Georgian masterpiece

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HOK is leading a joint venture to design a US$200m improvement to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s domestic passenger terminal. PTW speaks to Ripley Rasmus, senior design principal and lead designer for the project (left), and Matt Breidenthal, regional leader of engineering in Atlanta (right), about the project and what HOK hopes to achieve 

Tell us a bit about the project

Ripley Rasmus (RR): Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport is embarking on a US$6bn modernization project and as part of that HOK is leading a joint venture team in designing the new and improved US$200m domestic passenger terminal.

A main element of the design is two innovative ETFE-clad canopies, each measuring 864ft in length, that will cover curbside pick-up and drop-off areas. Clad in translucent ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene) panels, the two canopies are supported by a contemporary steel frame. ETFE was chosen over glass because the lighter, self-cleaning material reduces the impact on the existing terminal, which supports the canopies, and it will better accommodate structural movement. For the project, we’re using powerful parametric 3D modeling software that can rapidly generate multiple geometries and system solutions.

Inside, passengers will be greeted in the redesigned light-filled atrium featuring a park-like setting, lush with plants and a large circular skylight. The design accommodates both the curb-to-gate weekly business travelers and the leisure traveler.

How did HOK get involved with the project?

RR: HOK has been involved with Atlanta for a long time. We were there in 2006/7 for the westward terminal expansion, which didn’t materialize, and were also involved in the design of a gate for the A380 as Atlanta prepared to accommodate the growth in larger aircraft.

The airport is the busiest passenger terminal in the world, having handled 100 million passengers in 2015, and the airport wanted to modernize to keep up with demand. Atlanta already has a new international terminal and it wanted the remainder of the airport to come up to the standards set by that terminal. HOK is working the domestic landside areas and another firm is working on the concourses – we’re working as a joint venture with other companies including Stanley, Love-Stanley, P.C., and Chasm Architecture, L.L.C, both headquartered in Atlanta.

Above: The modernization includes two new arched roadway canopies, each measuring 864ft in length, that are designed to protect passengers at the arrivals and departure roadways

What was the design remit from the airport for the project?

RR: The main element of the domestic landside design is the canopies that will cover the roadways – it is very hot in Atlanta but we also get a lot of rain, so it is very hard to arrive and depart under those conditions. Around 40 million of Atlanta’s passengers depart and arrive in the domestic terminal facility and so for passenger comfort the brief was to establish a protective enclosure at the roadways that suited all weather conditions.

There was also a desire to fundamentally alter the entire character of the building to bring it into the 21st century. The airport wanted to re-clad the entire building, include high performance glazing, a new roof that is more energy efficient, etc, and give the domestic terminal the same life as the international terminal. The check-in halls, baggage claim halls, the entire building will have new ceilings with LED lighting that is much more energy efficient and changes the color temperature, so the building is a little brighter. The new glazing will illuminate the primary areas of departure and check-in, and the new lighting will change the character throughout the building. We’re covering all the columns and adding new signage for wayfinding to simplify one’s procession through the building.

Another important part of the brief was to refresh and renew the central atrium in the building. Atlanta has a lot of people who have layovers as well as many people who come and say goodbye to or welcome their family and friends; the central atrium acts as a pause point in the terminal. The last time it was redesigned was in the early 1990s so it was very dated. We wanted to refresh that space and make it a civic space in the building that is reminiscent of the nature of Atlanta, which is a very green city and filled with parks and space.

How did you design for such a large space?

RR: The terminal measures about 1,200ft in length and 400ft in width. It is like negotiating a small city, and inherent to that we’ve tried to create landmarks and places you can identify to help you move through the airport, such as the canopies marking the entrance, the check-in and baggage counters, the pathway to security, etc. You have to break it down into manageable chunks so that passengers will be able to easily navigate through the building.

Above: The 15,000ft² atrium includes a park-like setting brightened by a circular skylight

How have you created a sense of place for arriving and departing passengers?

