Canadian Architect


Fort McMurray International Airport

December 1, 2013
by Canadian Architect

ARCHITECT office of mcfarlane biggar architects + designers inc (project commenced by predecessor firm McFarlane Green Biggar Architecture + Design)
LOCATION Fort McMurray, Alberta

The new Fort McMurray Airport Terminal Building (FMAA) creates a relevant and meaningful portal for visitors and residents of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo in Northern Alberta. Geographically, the area is characterized by an impressive natural beauty that embraces the density of boreal forest, the expanse of the prairie horizon, and the limitless sky with its northern lights. It is the gateway to the North, with seasonal temperatures ranging from -40°C in the winter to +30°C during the summer months. Economically, it is host to a burgeoning oil industry that has thrust the small community onto the global stage and contributed to unprecedented growth, with the population expected to double by 2030.

Forecasted growth has inspired the FMAA to undertake an ambitious plan to create a new greenfield airport, complete with a new terminal building, aircraft apron, taxiways, approach road, and parking areas. The 8,040-square-metre building responds to the unique challenges of the context while seeking to define a meaningful place for a growing community whose identity is continually evolving. It includes all of the typical airport terminal functions: check-in, security screening, domestic and international arrival and departure areas, retail baggage screening, and administrative offices for airlines and the airport authority.

The building form uses simple means to generate an iconic and memorable presence in the landscape, exemplifying modesty and directness that resonates with the community it serves. A collection of robust volumes are deployed to express their programmatic functions, further layered and stratified to facilitate easy expansion through simple extrusion and with minimal disruption to airport operations. The quiet interplay of solid and void, expansion and compression, and framed and filtered views add spatial richness and variety within the simple formal framework.

The material expression is derived from the incumbent palette of the industrial landscape: weathering steel, bitumen-coloured metal cladding and unfinished concrete. These tough materials are complemented with more sophisticated yet durable materials to further refine the interior spaces: unitized triple glazing, terrazzo flooring, acoustic wood panels and exposed mass timber structure.

The issue of building technique is paramount in the Wood Buffalo region, as much of the skilled labour force is utilized by the local resource industry. In response, the terminal building is designed to employ off-site fabrication to the greatest degree possible. This approach improves quality, minimizes the construction duration, and imparts an honesty of expression that reverberates with the spirit of place. Two distinct modular systems are incorporated: mass timber and precast hollow-core concrete.

Designed with a full complement of innovative features, the FMAA will establish itself as an exemplar of green building practice. The unique demands of an extreme climate coupled with the complexity of an airport typology challenged many of the limitations of popular green building rating systems. In response, the design team pursued a “first principles” approach to sustainability, blending good practice with the monitoring approaches of several diverse rating systems in lieu of pursuing one individual system such as LEED.

The building orientation was predetermined by the relationship to the runway; however, special consideration was given to the deployment of the programmatic elements in order to optimize the relationship to the energy of the sun. A large south-facing courtyard is complemented by expansive western-oriented glazing to passively harness the energy of the sun and reduce energy consumption.

The concept of reduction informed the building throughout the design process. Wherever possible, measures were taken to reduce the extent of materials necessary; to build with less and minimize the resources necessary to create a robust, durable and efficient building that is responsive to its use and setting. The design centres on the most meaningful building practices applicable to an airport typology, including the following highlights: passive solar orientation, energy optimization, super-insulated building envelope assemblies, in-floor radiant heating, displacement ventilation, and sophisticated heat-recovery systems. Low-emitting materials are used throughout to promote healthy interior environments for passengers and employees. Mass timber assemblies provide both structure and finish, while imbuing the building interior with the warmth of this renewable resource.

The project addresses several programmatic elements in unique and innovative ways to more clearly address the client’s requirements and to expand the architectural potential of mid-sized airport terminal buildings. Acknowledging that the future of the Fort Mac airport will be continually adapting to change was a critical driver for the design.

KM: A striking architectural response to a harsh environment. This project factors in the remote, rapidly expanding community it is being built for by using a robust material palette and a high-performance building envelope. The architects have creatively addressed the local shortage of labour and seasonal constraints and have achieved design excellence through prefabrication as the means of construction. 

MM: The solution feels appropriate to the context as the elongated form hunkers down in a northern climate to offer a unique point of entry and exit from this active northern community. The design presents a strong image and I imagine people will feel very comfortable in this airport in both winter and summer–with its exterior court space.

MS: The designers took the pragmatism of the problem to heart, and then made a few key moves that resulted in a rather elegant building. The interior spaces are really beautiful. The long-span spaces, clear structure, and simple shifting of the levels are legible and enjoyable.

Client Fort McMurray Airport Authority
Architect Team Steve McFarlane, Michelle Biggar, Rob Grant, Beth Denny, Nicholas Standeven, Jennell Hagardt, Adam Jennings, Heather Maxwell, Hozumi Nakai, Lydia Robinson, Jing Xu, Jordan VanDijk, Mingyuk Chen, Justin Bennet, Seng Tsoi, Simon Clewes, Kevin Kong, Adrienne Gibbs, Nick Foster, Mike Townshend
Structural Equilibrium Consulting Inc.
Mechanical/Electrical Integral Group
Landscape PWL Partnership
Interiors office of mcfarlane biggar architects + designers inc.
Contractor Ledcor Construction Ltd.
IT + Security Faith Group LLC
Wayfinding + Signage The Design Office
Code GHL Consultants Ltd.
Vertical Transportation JW Gunn Consultants Inc.
Lighting Total Lighting Solutions
Acoustics BKL Consultants
Specifications Morris Specifications
Area 8,040 m2
Budget Withheld
Completion Summer 2014

Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect is a magazine for architects and related professionals practicing in Canada. Canada's only monthly design publication, Canadian Architect has been in continuous publication since 1955.
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