Over the last half of the century, air travel has become commonplace around the world. As a result, today’s airports have become more than utilitarian hubs.

According to leading architects and experts in the field, creating a calm, functional and aesthetically pleasing airport environment can make a huge difference when it comes to beating competition. Reducing the stress of international travel and providing enjoyable places to wait for aircraft to arrive can often be influencing factors when consumers and airlines choose to use your gates.

With this in mind, we caught up with Mike Davies, founding partner and senior director at Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, to find out more about where airport designers have been improving their methods and adding new considerations into designs.

Airport projects themselves are homage to just how far airport design constraints and demands have changed – a line can quite often be drawn between the capabilities of an older airport in contrast to the new, with hard-won experience linking the two.

Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners and Heathrow T5

“RSHP has been involved in airport design projects since the late 80s, which has given the company a wide-angle view on the European airport design market.”

Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners (RSHP) is a British architectural firm founded by legendary architect Lord Richard Rogers. In the airport design sector, the company is most known for Heathrow’s Terminal 5 (T5) building, which opened in March 2008 after 19 years of design and construction, and the longest public inquiry in British history.

RSHP has been involved in airport design projects since the late 1980s, which has given the company a wide-angle view on the European airport design market.

Mike Davies is a founding partner and senior director at the firm, having joined the company in 1972 to work on the Pompidou Centre. He was the project director for the Heathrow T5 masterplan and has had input on many of the company’s airport design projects.

Reflecting on T5’s opening day, Davies’ voice is a mixture of pride and the kind of exhaustion that comes from working on a project that spanned nearly two decades. "It was a long grind, I have to say," he pronounces, with no small degree of understatement.

The evolution of airport design

The final version of T5 was not only informed by years of consultation and reiteration (the plan underwent four fundamental design changes), but also by the other airport projects RSHP undertook during the design’s long gestation. The firm’s airport projects are linked by innovations that were continually carried forward to later ones.

“Incoming passengers should be able to enjoy moving through an airport as much as outgoing travellers.”

The design of Marseille Provence Airport in Marignane, France, in the early 1990s focused on a concept that is still an ongoing issue for airport design – that incoming passengers should be able to enjoy moving through an airport as much as outgoing travellers.

"One of our priorities at Marseille was to try and get all the passengers, incoming and outgoing, some quality of experience," says Davies.

"All too often you plod your way back through a rather a dreary corridor. So you’re a second class citizen on the way back and a first class citizen going out."

Early projects also led to a new milestone in airport design – the formal recognition that up to 30% of travellers at large hub airports are simply connecting to another flight.

The dedicated flight connection centre (FCC) built by the firm at Heathrow’s Terminal 1 was one of the first facilities to provide specialist services for people with connecting flights in the world. FCCs are now common at major airports where they have been found to simplify the process of finding an ongoing connecting flight.

Even one of RSHP’s most striking airport designs, for Terminal 4 at Barajas Airport in Madrid (completed in 2005), was based on one of the designs that failed to get through the consultation stage for Heathrow Terminal 5.

The terminal at Barajas is designed around what the RSHP design team called "canyon schemes" – large open halls in which light can flood down to the lower levels of the building. It’s the project that elicits perhaps the most excitement from Davies, who describes the design as "joyful".

New issues, new solutions

With all the lessons learned from past projects, Davies is well-positioned to comment on some of the biggest issues in airport design today, and he is unequivocal about what he feels should be an airport designers’ prime consideration.

“Davies says he believes airports must make good use of emerging technology to be able to stay up-to-date.”

"The most important point is flexibility for growth and change," he says. "Flexibility means users can react to new changes and evolutions of the market without having to change the building’s structure substantially.

"For example, the external shell at T5 can remain unchanged while you can completely reconfigure the inside to a new requirement from the airlines or from security or from the marketplace. The interior is a steel frame system, which means you can put in new escalators or make holes in the floors with relative ease. It’s not easy to make changes in any airport, but it’s easier to do if you’ve got the right sort of structure."

Market changes aren’t the only reason airports should be designed (or re-designed) with flexibility in mind. With the massive increase in security concerns since 9/11, Davies says he believes airports must make good use of emerging technology to be able to stay up-to-date. He mentions full-body scanners and equivalent imaging devices as central to keeping airports secure whilst minimising bottlenecks and passenger flow disruption, even suggesting that scanning devices could be integrated with standard corridors rather than security areas to simplify the passenger experience even further.

Segregation of passenger flow, which became a major issue after the Schengen Agreement, meant the removal of border controls for some European countries is another development that has had as much of an influence on passenger movement as heightened security.

With different passengers requiring different levels of customs and immigration checks, airport designers were forced to include increasing numbers of passenger flows into their designs. T5 ended up with 16 segregated passenger flows, which Davies describes as "a real jigsaw puzzle".

The secret to a successful airport design project

It’s clear that designing airports has become a more complex undertaking than ever before, both in terms of problems encountered and the methods by which those problems are solved. So we asked Davies how operators can ensure that a construction or expansion project doesn’t get mired in wasteful delays and indecision.

According to Davies, airport operators should place human considerations high on the list of priorities when choosing a design partner for a new project. "Go and meet people," he advises, "and select the [design team] about whom you think, ‘yeah, I could work with these guys for three or four years.’"

The best operator-designer relationship is balanced, he says. Neither party should overpower the other and all levels of involved personnel, from designers, operators and airlines, "right down to the trolley team", have to be included in conversation.

“Airport design has become a highly collaborative process.”

Once a partner has been selected, Davies says preparation and prior investigation is key to keeping costs low. A thorough prototyping phase before construction began on the T5 building exterior ensured that few unexpected hitches took the team by surprise when it arrived at the site. Davies describes pre-planning as "an effective way of eliminating unknowns, and cost escalation is partly from unknowns".

Airport design is a million miles away from the idea of the lone architect imposing his vision onto a project. It has become a highly collaborative process, designers and operators working with a host of specialists to create a building that covers all the bases – attractive, practical, calming and seamless.