Airport Design Update - Nov 2015

By Calista Sprague


Aviation architects and designers have been keeping busy for the past couple of years, and there seems to be no shortage of projects for the near future. Headlines from major cities in every corner of the country tout significant construction plans. Orlando broke ground in March on a $1.1 billion dollar expansion to its international airport and in May approved an additional $1.8 billion terminal. LaGuardia announced that next year it will break ground on a $4 billion project to overhaul its aging facilities. Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Phoenix, Dallas, Cleveland, New Orleans, Portland, and Tampa are all in various stages of multi-million dollar airport projects, and that’s only a partial list.

The attacks of 9/11, and a few years later the Great Recession, hit the aviation industry particularly hard. During the years following, airport passenger traffic and freight volume gradually recovered and grew, but many construction projects were put on hold. 

Construction in the private sector recovered relatively quickly, but the public sector lagged behind. Also, airport projects in particular are huge undertakings with massive budgets and with timelines measured in years rather than months, so in a recovery period they tend to trail smaller public projects that are easier to approve and fund. 

However, designers report that during the past couple of years the backlog of aviation projects has finally begun to open up, and airports are once again investing more heavily in their facilities. Shelly Nichols is an interior designer and vice president in the Dallas office of international architectural firm Corgan, which specializes in aviation. “From our perspective, we’ve been really busy for the past couple years,” she says. “We have lots of big projects in the process. We’re finishing some, we’re starting some, and they just seem to keep coming.” 


Since construction rates have not kept pace with traffic increases, airports are feeling the growing pains, precipitating some of the recent activity in the sector. “People are flying again,” says Sandra Kukla, architect and executive vice president at DWL Architects and Planners, based in Phoenix. “There’s more capacity needed. There’s more need for gates, there’s more need for services.” She points out that the airports continually do traffic studies to forecast future activity, so some of the recent construction is also in anticipation of passengers still to come.

David Daileda is an architect and senior project manager in Washington, D.C. at Leo A Daly, a top international architecture and design firm. Although aviation projects are now more plentiful, Daileda says budgets remain squeezed. “It’s getting better, but it’s still a tight market out there. You need to watch every penny.” 

Costs for aviation improvement and development in larger cities generally range from the hundreds of millions to billions of dollars. The vast square footage involved pushes up the bottom line, but the projects also cost more per square foot than others in the public sector, due to all the expensive technical and technological aspects necessary for airport operation. 

Now that passenger traffic is increasing, airports are ramping up efforts to attract customers. In many markets, passengers have more than one airport to choose from, so when funds are available, cities are likely to support renovation and expansion projects through bonds to keep their airports up to date and attractive to travelers. 

“With the increase in travel, there’s more competition between the airports,” says Nichols, “and I think there’s a lot of renewed interest in the passenger experience.” She explains that today’s passengers are more sophisticated and expect airports to be modernized with the latest technology and conveniences. They expect access to Wi-Fi, outlets for their mobile devices and a wide array of retail and food options, all of which require facility updates. 

“You don’t see as many brand new terminals as you do what we call re-lifing of existing terminals,” Nichols says. In addition to higher costs for ground-up construction, many municipalities do not have the acreage for new builds and cannot afford to shut down an existing airport for a full demolition and rebuild. Therefore, renovations, additions and partial rebuilds are more common in the aviation sector. Also, many of the larger projects happen in stages, often over several years, to help spread costs over time and to minimize inconvenience to travelers.


Sandra Kukla, vice president at DWL Architects and Planners, is currently working on a $560 million terminal modernization at Phoenix’s main airport, one of the top ten busiest airports in the U.S. The main building, called the processor building, was originally built in 1979. It will be completely remodeled along with the North Concourse, and the South Concourse will be demolished and rebuilt to house additional gates. 

