Embracing the great outdoors

HOK’s Matt Needham and William Jenkinson discuss trends in designing outdoor spaces for US airport terminals.

Travel is once again ramping up. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, travel and tourism GDP is projected to rise by 31.7% in 2022.

Similarly, the US Travel Association notes that 82% of American travellers are “excited to travel in the next 12 months” – the highest level since the start of the pandemic.

As passengers return to the skies in record numbers, airports can refresh their terminals and take the stress out of the travel experience for people weary from COVID-19’s impact on the world. Bringing the outdoors into terminals is one way to reimagine and create healthier traveller experiences.

HOK has designed nature-inspired spaces in airport terminals that incorporate lush gardens, open air terraces and floor-to-ceiling windows with iconic views of natural landscapes. Below are just a few ways to include outdoor spaces at airports.

Showcase the local culture and natural landscape

No matter the climate, there’s always an opportunity to showcase the local culture and natural landscapes. Take Salt Lake City, for example. Though it features cold and snowy winters and hot and dry summers, Utah’s capital can still incorporate the outdoors into its airport year-round.

For Phase 1 of Salt Lake City International Airport’s Terminal Redevelopment Program, the HOK-led design team quizzed airport leaders and main airline carrier Delta Air Lines about their favourite aspects of the city. They described its warm people, explosive growth, and awe-inspiring scenery.

They also shared their love of the brilliant hues of the sun and sky, the snow and skiing, the birds singing, the changing colours of the mountains from the darker greens and grays in the north to the fiery reds and oranges in the south.

In response to the stakeholders’ aspirations for their airport, the team designed 50-foot-high, floor-to-ceiling windows that draw in daylight and offer sweeping views of the Wasatch Mountains.

A ‘family room’ offers a fireplace, world map and large windows showcasing mountain views. Earth-toned, interior and exterior finishes further connect travellers to the unique western locale.

Similarly in New York City, local urban pocket parks inspired the team designing LaGuardia Airport’s new Terminal B. Indoor green space is sprinkled throughout the terminal, providing passengers with immersive, park-like spaces featuring lush landscaping, pockets of trees and sculptural benches.

Incoming and outgoing passengers also share soaring and airy sequences punctuated by 60-foot-high windows that fill the terminal with daylight. These green spaces and access to natural daylight indoors support the health of travellers and help them relax during their journey.

Rethink underutilised spaces

It’s important for airport operators and planners to evaluate their terminal space and functions. Are there dead zones that could improve the passengers’ experience? Are there opportunities to transform spaces for better functionality?

At Tampa International Airport, the design-build team redeveloped the main terminal and airport concessions. During the project, the team discovered four underutilised outdoor terraces below the terminal’s transfer level, accessible only to maintenance workers.

By reconfiguring nearby APM shuttles, the team added 55,000 square feet of new interior space to the terminal and connected it with the terraces for travellers to enjoy.

With these four outdoor spaces now accessible to the public, Tampa gained nearly 24,000 square feet of terrace space with lush plantings for traveller relaxation, dining or special airport events.

Aside from providing places of respite for weary passengers, the outdoor spaces are revenue generators for the airport. Two of the terraces are leased by Hard Rock Café and PF Chang’s.

The potential to create new outdoor spaces may also be overlooked in non-traditional places, including arrival and departure areas.

In Atlanta, HOK led the HJ+P joint venture team to modernise the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), the busiest airport in the United States. And as part of the modernisation programme, the project team outfitted the domestic passenger terminal with two soaring structural steel canopies with translucent ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene) fabric panels.

Visible from air and land, the twin structures cover eight lanes of traffic at kerbside drop-off and pick-up areas.

The canopies provide a welcoming ‘frontdoor’ that protects travellers, the roadway and the building facade from Atlanta’s ever-changing weather. The inflated ETFE pillows create a thermal barrier that has reduced the solar heat gain by at least 50%. Programmable LED lighting illuminates the canopies at night and act as a symbol of Atlanta and a civic storytelling device.

Following the canopies’ completion, ATL installed kerbside ticketing and bag drop in the area – expanding the terminal’s processing capacity. Bridges floating below the canopies and above the roadway also offer travellers a unique experience on their journey into the terminal.

Ease traveller anxiety

Air travel can be a stressful experience, with anxiety around parking, making it through security, navigating unfamiliar territory or rushing to catch a flight. Stress-relieving spaces can support the health and wellness of passengers and mentally transport them to a calmer place, all while staying in the terminal.

In Southern California, HOK modernised the historic Long Beach Airport terminal, taking advantage of the temperate climate. The design team created an open-air plaza and secure outdoor spaces, including airside gardens resembling resort spaces with fire pits.

Palm tree-lined courtyards, native plantings and shaded wooden boardwalks fill the new concourse, helping travellers connect with nature and easing their anxiety.

Apart from adding relaxing outdoor spaces, the modernisation pays homage to the airport’s original Art Deco terminal with new structures appropriately scaled behind it. The historic landmark remains the visual link between the landside and airside with lush landscaping leading up to the structure.

Embrace the great outdoors

As the world returns to a new form of normal, people are eager to leave their homes and take to the skies for their next adventure.

To provide a smoother travel experience, airports can embrace the great outdoors by incorporating relaxing terraces, courtyards, landscaping and more into the terminal space to welcome back travellers and support them on their journeys.

Creating these natural oases can strengthen travellers’ emotional attachments to a terminal, trigger more pleasant interactions with fellow passemgers and reinforce a strong sense of place.

Like Frank Lloyd Wright once told his students: “Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.” Even in an airport.

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