RR: Creating sense of place is always an interesting conversation at an airport. Oftentimes the best things we can do is to look out into the natural landscape and see where we are. With a massive terminal like the domestic terminal at Hartsfield Jackson, it’s difficult to access that landscape so the idea of connecting to the sky and greening both the interior space of the atrium and the pathways, as well as the curbside, is one step we’ve taken to connect to the specifics of place. We’ll have crepe myrtle, an evergreen and flowing plant that’s iconic in Georgia, that will connect us to the area. Additionally, that atrium space and the whole of the facility is intended to be a facility for local art and culture. We have a bandstand for example that is designed to bring in local musicians so if you walk through there on any given day you’ll find a musician or two playing in the atrium who are local people and that is just one way of explaining the local culture to the world.

How important is incorporating performance space into design?

RR: I think particularly after 9/11 with the increased security and time passengers have to spend in the terminal, it is important that their experience is rich and ‘normal’; they should feel like they have control and are not just being processed. We like to think that our designs transform processing to procession – passengers should feel like they are moving through a city where there is a rich variety of experiences from music to artwork to temporary displays as a way of enriching their experiences and making it more normal in their lives.

What were the challenges of designing the canopies?

RR: The canopies presented a great design challenge. The primary challenge is to provide shelter and I think we’ve got a great solution for that. The other thing the canopy does, which represents the aspiration of the airport, is to alter the character of the building and the experience that passengers have. We have a canopy that functions beautifully as shelter; it will keep you out of the rain and reduce the amount of sun on the building and curbside. We have done that with an extremely efficient structural system and a collection of ETFE bubbles atop the canopy that will allow you to see both the sky and be sheltered, removing 50% of the solar gain.

Matt Breidenthal (MB): A big early decision that we made was to support the canopy off of the existing structure of the building rather than on a line of 40 new columns and lateral bracing set in front of the building and the re-clad façade. Introducing a new structure rather than supporting on the existing one would have been a lot more expensive and intrusive on the passenger experience. Using a lightweight material like ETFE allows our structure to be as light as possible and was a very intentional move that has enhanced the design quite a bit.

We had a very aggressive design schedule [eight months], especially for an element like this where you want to achieve a long span and do it beautifully but cost effectively and with a concentration on constructability and minimizing disruption. Particularly when you’re working with an existing terminal, that takes a lot of effort and analysis to get right.

There are three things that contributed to our success on meeting that aggressive schedule: Firstly, Ripley is an incredible designer who really understands structural behavior. We have also developed at HOK some multi-disciplinary parametric design tools that let our architects and engineers evaluate hundreds of diverse options and allow us to analyze and optimize each one. That process used to take weeks or months, but this design tool allows us to do the same work in hours. Finally, the airport was really on board and very supportive throughout the process; they were excited to explore these options with us and have been great partners throughout.

Above: A clearly marked airport security screening zone leads passengers from the atrium to concourses and gates

What other technologies have been used for the project?

RR: Integrated digital information is an amazing thing; to have live, real-time updates on flight schedules and to be able to post that on giant digital screens means people have access to information. The key to making passengers feel in control is providing that information and the airport has done a great job of starting that, and we’ve continued that integrated information system throughout the airport. If the architecture is intuitive and tells us where to go, and we only need verification through a piece of signage or a digital screen, then the passenger is at ease, they have comfort and they are in control of their time and can move comfortably through the terminal.

What is the timeline for the project?

RR: The airport is working on defining the final construction schedule – I believe it will begin mid-summer 2016 – and there is no completion date as yet. The airport is a serial builder – they’re very good at it. We’ve been able to be successful because they have not only opinions about what they want but they have a clearly defined planning strategy that gets them to their milestone goals. They’re also comfortable in their own skin meaning they are very good at listening to counsel and entering into dialog, which speeds the decision making and makes a great project.

To view more images of the project, click here.

June 7, 2016

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About Author


Kirstie joined the team in early 2017 and brings writing, communications and client experience with her. Now an assistant editor, she produces content for our magazines and websites. Away from the office, you will find her blogging on her lifestyle website or searching the internet for photos of sausage dogs.

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