The multi-phase design-build project will be led by HuntAustin Joint Venture. “Construction is underway in the main terminal, which will continue for a couple of years,” Kukla says. “Schematic design is completed for the South and North Concourses, and we’ll be rolling into the next phase of design, design development, late this year or early next year.

“The overall concept of the terminal is to really open the building up to embrace the exterior, the views.” Daylighting was utilized in the design to take advantage of the “beautiful Arizona light,” which also helps give the building a more spacious feeling. “It’s going to be a transformation,” she says.

The pattern of the terrazzo flooring was chosen for the public spaces in the main processor building to support the overall design concept as well. Terrazzo had already been specified for another project in a different terminal where carpet was being replaced, so no other type of flooring was even considered. 

“The terrazzo design is always very much part of the overall concept of the interior and the overall project,” Kukla explains. “In our case, we selected a pattern that is very flexible. It’s a pattern that will work if the spaces change in the future.”


Because aviation projects take so long to complete and the flooring is expected to last for so long, designers pay little attention to trends. “Five years would be quick for a terminal renovation or even building a new terminal,” says Nichols. “Some of them are seven to ten years, so by the time a project is designed and then built, trying to stay with a trend doesn’t really factor in.” Instead, the designers aim for timeless looks that transcend fast moving trends, which might prematurely date the design. 

Flooring products are chosen first and foremost for their performance. “Airports want a hard, durable surface in their public circulation areas,” says Nichols. “There are thousands of people walking across it, and you’ve got wheeled baggage and carts. So durability is a huge factor when selecting flooring in an airport.”

All three designers agree that epoxy terrazzo is the flooring of choice for high traffic areas in airport terminals. It meets almost all the performance and design criteria that designers and architects desire. It is nearly indestructible, easy and inexpensive to maintain, and it lasts for decades, often for the life of the building. From a design standpoint, terrazzo allows for infinite customization in color and pattern, which is important in an airport where a community often wants to inject a sense of its unique culture. 

Although terrazzo provides long-term value, its substantial upfront cost can price it out of reach for airports in smaller markets with limited budgets. Projects with fewer square feet lose economy of scale as well, further driving up cost. In these cases, designers often specify porcelain tile. 

Like terrazzo, porcelain tile offers durability, ease of maintenance and extremely long lifecycles. Customization is also attainable with tile, but the grout lines pose a major drawback. Countless tiles spread across huge expanses in airport terminals involve thousands of joints, each catching dirt and making noise under rolling baggage and carts. Designers specify large format rectified tiles to minimize the number and size of grout lines for both maintenance and acoustic benefits.

In rare instances natural stone has been specified, such as in the main circulation areas at the Denver airport. Nichols notes, however, that the use of stone in aviation projects is more common abroad than domestically.

On larger projects, the budgets tend to be less constricted, so some of the design decisions are predetermined. The designers explain that an international airport in a large metropolitan city often knows from the outset that the main flooring will be terrazzo, whereas when working with smaller domestic airports that face a more limited budget, designers may need to do cost comparisons for different flooring types and present lifecycle and maintenance studies for each. 

“In secondary airports there are other options for hard flooring, like ground polished concrete,” Kukla points out. “That’s a really low cost alternative to terrazzo.” To achieve a flecked look very similar to terrazzo, a concrete floor is ground down to reveal the aggregate and then polished to a high sheen. Although concrete is not as commonly found in the public spaces of airport terminals, DWL specified it for Phoenix-Mesa Gateway Airport, and the look was so successful that the firm receives calls about it. She adds that resilient products might also be used. “It could be a sheet vinyl or a rubber product that is easy to maintain, holds up and looks great without a lot of joints and seams.”

In renovation situations, terrazzo and ground polished concrete are often not options due the poor condition of the existing concrete subfloor. “If you’re using something like epoxy terrazzo, the sub base is vitally important, making sure that it is completely sealed and crack free and that you’re not building problems in by covering them up,” Daileda warns. In situations with less than ideal subfloors, once again designers turn to porcelain tile, which can be installed over rehabilitated concrete without causing issues in the future. 

