Norfolk - Comprehensive Airport Improvements
Positioned to Please Passengers for Years to Come
-Photo by Chris Cunningham
The vibrant city of Norfolk, Virginia, home to the world’s largest naval base, is the state’s second most populous city and serves as the hub of one of the most active transportation and shipping areas on the eastern seaboard. Given this unique status, Norfolk International Airport (ORF) plays an integral role in servicing the millions of passengers flying in and out of the city during the year, making it the third-busiest airport in Virginia.
Established in 1938, the airport has seen a succession of remodels and additions intended to keep pace with increasing demand over the years. In 2010, looking to update and extend the life of the existing terminal, Norfolk Airport Authority (NAA) solicited GS&P to deliver on-call architectural planning and design services for the modernization of the airport’s terminal facility, including a new security checkpoint.
“The facility hadn’t seen any upgrades for around 30 years,” explains architecture principal Wilson Rayfield. “So the client’s main goal was to refresh the facility and improve the overall passenger experience.”
Working closely with NAA to develop a long-term vision that would transform the airport terminal into a modern, bright and passenger-friendly facility, the design team formulated a multiphased renovation plan encompassing three separate phases. Phase I comprised renovations to the existing departures building, a new skylight, a new, expanded security checkpoint, and facility-wide interior finish upgrades.
Emphasizing an “Airport in a Garden”
One of the most dramatic features of the phase I renovation was the addition of a 10,000-square-foot skylight feature. Constructed in the departure building’s central atrium to emphasize Norfolk’s vision of an “Airport in a Garden,” the stunning new skylight provides significant natural light to support interior landscaping and seating in the central terminal space, and transforms the departures atrium into a showpiece that sharply contrasts with its circa 1970s predecessor.
Built in 1974, the existing departures building featured a visually heavy and dark ceiling, and a space cluttered with shopping pergolas, potted plants and seating. This dated amalgamation impeded circulation, limited sight lines and created zones of congestion. The client desired a plan that remedied congestion and supported an “Airport-in-a-Garden” theme involving enhanced light and well-placed greenery. However, the ultimate design of the skylight took that idea well beyond the initial concept.
“The skylight was a collective effort,” says Rayfield. “The client expressed what they wanted, we worked through ideas with them, then came up with a concept. The size, magnitude and impact of the skylight exceeded all our expectations.”
With the skylight as a visual centerpiece, designing the garden was next. Project designer Julia Bradley Rayfield envisioned a clean, modern approach, taking inspiration from the natural surroundings.
“The airport is situated adjacent to the Norfolk Botanical Gardens,” notes Bradley Rayfield. “The client felt that was a unique aspect of the location and wanted a garden presence in the building.
“A lot of airports don’t want the hassle of plants because of the cost of maintenance, and it’s usually a struggle to get foliage to survive in an airport environment because there isn’t enough natural light. We realized that once we made the change with the skylight, it would very much change their ability to have a successful planting below it.”
Intent on keeping the space open, the team decided to move away from potted plants and, instead, went with large, custom-built planters that could create forms in the atrium and make room for special events as needed.
“The planters serve a number of key purposes,” says Bradley Rayfield. “They create little rooms within the big room, so they define circulation routes and create ‘quiet corners’ for passengers that feature various seating options. They also hold significant plantings that are not only surviving but thriving because of the natural light.”
Security Checkpoint Expansion
Phase I of the multiphased effort also included a new security screening checkpoint for Concourse B. Challenges at the existing screening area were many, with long lines snaking their way from the security checkpoint and into the departures building atrium, which, prior to the renovation, already struggled with congestion and circulation issues. The checkpoint was cramped, often hot, and didn’t provide the space necessary for equipment upgrades.
The new checkpoint not only alleviates congestion in the near term, but also supports long-term growth with space for additional equipment to increase screening capacity and throughput. The column-free space also provides flexibility in equipment configuration as well as better circulation and sight lines.
The ambiance was enhanced with full-height glass walls, wood-clad beams, a travertine-stone feature wall, and patterned terrazzo that picks up on the simple banding design from the atrium.
Significantly reducing passenger congestion, the comprehensive expansion provides a bright and open space that features exterior views to improve one of the most stressful elements of the air travel experience.
“We looked at forecasted passenger growth into the next 20, 30 and 40 years,” says Rayfield. “Our goal was not just to achieve improvements for today, but to give the airport the ability to expand and pick up additional screening protocols that may not even exist today. We wanted to give them some flexibility for the long term.”
Maintaining Passenger Access
Constructing a new security checkpoint at a functioning airport also came with its own unique set of technical challenges.
“In order to maintain passenger access, the entire new building envelope had to be constructed around the existing passenger access bridge before any demolition could begin,” says Rayfield. “That was fairly complex in itself, but was compounded by the fact that the existing bridge spanned across the outbound baggage route for the entire airport and an active service yard for concession deliveries and waste removal. To maintain access and operations, we clearly delineated work hours and activities that defined very specific construction phasing.”
A significant goal of the phase I renovations was to create an environment that invited people in to use the space—not merely pass around it.
