stantec’s market sector leader for airports. He is a former associate board member of ACI-NA and ACI-World and is an acknowledged expert and frequent speaker on the subject of airport design.

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