In the areas where passengers wait to enplane—referred to as hold rooms—designers almost exclusively specify carpet. The goal in these areas, the designers say, is passenger comfort. Carpet reduces noise and helps stage the hold rooms for a more relaxed feel. Carpet tile and broadloom are specified fairly equally, depending on the intended aesthetic. 

More rarely, carpet is also specified for main public areas, especially at smaller airports. “Many of those airports use carpet tile so they can deal with the stains, dirt and traffic,” Daileda says. Although its lifecycle is shorter than poured flooring, its lower upfront cost is attractive, and the soft surface also helps dampen noise, which can be deafening in a busy airport terminal. 

For the concession areas, flooring is usually chosen by the individual concessionaires. “Typically, as the terminal architect we don’t get involved in the actual design decisions for the concessions,” Nichols explains. “They each hire their own architect or designer to do their space.” The designers often assist the airport in writing design guidelines for the concession areas, however, defining what materials can be used and how the transitions are to be treated between flooring types. Some airports set stringent standards, while others are more flexible. 

Like the other public spaces, the retail shops and restaurants require durable, easy to maintain flooring. Porcelain is the most common choice. The concessionaires often choose higher end tiles with more design to help attract shoppers and to set their areas apart from main circulation. 

For flooring in the back of house areas that passengers never see, performance is still the main consideration, but cost far outweighs style. Designers may specify sealed concrete, porcelain tile, sheet vinyl, rubber or VCT. Referring to employee areas, Kukla says, “It’s nothing fancy down there, very utilitarian. Flooring needs to be very durable and low in cost. It’s driven by the ability of the airlines to get a good value.” 

Although they bear less foot traffic than the public areas, the ramp areas, where the airline employees toil behind the scenes, sustain heavy abuse. Often the workers traipse in and out of the terminal, tracking in dirt, fuel and other contaminants from the tarmac. Nichols says a good walk-off mat is the first line of defense for extending the life of the main flooring and minimizing maintenance. 

In the office areas and in rooms housing computers and other technology, Daileda points out that static and dust from even sealed concrete can compromise equipment, so he specifies vinyl tile. Some designers also specify carpet.

Designing an aviation facility to serve all the different people who use it is a major undertaking. All types of people use the airport: business people, families, the elderly, young people and those with a variety of physical impairments. “Creating a good design that makes all of those people comfortable—that’s important,” Kukla says.

The designers point out that air travel can be stressful for many passengers. Nichols sympathizes, adding, “’Am I going to make my flight? Am I going to make it through security? Am I going to be able to find what I need?’ Creating a calming environment that is easy for people to navigate—I think that is one of the biggest challenges that we face and are always keeping in mind as we design.”

Flooring often plays a big part in wayfinding, through obvious color-coding or more subtle directional designs that lead people instinctively down the intended path. “Whether it’s the business traveler who travels once a week or the leisure traveler who travels once a year, when they arrive at the airport, they need to find their way without having to read a hundred signs,” Nichols says.

Flexibility is vitally important to airport design as well. The buildings may last 30 to 50 years, but during that time air travel and passengers’ needs continues to evolve. Thirty years ago people carried their luggage rather than wheeling it through the airport. Most passengers needed public phones to place calls to loved ones and make travel arrangements. By today’s standards, retail and food offerings were limited. Technology was in its infancy, so airlines sold paper tickets and passengers checked in in person. ATMs were not commonplace, and no one had even heard of Wi-Fi. And more important, 9/11 hadn’t happened yet, so security was vastly different. 

In addition to cultural changes, airlines merge, buy new aircraft and change service areas, all of which affect airport facilities as well. The designers say that this constant state of change is another reason carpet is chosen for hold rooms. Then, for example, if a gate door needs to be moved to accommodate a new aircraft, crews can replace the carpet or a portion of it, a much easier process than demolishing terrazzo. Also, carpet typically gets refreshed every seven to ten years, giving airlines more frequent opportunities to update their spaces.


