Trends in Airport Design: Today’s airports prioritize traveler experience - Jan 2020
By Jessica Chevalier
The role of the airport has changed: from functioning as a gateway transporting guests to an experience to becoming a part of that experience. That alone may not seem like an incredibly tall order design-wise, but considering that these experiential spaces comprise expansive square footage and endure the abuse of millions of annual travelers-and their roller bags-often for decades, the task becomes considerably more complex.
Flooring performs many functions within airport spaces: creating zones, assisting with wayfinding and, of course, providing a safe surface for those traveling over it. Both hard and soft surfaces are used in this pursuit, typically hard in the high-traffic areas and soft in holding zones. Above all, these products must thrive in challenging conditions with minimal disruptive maintenance.
The days when air travel was considered a glamorous luxury may be behind us, but today’s interior architects are working hard to incorporate pleasure into an activity that can seem like drudgery if treated without care or inspiration. These objectives are often achieved through art, materiality and functionality, so flooring plays a pivotal role in their execution.
For their Salt Lake City International Airport redevelopment project-which encompasses 2.6 million square feet, including 78 gates-HOK designers Tambra Thorson, director of interiors, San Francisco, and Matt Needham, regional leader of aviation and transportation, specified terrazzo for all of the high-traffic areas, including a space they call “The Canyon.” This central zone will be utilized by an estimated 21 million travelers annually, and Needham likes to think of the area as “today’s modern town square.”
Here, the dark grey terrazzo path, reminiscent of a runway in tone, leads to a space where travelers can look out over the mountains, setting a stage upon which the grandeur of both local scenery and the airy architecture of the building itself take center stage. To the sides of the central path, the terrazzo transitions to a lighter grey and then a white, indicating areas out of the traffic flow suited for rest or refreshment.
In The Canyon, clerestory windows deliver a view of the skies, and a dramatic 362’ long sculpture draws the eye upward and adds spatial texture, mimicking the geographic layers of southern Utah’s landscape. The piece is made “using 2.5 acres of composite fabric, and the equivalent of seven miles of aluminum tubing. The entire work will consist of 412 individual tensile membrane fins,” according to the airport website. The resulting aesthetic of The Canyon is clean and streamlined, textural and breathtaking.
Gresham Smith’s Jessica Smith, senior interior designer, and Ben Goebel, senior architect and project executive, are working on a terminal expansion at the Charlotte/Douglas International Airport, which includes renovation of a 900’ long curb space and expansion that will connect ticketing and baggage claim with the curbside experience. The project will alleviate congestion at this busy location and includes both subterranean and elevated walkways that separate the flow of passengers and provide pedestrian access to the parking deck without crossing traffic.
For the space, Smith and Goebel have also opted for terrazzo and are collaborating with three terrazzo artists who will incorporate art pieces into the flooring design. Smith emphasizes that the design is especially challenging as it will be viewed both on-level and from overhead, so the architects’ design and the artists’ designs must create a unified and interesting canvas from both views.
In each of these designs, it is evident that creating couture and locale-inspired spaces is a priority in airport design today. As Goebel says, “If you’ve seen one airport, you’ve seen one airport.” The contemporary design goal is that passengers who step into an airport for a layover never question whether they are in Las Vegas or Detroit or Orlando. The exterior and interior architecture, the art and even the concessions all honor the area’s unique characteristics and culture.
Stantec principal Janice Hicks recently worked on Ecuador’s Quito International Airport renovation and expansion, and she reports that one of the joys of that project was developing “a design that reflected [the culture’s] personality, values and aspirations by highlighting local materials and artisans.”
Smith notes, “Airports can be gateways for travelers into the city, and the city wants to provide a reason for that traveler to come back. If the traveler is only in town to change planes, the airport might be the only chance to encourage the traveler to want to come back and spend more time, so we are sharing a region’s history through timelines, telling its unique aviation story, bringing in its art and even its music. Many airports now feature satellite locations of local restaurants, creating a sense of place.”
Hicks emphasizes that while A&D’s client on airport projects may be “the airport authorities, operators or consortiums that are taking over management and construction of airports, the traveler and employees are viewed as stakeholders in our design process.” To this end, Hicks seeks to create “an exceptional experience for the passenger while providing a building for the operator that fits their long-range planning goals.”
And Smith points to another important group of users: airport employees. On her Tampa project, the airport was clear that it wanted to support not only its traveling customers but also the 10,000+ community of individuals that work in the space daily, as their happiness and comfort matters greatly and trickles down in their customer service.
Above all, however, passenger safety is key, and delivering a safe and aesthetically pleasing solution is always the goal, says Smith.
