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How Pittsburgh plans to build an off-the-grid “airport of the future”

The early stages of the coronavirus pandemic were painful for airports and the greater travel industry. But as the country adapts to the “new normal” and finds paths to return to business, the travel industry is recovering. Travel spending improved to 9% below 2019 levels in September, and two-thirds of business travel suppliers and planners reported their companies allow non-essential domestic business travel, according to data published last week by the US Travel Association. And as the travel industry recovers, airports nationwide are returning to major construction projects.

One project that broke ground last month, Pittsburgh International Airport’s $1.4 billion, 700,000-square-foot terminal, has laid claim to something unique. According to the Allegheny County, Pa., Airport Authority, it is the first new airport terminal to be built from the ground up with a post-pandemic world in mind. Officials are working with an architectural and engineering design team of Gensler, HDR and luis vidal + architects to develop an “airport of the future” that could generate $2.5 billion for the regional economy and create more than 14,000 combined direct and indirect jobs. Other companies involved in the project include Jacobs and Michael Baker International on the program management team, and Turner Construction and PJ Dick/Hunt on the construction management team. 

The goal is to have the terminal open in early 2025, which would be good timing given a recent prediction by Boeing that air travel will return to pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2023 or early 2024

As HDR explained in a blog post about the project, travelers in Pittsburgh currently check in at the airport’s landside facility, then ride an underground automated train to a separate airside terminal to reach their gate. The goal of the new structure is to make operations more efficient by consolidating landside and airside operations into a single connected and adaptable facility. The firm expects the terminal to ultimately halve a commuter’s travel time between car and plane. 

Sustainability Plans

In a press release issued the day of the groundbreaking, project officials noted the goal is for the terminal to attain at least LEED Silver certification. Back in July, Pittsburgh’s current airport became the first in the world to be completely powered independently by a microgrid. Paul Hoback, chief development officer at the airport authority, says it was important to get the microgrid up and running smoothly with current facilities before the transition to a new terminal.

As Hoback explains, the microgrid is powered by five natural gas generators and has thousands of solar panels on site. It is capable of producing more than 20 megawatts of electricity, but peak demand is around 14 megawatts currently. 

“That means that the electrical grid that we are now off, that's our backup power,” Hoback says. “That just gives us a tremendous amount of resiliency, something that other airports just absolutely don't have.” 

The project team also plans to promote sustainability through the actual construction of the terminal. The team has set a goal of recycling or reusing at least three-quarters of construction waste, including concrete from current airfield ramps that will be reused for new roads. As Hoback explained, for years, the airport had been using a concrete crusher on site that creates sub-base materials for runway and taxiway rehabilitation and replacement projects, so why not use the same technology for the new terminal? 

“It's just a brilliant reuse of concrete that we can keep on the property, that we could not have to take offsite, and have all of those vehicles traveling somewhere far away to dump all of this in a landfill,” Hoback said. “We're able to reuse it right here on the site, minimizing the drive time that you have to get this stuff relocated.” 

Another critical component of the sustainability equation is the terminal’s air quality. Honeywell’s Healthy Buildings dashboard and air quality sensing technology will play an essential role in optimizing HVAC and airflow operations at the new terminal, Hoback says. The dashboard, which is being tested at the airport’s xBridge innovation center, measures temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide, particulate matter and volatile organic compounds. Sensors linked to the dashboard offer real-time updates on the airport's air quality performance to help the facilities staff expeditiously respond to critical building controls issues. 

“So if CO2 levels are too high, because there's too many people in a specific area, it will automatically take our HVAC system and bring more outside fresh air into that room, into that space,” Hoback says. 

The airport will also provide fresh air via two outdoor terraces that are going to be accessible to all passengers and employees, even post-security. 

“That's something that's unheard of, especially in US airports,” Hoback says. “And there's very few around the world that have access to outdoor spaces from airside.” 

Labor, Materials and Project Delivery

The project has broken ground during a time of relative uncertainty for the construction industry. Only 14 states and Washington, D.C., have added construction jobs since February 2020, according to a recent analysis of federal employment data by the Associated General Contractors of America. The association is concerned that a combination of widespread supply chain disruptions and unsettled negotiations on the federal infrastructure bill have created a challenging climate for the industry. 

Hoback says the project team understands these challenges and is working closely with its construction management team to get regular updates on commodity pricing and the state of the materials supply chain. In the official groundbreaking announcement, officials indicated plans to use more than 12,000 tons of steel, 94,000 tons of concrete and more than 354,000 square feet of wood. Hoback believes the airport has built resilience into its supply chain by planning to use locally sourced materials instead of depending on overseas shipments. One of the project’s suppliers, Sippel Steel Fab, is located just 20 minutes away from the airport. 

As for available construction workers, Hoback says the project should be attractive due to its proactive relationship with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The vision for construction, he notes, is to have OSHA involved from the beginning of the process as opposed to having the agency only show up to audit the site after an incident. The project team is also making efforts to have on-site medical resources and parking available to ensure safety compliance. 

Hoback says the project team also expects to meet or exceed goals to hire 14% of its workforce from disadvantaged and minority enterprises. He adds that the project is “hitting the local labor market at just the right time,” as construction nears the finish line on Shell’s $6 billion ethane cracker plant just 19 miles from the airport. 

The project’s proactive approach to labor, materials and safety could be its saving grace considering the confines of Pennsylvania’s Separations Act of 1913, which requires a multi-prime contractor system. That means a project owner must contract with multiple trade contractors for the completion of the work, and the owner assumes the responsibility for the coordination. Critics of the law argue the multi-prime approach is inefficient and can lead to a plethora of delays and claims. 

“We knew we couldn't get out of that,” Hoback said. “We knew that's what we had to do. And so we are embracing that and creating an environment where we can deliver a successful project under those conditions. And that's why you see unique things like us having the owner partnership with OSHA, and other things that we're doing to make sure that we do this project and we do it very successfully.” 

The Next Frontier

Project officials say Pittsburgh’s efforts could serve as a model for future large-scale transportation projects. But while the wide array of sustainable technologies the airport is using could lead to questions about which solutions make the most sense, Luis Vidal, a lead architect for the project, wants airports to think hard about the answer to a different, more philosophical question: “who owns the passenger?” According to Vidal, it’s not cities, airports or airlines. 

“The reality is that passengers belong to themselves, and airports are about the freedom of choice,” Vidal says. 

That choice, he adds, could include alternative ways of flying that are seen as experimental today but might not be in the future. Vidal predicts demand will increase for smaller aircraft, point-to-point aircraft, drones, and other efficient jets that require very short landing and taking off distances and that transport six to twenty people from point to point. Some airports, such as Heathrow, are already preparing for that future

“You will see all the proliferation of electric autonomous flying vehicles, the same way as we think autonomous cars are here to stay,” Vidal says. “The biggest problem with autonomous cars is legislation and there's too much stuff down in land, but there's no stuff in the air. So it will be much easier to legislate for flying vehicles than for rolling vehicles.” 

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