David Daileda, senior project manager at Leo A Daly in Washington, D.C., and his team are wrapping up design of a new terminal at the New Orleans airport, and construction on the $650 million project will likely start before the end of the year. The airport handles 80% of the commercial air traffic in Louisiana.

The building will span 650,000 square feet, opening to a central atrium. The airport will reflect the culture and vibrancy of New Orleans through subtle detailing rather than flashy accents, and a stage will be incorporated to welcome travelers with the live music the city is famous for. 

Epoxy terrazzo will be specified for all the public areas, along with carpet for the hold rooms. The color palette will give a nod to the iconic New Orleans’ green, yellow and purple, but in more subtle tones for a more sophisticated aesthetic. 

“The terrazzo will be a singular color with a mix for the right tone and the right sparkle,” Daileda says. “We had in mind some large swath color changes, but felt that that was going to be detrimental to the overall design, so we went for the simplicity of a basic color.” Other elements, like the back wall of the ticket counter, will become statement pieces, rather than building them into the floor.

Carpet in the hold rooms will echo the colors from the overall palette. “It’s a softer material to help with acoustics and the relaxed feeling you want to create in holding,” Daileda says.

Sealed concrete will be used in the back of house areas, except in rooms with computers and other sensitive equipment, where vinyl tile will be specified.


Most designers and their clients generally view sustainability as important in the public sector. In aviation, larger airports are more likely to seek green certification of some sort. “If a large enough municipality owns the airport, they usually have something in place that says all public buildings are to be LEED certified on some level,” says Kukla.

Daileda explains that clients look to his firm to help them understand how sustainability can be built into a project. “I don’t think they’re quite as sold on hanging up a certificate as they are on designing as close as you can to those standards, understanding the budget and the other constraints.” For example, for a current aviation project in New Orleans, he says, “We are not going for certification, but we have been directed to design as close to certification as possible. 

Daileda also points out that harsh chemicals, jet fumes and other pollutants in and around airports increase the difficulty in seeking LEED certification. “You don’t have a lot of open windows in an airport because you’re sucking in jet fumes all day long. Those kinds of sustainability things that work well in some instances don’t necessarily translate.”

“Our approach here at Corgan, whether a client is asking for a LEED certified building or not, is that good design is sustainable design,” Nichols explains. “So we incorporate sustainability into all of our projects whether the client is asking for it or not. It’s a way of design, and you can do it without necessarily increasing the cost of a project.” Terrazzo, for example, can help toward certification if recycled glass chips or other types of recycled materials are incorporated.


Some airports are owned and operated by the city or county, while others are independent entities run by an airport authority. Even when the city is the owner, a director or project manager on the airport staff is usually the architects’ main contact. But the designers must interface with and meet the needs of far more than a single representative. An impressive list of groups must be appeased during an aviation project. 

The local government and the local citizens have a vested interest in their airport regardless of ownership. “An airport is a major economic generator for a community, so there is a lot of community involvement and input,” Daileda says. “It is the new train station; it’s the first thing people see when they come to your city.” 

Meeting the needs of the airport staff—including the facilities group, the maintenance group, the operations group and the business and properties group (which manages the airlines and other tenants)—is of the utmost importance, since they are in the airport every day and responsible for operating and maintaining the buildings once complete. The designers say that for flooring and other finishes, their teams work especially closely with the maintenance staff to be sure the final selections can be maintained. 

The airlines also lend an important voice to the design process, since they, too, are heavily involved in the daily operation. Sometimes an airline will even fund a terminal project, and the architects will work directly for them. Government entities such as the FAA, TSA, CBP (Customs and Border Patrol) as well as local fire and police agencies all have requirements that must be met and approved. 

