New PDX concourse a young architect's dream job
Anyone driving to the airport will have noticed a new structure going up on the north side of Airport Way.
The long, low building is an extension to Concourse E, expanded to fit Southwest Airlines gates. However, what might look like a simple strip of building is much more complicated.
And its roots are in a young woman's dream.
"A long time ago, over 20 years ago now, when I first got out of graduate school at SCI-Arc I Los Angeles, I made a list of projects I was dreaming of doing," said Michelle Vo. She's a principal at Hennebery Eddy and is the project manager for the Terminal Balancing and Concourse E Extension project, to give it its official name.
"I'm a goals person. So, I made this list and it was schools, fire stations and airports. And I still have that piece of paper." (She used ink on graph paper.)
As a young architect in L.A. Vo worked on K-12 schools for five years and then, missing the northwest, she moved to Portland. She had just worked on a fire station in Los Angeles and luckily Hennebery Eddy Architects in Portland also had some fire station work going on, so she hit the ground running.
Hennebery Eddy was soon placed on a "small works roster" at the Port of Portland, which manages the marine ports and airports including PDX. This means they were one of three architects for which the Port saved small jobs. Vo got started on her dream: a bunch of lockers in an employee break room, and then a 30-foot corridor with a room for lifts. (That is what it sounds like, a room for storing scissor lifts.) It wasn't exactly Idlewild, but it taught her a lot about the complexity of airports — and she loves complexity.
Asked if an architect was really necessary for a corridor and a shed, Vo replies, "The Port of Portland takes all of their work very seriously. They do things right. They're not the kind of agency that's just going to go cowboy something up."
She loved the job, and the way the Port worked. "It's a process that they have there. It can frustrate some creative people because you have to do things by these rules. But all of those rules and all that process made a lot of sense. And it was super complicated. There was a lot going on."
The humble corridor had to cross an expansion joint. And there was special security on the doors.
"Even a 30-foot corridor I found to be interesting and challenging and I just kind of engaged and dug in. And I built a relationship with the client through that little piece of work."
The next time they needed something done they called Vo directly. It was easier for everyone given she knew the rules of the airport, how to work with a public agency and the Federal Aviation Administration. That relationship kept building and building and the work kept getting bigger.
That's when Hennebery Eddy started competing for other work that was not coming through the small works roster. They were winning based on qualifications, not just fees, a safeguard that prevents lowballers from winning work only to mess it up later.
"When you add all the changes that some clients put into projects, sometimes the low number's
not the lowest by the time you're done."
The next big job they won was in 2009, to redo the flight information and paging system structures. Where to position what looks like a bunch of steel-clad TV screens showing flight times was the kind of puzzle Vo loved to solve. They needed to be central enough so that lots of people could see them, but not so central that they caused people to stop and block the concourse.
"You want them in the middle of everything, but you want them to be out of the way."
Also, you don't want people to have to stop on a slope. And then, in places, the concrete slab under the carpet is hollow so that moving walkways can be installed in the future. Big city airports are always expanding, and architects already have designed for the unknown.
The steel posts that hold the monitors up have to carry the data and power cable to run them, and have to fit into the wiring of the rest of the airport.
What lies beneath
Thinking about levels is crucial to designing an airport, considering passengers get on and off planes 15 or 20 feet above the ground. Consequently, gates and the concourse they sit on are always elevated. The space under them is used for all the plane stuff you see out of the window: baggage carts, fuel trucks, food service and place for staff to congregate.
After years of providing good service at the Port of Portland, Hennebery Eddy (paired with a Denver aviation design firm Fentress Architects) was awarded the job of designing the extension to Concourse E.
This is the one that points east and has a stunning view of Mount Hood, brooding in white in winter and balding in the heat haze of summer.
Concourse E is being extended due east to fit more gates for Southwest Airlines, and one of the priorities was to do justice to that view of Mount Hood. Vo says travelers like to take stock before they fly, so a restaurant will be placed at what she calls "the quiet cul de sac" where people can sit and enjoy the view through a giant picture window.
The glass panels will be in curtain wall form; that is, hung from above like a curtain. Engineers have to calculate how much to make the frames shift as the huge expanse of glass bows inward and outward with the wind. The building itself could move in the wind, or in an earthquake without the glass cracking or breaking loose.
