Airport Restoration Soars with Custom LEDs

Restoration of the St. Louis airport's domed terminal ceiling and installation of an LED lighting system had enough plot twists for a Hollywood movie.

April 01, 2010 |

No one saw this plot twist coming: restoration of the domed ceiling in the Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, which also included installation of a complex LED lighting system, was held up by Academy Award-winner George Clooney.

To be fair, the delay was only three weeks, and the real culprit was the movie “Up in the Air,” in which Clooney stars as a downsizing expert who travels the country firing people. Several scenes were filmed in the airport, and all the scaffolding for the ceiling and lighting project had to be removed and then reinstalled once Clooney and company took off for other locales.

It's no surprise that filmmakers scouted this airport for location shots because the four-domed main terminal building, designed in 1956 by architect Minoru Yamasaki (who also designed New York's World Trade Center towers), is an excellent example of modern-age design that ushered in the era of jet travel. Clooney's character even says so in the film.

However, the years had taken their toll on the 100,000-sf main terminal and the building wasn't quite ready for its closeup. The domed ceiling was structurally sound but dirty and discolored, the space was illuminated by harsh fluorescent lights, and the six original skylights had been covered over. In 2006, the airport commissioned a study to evaluate improvements at the airport and the recommendations were worked into the “Airport Experience” program, a six-year, $16.9 million improvement and modernization project. The domes and LED lighting work were major components of the program.

“The major issue with the project was trying to do all the work above everyone while the terminal remained operational,” says Mike Minges, project manager with Kwame Building Group of St. Louis, the project's program manager. “This is the airport's main entrance, where all the ticket counters are, so it had to stay open throughout all the work.”

An extensive network of scaffolding—the same scaffolding that came down mid-project for the film—was installed 15 feet above the terminal floor. The entire area from the top of the scaffolding to the ceiling was encapsulated, with a temporary fan added and a window removed to create negative air pressure to keep dust out of the busy terminal.

Work on the dome was easy enough. C. Rallo Contracting Company, the project's GC, resurfaced the ceilings with a recycled pulped-paper coating called SonaKrete that gave the dome a bright-white appearance and helped muffle noise inside the terminal. The LED portion of the project, which incorporated skylight work, proved more difficult to complete.

The six original skylights had been covered years earlier to alleviate problems with sunlight shining into the eyes of airline ticketing agents. The program called for the skylights, which run floor to ceiling along the domes' curves, to be uncovered and the LEDs integrated into the skylight structures. “We knew that if we were going to open up the skylights again, we'd have to deal with the problem of sun coming in at certain angles at certain times of the day,” says Minges.

Architects at the St. Louis office of Chicago-based Teng & Associates hoped to solve the problem by installing perforated metal panels over the skylights for shading, with LEDs integrated into the skylights' horizontal structural beams. The lights, which had to have an eight-foot throw, would reflect off the metal panels, or so the thinking went. A full-scale mock up of the installation indicated the lighting set-up couldn't throw the necessary distance—and reflection was minimal. Plan B involved installing a reflective, glare-reducing film over the skylights in lieu of perforated panels. Alas, this approach didn't work either.

The Building Team then engaged Randy Burkett Lighting Design of St. Louis, and the designer, who also lit the city's famous Gateway Arch, worked with the airport team to create a set-up using Philips Color Kinetics LEDs that worked with the window film (from 3M) that—finally!—tested successfully in mockup.

Then came another twist: the set-up didn't meet code. “The standard tabling Philips used—a plug and connect arrangement—wouldn't meet code because there had to be conduits between them,” says Minges.

The team asked the manufacturer if it could produce LEDs with wire pigtails that could be put into conduit with a junction box between each linear light to tie them together. Fortunately, Philips was able to do so—and without significant added costs. “The manufacturer wanted to see this project work out,” says Minges. Since the lights come in two-, three-, and four-foot lengths, the number of junction boxes used wasn't as high as everyone expected.

The terminal project was completed in November 2009, and with the LEDs being programmable at one-foot intervals, the airport has created a variety of light shows worthy of a Hollywood production.

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