“When you hear the term ‘passenger experience,’ remember that passengers are only passengers when they are on the plane,” says Needham. “Today, airports and airlines are considering the whole travel experience: how you get from your door to the airport, first impressions and wayfinding from the curb. Airlines are looking at each of these opportunities for places to brand. They are no longer just putting their brand on the airplane but along every step of the way. The ‘passenger experience’ is turning into the ‘travel experience’.”
An important part of that, the designer adds, is making the experience more personal and human, and that includes proving an opportunity for travelers to partake in one of the most human of all activities: communing with nature.
Certainly, airports have always provided ample window space for travelers to see both the runway and the world beyond it, but staring through glass at the outdoors doesn’t compare to actually being there. “There is more focus on indoor/outdoor experience at airports,” reports Needham. At Long Beach Airport, two concourses are connected via a wood deck that features fire pits and palm trees, and the Salt Lake City airport, a major hub for Delta, now features a Delta sky deck. And Thorson and Needham report that the Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar includes swimming pools and spas.
The designer continues, “Travelers are traveling in pressurized metal tubes. Airports can be big, sterile and impersonal. There is something to be said for having the sun on your face and feeling the air. It is something more real. Airports are trying to relate to human sensibilities.” To that end, Needham reports that he would love to have the opportunity to use natural materials-not copies of natural materials-that could withstand the wear-and-tear of use within these vast spaces.
Of course, pleasure isn’t generated solely through aesthetic appeal, but also through ease of use. Airports are bustling spaces, and without intuitive wayfinding, they can become bottlenecks of frustration. Hicks reports that this is how airport design differs from that of other large commercial spaces, noting that the “main differentiator in airports is assessing and designing to passenger flows and processes.” And part of the means of achieving success in this area is by creating zones suited for different needs.
For the Salt Lake City airport, Thorson constructed multiple zones. The first zone is for people who are in the airport briefly, getting a cup of coffee, perhaps, and heading out on the next leg of their journey. The second zone is for passengers who will be at the airport a bit longer; here, the furnishings are cozier, suited for business travelers. The third zone is for people who will be spending yet longer periods of time in the airport, positioned close to the windows so these individuals can settle in out of the hustle and bustle and relax, enjoying the view. While this zone structure is a benefit to the traveler, it is also a benefit to the airport as it keeps active zones unclogged and frustrations minimized.
The benefits of having smooth-flowing spaces aren’t just about easing transitions for travelers. According to Hicks, “Passenger flow has become a priority in the design. Airports want to get passengers through all the processes efficiently so they can take advantage of amenities for a longer time period.”
In fact, some airports are even seeking to pull in consumers who aren’t traveling. Smith explains that Tampa International Airport, for instance, offers shopping and concessions from popular establishments land-side, meaning pre-security, as well as free parking for the first hour, hoping to attract non-travelers. And on Saturdays, the airport offers a program allowing non-travelers to go air-side to shop those amenities as well. In fact, the airport even produces a holiday gift guide. To support these goals, Tampa is extending the same quality of finishes that it uses within its terminals throughout its entire facility. This is, of course, a forward-looking strategy aimed at winning the hearts of visitors who, while not a traveler today, may be a traveler tomorrow.
Airport work is vigorous at present. “More people are travelling globally,” says Hicks, “and most airports are growing according to their traffic forecasts. There is also significant renovation work being undertaken as technology processes are changing and requiring a smaller footprint, leaving the remaining space usable for revenue generation, such as food and beverage and retail.”
This is a significant boon for airports, which are most often self-funded, not tax-funded. “Airport authorities pay for improvements through airline landing fees, car and parking charges, and concessions, so it takes them a long time to raise money for renovations,” says Needham, who adds that airports can also issue bonds.
Fewer travelers in the air during the recession years meant that airports put development and renovation projects on hold, creating a backlog, and many of those are now underway. “There’s an ocean of them,” says Needham.
This is coupled with the fact, adds Needham, that “a decade ago, airlines decided to invest in infrastructure, collaborating with the airports to create a better travel experience. Airline brands today are more willing to open their purse strings and invest in the passenger experience. Even if we enter another recession, I believe that airline work will remain strong.”
Goebel reports that the reasons each airport is under expansion or renovation are as unique as the spaces themselves. “There are a multitude of reasons as to why airports are renovating. The economy and business are doing well, and a lot of cities are making adjustments to how they view themselves. In south Florida, there was a big push about ten years ago to be one of the top cruise ports in the U.S., so its airport needs to support that drastic growth. In Orlando, there is a huge influx of people from Europe and South and Central America who want to see Disney and now have the means to do it, so Orlando’s traffic has drastically increased, and they needed a new terminal to support that.”