Airports are like little cities, and PDX is quietest between midnight and 4 a.m., which is a small window for doing construction work.
The Terminal E extension is mostly on new ground so it's a little less constricted. On a recent morning, workers placed roof panels and drove materials around, keeping well away from the runway.
Security is tight. Every subcontractor on the concourse extension site must have a PDX badge, which involves an FBI background check, or else be escorted. Even entering the secure doors into the concourse, Port of Portland's Construction Inspector, Frank Schmidt, waited for the door to close behind this reporter instead of piggy backing.
"We do a lot to try and strategize the sequencing of construction so things can be kept open, or you're building temporary walls or putting in temporary ceilings to catch the dust."
Southwest Airlines is moving all its gates to Concourse E (that's the "rebalancing"). Hennebery Eddy, now a midsize firm of 67 people, considers the airlines a client as much as the Port of Portland. Together, they calculate how many food outlets to install (bearing in mind PDX's award-winning emphasis on local food at street prices) as well as where to put the bathrooms, coffee stands, vending machines for headphones etc.; all the things that travelers take very seriously.
"So usually, if you're departing, you've arrived to the airport fairly early, you maybe grab a muffin and a coffee and take it on the plane or at the last minute you need a book to read or magazine or Dramamine or whatever."
But concessions here are different. The architects had to plan to be flexible, plumbing in sprinkler lines, potable water, gray water and grease removal lines for food cart pods and eateries that don't even exist yet.
Concourse E is narrow, with gates only on one side, so they designed it with high ceilings, skylights and no pillars to make it feel comfortable, even inspiring. In the future, gates might be very different.
"Imagine if we had biometrics or facial recognition and you didn't have to wait. Then if we didn't have such large waiting rooms, maybe we would have more concessions. Or maybe airplane wings would fold and we could have twice as many aircraft there. Who knows? I don't know."
It takes a lot of collaboration with the Port of Portland, but as Vo says, she loves their methodical manner.
"It's not like we show up with the grand vision and right away, everyone says, 'Love it, build it.' It's a process."
The airport has a master plan, and when it comes to getting more work there, Vo says relationships count.
"Particularly when you get into areas like aviation, where the work is complicated, clients want to feel like they can they can trust you. You will come to them with what the issues are and advise them. But I think relationship without experience isn't going to get you anywhere, either. With these projects, clients are committing to working with you for years."
Two London airports
Michelle Vo recently went to London and toured both Gatwick and Heathrow.
"It was just such a contrast in almost every way," she said.
Gatwick is known as the second airport, funneling British vacationers by the millions. Vo found it cramped and the wayfinding cluttered, but admired the way they get passengers through security in record time. There are huge tables for preparing your bag and shoes before being funneled to the scanning machines. Large teams in remote rooms read the scans.
"They have an entire line of biometrics where you just put your passport down and it looks at your face and it opens the gate again," Vo said.
At the other end, there are foot rests to help with putting your shoes back on. It works, she points out, because the airport pays a penalty to the airlines for not processing people in a certain number of minutes.
"That's the fastest I've ever seen. It's truly amazing" Vo said.
"Their approach to renovation is rip the Band-Aid off. They've got temporary construction barriers around entire areas — huge areas with temporary ceilings that instead of being a finished ceiling, you're just looking at these metal poles kind of rigged together.
"It's not about having the super calm experience. It's about having an efficient experience."
Heathrow, on the other hand, is big.
"Heathrow was huge, huge, so much space," Vo said. "It was beautiful. I think the magic would be to make something beautiful, and support the experience and make it efficient."
Back to reality in Portland, building along Airport Way there were the restraints of accommodating the multi-use path, which is for bicyclists and pedestrians.
"Keep in mind, the airport is like its own city almost. So there are people who bike to work, as well as people who might bike to fly," Vo said. "But mostly it's people who are biking to work at the airport. And then people will go for bike rides or go for a run during their lunch break.
"And there are FAA requirements for spacing the runway versus the taxiways. Those constraints drove control on the north side and we ended up with a very narrow area to build the building."
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