The bigger the project, the greater the number of people involved, needs to be considered, and decisions to get approved. “It becomes a matter of constant open communication, working together with all members of the team, both on the design side and the owner side, breaking it down into a long series of tasks and goals,” Daileda explains. “You start at the beginning and work your way through, and continually monitor and adjust as you go. I find it to be an incredibly complex and incredibly exciting process, and I love it.”

Getting approval from so many different people and entities takes time. In addition, airports operate 24/7, so except in the case of a brand new airport, work must be arranged around daily operations, often in several phases, which further extends timelines. Aviation projects can take as long as five to ten years to complete, and the designers say that they constantly look for ways to move the process along. 

“The decision to proceed with a project takes so much time, the timeline gets pinched during design and construction because clients still want the same end date,” Kukla says. She adds, laughing, “That’s pretty much design and construction across the board. I don’t think that is unique to airports.”

The traditional construction model of design-bid-build requires more time than some newer models. The designers say they often work on design-build projects where a construction manager holds the contract with the owner and leads the project. This model allows permits to be pulled early and mitigates issues down the line with feasibility, constructability and phasing, since the construction team is involved from the beginning. 

“We do a lot of design-build projects where the foundation is being poured before we’ve even issued the documents for the interior part of the project, so it’s being built as we’re designing,” Kukla says. “That does help expedite the schedule, and you can imagine from the client’s standpoint with the amount of money that they’re investing in the project, the sooner they can get it up and operating, the better for them.”

The designers shared several bits of advice for flooring contractors, dealers or distributers who might be interested in picking up work in the aviation sector. Like in most business dealings, they pointed out, relationships are key. 

“In most instances, either there’s a construction manager or a construction contractor that they would work directly for as a supplier,” says Daileda. “Those are the relationships they need to build to start with so they can simply get on the bid list.”

“People want to work with people that they feel comfortable with,” adds Nichols. She also recommends developing relationships with airport staff in the area and even with the individual airlines. Developing relationships with architectural firms that do airport renovation work may lead to consulting during the early design phase, assisting with specification and sample. And consulting might eventually lead to work down the line, although there are no guarantees.

Building these relationships requires networking at conferences and perhaps even cold calling individuals for introductory meetings. “There are ongoing series of seminars and meetings of various airport groups across the country going on all the time,” Daileda says. “It’s an old time method, but I still think it’s the most effective way to get people to know who you are.”

A portfolio highlighting similar projects can help prove expertise. “Start small,” Kukla advises. “It’s like getting into anything new. Prove yourself on a smaller project or a public project that is similar, something that gets a lot of traffic.”

Once a flooring supplier gets a foot in the door, Daileda notes, an online catalog is crucial, since designers often get initial ideas online or need to find products quickly.


Shelly Nichols, vice president at Corgan in Dallas, and her team finished a major terminal renovation and addition at Dallas Love Field last year. Interestingly, the firm’s founder, Jack Corgan, designed the original terminal in the 1950s. “We were really excited to be chosen to do the renovation of the terminal since it was our original design,” Nichols recalls.
The $519 million project encompasses 750,000 square feet and was targeted for LEED Silver certification. 

Jack Corgan’s original design included terrazzo flooring with a huge world map medallion. The original floor was still in use 56 years later, and the team developed the new plans, keeping the map medallion as a centerpiece. Due to major space plan changes, the remaining terrazzo could not be saved, however, so new terrazzo was installed. 

Nichols says that the map medallion with its 1950s version of the world’s boundaries is now a large conversation starter for people when standing in security queues or sitting on the overlooking balcony, waiting for loved ones to arrive. 

Carpet tile was chosen for the hold rooms in muted colors that tie in with the medallion and support the overall feeling of warmth requested by the airport’s main tenant, Southwest Airlines.  

Copyright 2015 Floor Focus 

Related Topics:Armstrong Flooring, Interface, The International Surface Event (TISE)