Quintessential Texas

Austin's user-friendly airport terminal embodies the laid-back lifestyle of its Hill Country location
August 11, 2010

When Texas's capital city outgrew its former 1930s airport, the decommissioning of Bergstrom Air Force Base because of the military base closure program made its 4,100 acres available as the location for Austin's new airport.

The phaseout of Bergstrom, a fixture of the Austin area since World War II and located only 8 miles from the state capitol, provided a windfall for the city in the form of an existing 12,250-ft. runway. The city estimates that reuse of the former air base saved at least $300 million in land acquisition and construction costs. Congress voted to close Bergstrom in 1990, and it officially closed in September 1993.

The crescent-shaped, 25-gate Barbara Jordan Terminal at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport is the first major new passenger facility to be constructed since Denver International Airport opened in 1994. It was designed by Austin-based PageSutherlandPage (PSP) and constructed by Morganti Inc.

"The terminal design incorporates two central themes — the Austin native's love of nature and the city's position as a center of technology and education," says Lawrence Speck, a principal with PSP and dean of the University of Texas School of Architecture until he stepped down from that post in August. (Austin is home to numerous high-tech companies and the University of Texas.) These dual themes are reflected in the building's spaces and forms, the use of native materials, the incorporation of local crafts and the accommodation of Austin-focused activity in the terminal's "living room," a 900-ft.-long, 60-ft.-high area just inside the entrance that contains Texas-style shops and restaurants. Befitting Austin's reputation as a center for live music, this area also has a stage where local musicians play regularly.

The interior abounds with Texas touches. Large murals portray Hill Country and family life. Embedded within the terrazzo floor is a map of the original plan for downtown Austin, with streets named for Texas rivers and trees. An embedded map of Texas highlights its rivers. Walls have carved replicas of the seeds of native trees. Mirrors in the bathrooms even feature humorous etched images of 10-gallon hats.

Not "slickly corporate"

Matthew Kreisle, also a principal with PSP, characterizes the terminal as "not flashy or slickly corporate ... laid-back ... relaxed ... like a large warehouse space." But, he quickly adds: "It's still impressive; it's a Grand Central Station-type of space."

The terminal's organization is simple and direct, which facilitates orientation and wayfinding. Upon entering, travelers find ticketing counters to the right and baggage claim to the left. The entrance to the corridor that leads to the aircraft gates is immediately ahead.

The 680,000-sq.-ft. terminal is 2,095 feet long and 280 feet wide. The critical issue, Speck emphasizes, is the distance from curb to aircraft gate. "You're literally within sight of your gate when you step off the curb," he says. The former airport terminal, which was one-third the size of the new one, had longer travel distances. This compactness is a particular benefit for two airlines serving Austin that focus on commuter business.

Commenting on the "incredible wear and tear" that a terminal must absorb, Speck says designers specified virtually indestructible materials, not only in public spaces but also in "back of house" sections such as baggage handling areas. Although it was assumed that limestone — the dominant local stone — would be used, Speck says it is too porous for an airport environment, which would bring it in contact with jet fumes that might cause discoloration. In locations where it might come in contact with luggage carts or baggage, the limestone could chip or break. Because a dense, hard stone was required, more than 50,000 square feet of Texas white granite was used on the interior. Granite was applied to piers and interior walls of all public areas. Granite paving is also used adjacent to the terminal entrance.

Daylight abounds

A major design challenge, Speck notes, was to use daylighting extensively while controlling heat gain. The terminal's exterior walls incorporate 102,000 square feet of three types of glass. One has a ceramic frit pattern; the others are varieties of low-emissivity. On the south (airside) elevation of the terminal, eyebrows extend out 6 feet to shade the glass. Airport terminals, according to Speck, tend to have deep interior spaces and twisty corridors that do not take full advantage of daylighting.

In considering the lighting levels for the "living room" area, both task and general ambient approaches were evaluated. During daylight hours, the space is brightly lighted. In the evening, this area is illuminated with a lower light level than what might be expected. "Ambient light is needed just to feel comfortable, and you don't need to light the space like a birthday cake," Speck says. Less-harsh task lighting is used in eating and reading areas, with the objective of reducing the heat load produced by artificial lighting.

The terminal's HVAC system incorporates a thermal storage unit that permits ice to be made at night, when electricity is available at off-peak rates. Because the city owns the electric utility, it has a first-hand knowledge of the benefits of this type of system.

Mid-course scope expansion

Two-thirds through the construction schedule, the city added five gates to the original program. This was the most challenging aspect of the project from the contractor's perspective, says Ron Brookfield, project executive with general contractor Morganti Inc., headquartered in Danbury, Conn. It resulted in the issuance of change orders and another round of competitive bidding for the additional work, which was also awarded to Morganti. The $15 million west concourse expansion was completed within three weeks of the original targeted opening date for the entire terminal project.

Drilled piers for the curved terminal were in place when Morganti began the construction work. Brookfield says that after "sorting out the geometry" and assuring that the structural steel was correctly dimensioned, the terminal "went together like a jigsaw puzzle." Morganti is no stranger to airport projects. The company also was the contractor, in joint venture with Pittsburgh-based Dick Corp., for the Cesar Pelli-designed terminal at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Washington, D.C.

A major infrastructure feature of the terminal project is a 1,400-ft.-long, 17-span elevated vehicle bridge that serves the terminal's upper level. While it was originally designed to be a cast-in-place, post-tensioned structure, the owner encouraged the general contractor to commission a value engineering study, which was conducted by Austin-based P.E. Structural Consultants. The study indicated that a precast concrete structure could produce substantial savings in cost and time. The $4.6 million structure utilizes a precast concrete trapezoidal U-beam section, which was recently standardized by the Texas Department of Transportation.

The terminal was named for the late Barbara Jordan, the first black woman elected to the Texas Senate and a U.S. congresswoman.

Prior to the Bergstrom site becoming available, PSP had developed a master plan for a proposed airport 20 miles northeast of Austin.

Construction Costs

General conditions $17,612,702
Sitework 10,966,397
Concrete 8,294,681
Masonry 2,275,420
Metals 17,736,003
Wood 1,533,050
Thermal and moisture protection 4,122,609
Doors and windows 15,561,103
Finishes 17,370,889
Specialties 837,707
Equipment 242,500
Furnishings 2,324,020
Conveying systems 5,439,923
Mechanical systems 15,797,386
Electrical 18,761,289
TOTAL $138,875,679