“Once we opened up the atrium by removing the pergolas and potted plant installations, we could turn it into a pleasant place to dwell,” explains Bradley Rayfield. “With good circulation possible, and the skylight flooding the space with natural light, opportunities were quickly presented for how the passenger and visitor experience could be further improved.”
Furniture was selected in shapes and sizes to accommodate a wide range of users. Some groupings were playful enough to appeal to children; others offered comfort and privacy to working travelers. Bradley Rayfield describes walking through the airport observing the end results.
“Small children were climbing over the little stools that look like pebbles joined together in a serpentine shape. Strollers were parked around them, and they weren’t in anyone’s way. It was great to see that, because we’d intentionally put that arrangement near the family restroom and in front of the toy shop.
“In another area, a woman was in one of the big, wide chairs, laptop in her lap, with a phone on one side and a pile of papers on the other. I asked if she’d ever worked in the atrium before and she replied, ‘I fly out of here all the time but never thought of working in this area before. Now I plan to get here a little early so I can send emails and do a few last-minute things before I head out to my plane.’ It was extremely satisfying to see completely different user groups utilize the space exactly as we’d hoped.”
The Astrolabe/Quadrant Floor
A key element of the phase I interior makeover was the flooring. Hold room and atrium areas were appointed with highly camouflaging carpet tile; other sections of the atrium and circulation areas were finished with poured terrazzo in designs of varying palettes and complexities. But perhaps the artistic highlight is the strikingly detailed concourse floor that evokes a maritime motif of the Norfolk region. The design evolved from brainstorming sessions between GS&P’s interior design team and the NAA board. Bradley Rayfield describes the process:
“They decided a maritime design honored the military of today and the birth of the Norfolk region. We explored navigation by the stars, water currents, movements and patterns. With a vote from the board, we settled on a maritime navigation concept. We looked at the astrolabe and quadrant, and took the geometry and general arc from those. That arc becomes the fluid line, like a wave or a current, that speaks to the water theme. Aluminum plates were cut with the specific numbers and markings of the quadrant. Those features are set into the terrazzo, and from there, the arcs splay out and wind their way down the concourse. Interspersed along the length of the concourse are the bands which begin in the atrium and provide consistent rhythm.”
Energy Efficiency, Day and Night
In terms of energy efficiency, GS&P’s skylight design maximized opportunities. Glazed with a high-performance, low-e glass with a ceramic frit to reduce radiant heat gain, the skylight lets in enough natural light during daytime hours that little artificial lighting is necessary. The lighting control system relies on a time clock and light sensors to control usage.
“Artificial lighting only comes on when needed: at night or on overcast days,” says Rayfield. “During times of low activity between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., the system limits artificial lighting to lower levels because it knows that’s not an active time for the airport.”
A similar control system is in place at the new security checkpoint.
“The checkpoint opens at 5 a.m. and the last flight leaves at 8 p.m.,” Rayfield explains. “The lighting within the screening area drops to a reduced level after that last flight but is on a separate control system than the adjacent exit lane to accommodate arrivals as late as midnight.”
Other energy-saving measures were built into the full-height glass walls in the checkpoint. While the walls fulfill the client’s desire to bring in as much natural light and outside views as possible, their south-facing exposure required modifications.
“The glass wall has exterior horizontal sunshade louvers, set at a spacing and length to ensure that high summer sun is blocked, reducing solar heat gain,” says Rayfield. “Conversely, they’re short enough that lower winter sun will hit the glass, creating the advantage of radiant heat during the winter.”
"Wow; I LOVE Virginia!"
Dramatically enhancing both the aesthetics and function of Norfolk International Airport’s terminal facilities, GS&P’s phase I improvements not only create an atmosphere that’s appealing to travelers, but also give this gateway to southeastern Virginia a fresh, efficient and energetic design direction while supporting ORF’s long-term passenger growth and needs. Construction of phases II and III interior renovations for the airport terminal, designed by GS&P, are slated for completion in 2016 and 2018 respectively. Rayfield confirms the impact of what’s been accomplished in phase I, which garnered the prestigious Excellence in Construction Award (2014) from Associated Builders and Contractors - Virginia Chapter:
“Airports are the first and last impressions a person has of a place they travel to. I’ve heard comments from others in the industry who’ve flown through Norfolk since the renovation, and they couldn’t believe how impactful the space is now. It is incredible, and people don’t hesitate to point that out.”
As for the client’s mandate to create a place that people wanted to use, Rayfield continues: “The renovation has given them that opportunity. People interact and spend time there; it’s a common area for meeters and greeters. They have a high military presence in Norfolk, so a lot of their travelers are military personnel coming to the base or back from service to go home. Many times I’ve seen families with big signs for their arriving loved ones; the redesign gave them the space to do that.”
Bradley Rayfield shares a similar sentiment: “It’s a great feeling to see a drastic improvement and know that what you’ve done isn’t for fashion or a whim with limited shelf life; what we’ve done will last decades. It’s timeless, yet not bland. Even children are impressed by the improvements. A young mother walked past me with her little boy, and when he got to the big windows, he jumped up and down and yelled, ‘Wow; I love Virginia!’ That’s the kind of stuff that makes your day.”