Airport flooring specifications often face an extraordinarily long lifecycle, and that, combined with the abuse they endure, limits what is used. Terrazzo is generally favored over ceramic because ceramic’s grout lines click under luggage wheels, but terrazzo doesn’t come without challenges. “It generally comes down to balancing budgets,” explains Hicks. “Terrazzo is a great material, but it has some drawbacks-a higher price, fewer skilled installers in many marketplaces, difficulty in obtaining a seamless patch or repair. However, it does have wonderful benefits in creating design.” And no grout lines also means easier maintenance in washrooms and food service areas.
Understanding the desired lifecycle for flooring goes hand in hand with understanding the lifecycle of the airport itself. Thorson reports that “terrazzo can last for centuries. For high circulation areas, we are looking for materials that will last the life of the facility, which is designed to last over 50 years.”
Needham adds, “It takes so long to develop airports-ten to 15 years to get the entitlements and funding and such together-that we are looking for a 50- to 100-year lifecycle on terminal materials.”
On the ceramic side, Hicks notes, “The selection of porcelain tiles has improved greatly over the last several years with larger formats and creative patterns and textures to choose from at a more economical cost.”
However, Thorson reports that airport owners don’t want to take care of grout joints or the potential for cracking under vehicle traffic. While ceramic is a common product for use in bathrooms, in the case of Salt Lake City, Thorson and Needam continued the terrazzo into these spaces as well, which, of course, streamlines cleaning processes.
Due to value engineering, Goebel opted for ceramic over terrazzo on a Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport project and reports that he saved $1 per square foot in doing so, which certainly adds up on a 750,000 square foot project. The team did, however, make adjustments to the grout lines in installation. “You can’t eliminate the click, but you can minimize it,” Goebel says. Thorson does use porcelain in more out-of-the-way spaces that still require durability, such as the family room at Salt Lake City airport, a space in which those picking up travelers can await their arrival. Here, Thorson specified a combination of porcelain and broadloom to create a warm atmosphere in the space, which also features lounge furniture and a fireplace.
Similarly, Smith reports that she often uses porcelain in back of house areas such as ticketing offices and break rooms.
Soft surface is generally specified for hold rooms, where people are awaiting their flight, and there is a good deal of noise. Both broadloom and carpet tile are utilized in these spaces. In either case, it is critical that the facility have a good amount of attic stock to efficiently address any crisis.
The designers interviewed note that the vast majority of airport carpet is custom designed to support the goals of creating one-of-a-kind spaces. The Gresham Smith team has been tasked with creating a custom design for the ticket lobbies at Tampa. Though these spaces are customarily hard surface due to the abuse they endure under feet and wheeled luggage, Tampa likes soft surface at ticketing to manage acoustics and provide underfoot comfort for staff. The prior carpet lasted almost ten years, and Smith reports that, as part of the renovation, she and her team “have been challenged to come up with some new designs incorporating the themes of the building.”
Gauged porcelain panels are sometimes utilized on terminal walls, offering durability against banging and scratching from luggage as well as ease of cleanability. As we so often hear, the barrier to greater use of the material remains finding qualified installers.
With regard to maintenance, while airports are 24/7 facilities, many have a flight curfew during the night, and this is when cleaning and maintenance is completed. To facilitate this, Thorson specified loose furniture for public space areas in the Salt Lake City airport, so that the pieces can be moved easily.
Hicks reports that, maintenance-wise, hard surface materials are often favored because they are seen as being less costly to maintain.
The importance of intuitive wayfinding in airports cannot be overstated. International airports accommodate high numbers of non-native speakers and ensuring that these travelers can reach their destinations with comfort and ease is important. “I like to see flooring that includes wayfinding through the use of pattern and a combination of flooring materials to create zones for different uses-such as retail, food and beverage, information,” says Hicks.
Similarly, to accommodate the differing physical abilities of travelers, “Level changes must be intuitive, and there shouldn’t be any that are unnecessary,” says Needham. “It needs to be as easy as it can be.”
Thorson adds, “We try to give the traveler a sense of neighborhood, to understand the distance they are walking. In a concourse, where spaces are longer, there are areas that have gates and between the gates are moving walkways. At the end of the walkway, there is usually a restroom or concession node, and typically the flooring will be different there to provide some sense of relief. At La Guardia, we tied that to concession programs and represented literal neighborhoods of New York.”
Adds Smith, “Mixing materials helps with intuitive wayfinding. When you break up materials, it helps signify space without signage. We do a lot of that with floors and ceilings and walls, guiding passengers through the process using color, patterning, art-the whole composition.”
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