Prince George Airport

ARCHITECT mcfarlane | green | biggar architecture + design inc.
LOCATION Prince George, British Columbia

The Prince George Airport addition and renovation design was the product of two phases of development. The first phase addressed new security measures required by the changes to airline travel after September 11, 2001. New requirements by the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) resulted in a national program to upgrade Canadian airports with new equipment and, at times, new space. The second phase addressed new demand for international travel to and from the region.

Involving the expansion of the existing terminal to include a new departure lounge, international arrivals area, security screening area, baggage “makeup,” support offices and renovations to the existing check-in hall and arrivals areas, the design modernizes the 1970s terminal.

The structure is exposed heavy timber, concrete and steel. The design focuses on the craft of the structural and envelope detailing. Exterior cladding includes an innovative structurally glazed curtain wall supported on custom-designed castings. The unique point-fixed glazing system penetrates only the inner pane of laminated glass in the insulated unit preventing thermal bridging. The glazing solution is the first of its type in North America and illustrates that more innovative glazing systems can be achieved in cold climates. The same ductile steel castings were used to support the roof and were also used for the benches in the departure lounge, illustrating the design’s integration of architectural solutions from structure to furniture.

Materials were selected for their purpose and not for their decorative value. Wood became the dominant material as a means to satisfy the project’s ambitions to relate to the regional economy and aesthetic. Fir ceilings and exterior soffits continue the plane of the interior to the exterior of the terminal. Interior wood elements include birch-box seating and maple benches that were designed to create variety and intimacy within the departure lounge.

Arriving passengers are greeted with a skylit central atrium that serves as the primary circulation linking departing and arriving passengers. The dense structure is layered with a fir sunscreen and a steel-and-engineered-wood structure.

The back-of-house baggage “makeup” area is enclosed with translucent polycarbonate planks in extruded aluminum frames. The polycarbonate screens the work area while providing a luminous box from the exterior as passengers descend to the apron from their aircraft. Charcoal fibre-cement panels and panellized cedar complete the exterior palette and continue into the interior.

The Prince George community sees the airport redevelopment and the terminal’s design as a catalyst for future growth and as a strong symbol as a gateway for commerce, industry and tourism.

Timber has been handled in a number of unique ways in the terminal design. The design team replaced the common steel-plate and bolted connections found in heavy timber buildings with a much more aesthetically subtle system of mortised knife-blade plates and “flush-pin” stainless steel hardware. Most of the connection details were first studied and developed in Europe but are beginning to become more prevalent in North America with leading examples of the Prince George Terminal helping to illustrate the importance of the evolution of timber structural design.

One of the goals of the design was to create a seamless indoor-outdoor experience for travellers in the departure lounge. The effective relationship of the ground-level departure lounge to the exterior allows passengers to visually connect with the wilderness that spans the horizon. It is common in Prince George that bears and other wildlife wander just opposite the terminal and beyond the runway. To achieve a strong visual connection to the outside, the design team selected a structural glazing solution that resulted in a thermally broken glazing system where the point-fixed stainless steel structure penetrates only the inner laminated glass sheet of the sealed glazing units. The exterior pane of glass is not penetrated, ensuring the insulation of the glass. To make this possible, the design team developed a CNC timber curtain-wall support system and bespoke cast-iron brackets to support the point-fixed glazing system. The result is a highly energy-efficient structurally glazed curtain wall with the added benefit of a laminated glass layer that dramatically reduces noise transmission. The sound-dampening benefit proves to be equally important to the thermal improvements in the effectiveness of the solution as jet aircraft sit only 100 feet from the glass.

The design team developed custom ductile structural steel castings specifically for the project. Initial prototypes were developed in house by first sculpting the desired form in wood. The design was refined through a digital-modelling process as the team explored multiple applications, including the roof structure and structural glazing as well as lighter-weight furniture applications. The result is a triangular cross-section for the casting that is a marriage of technical requirements and aesthetic intent. The design team’s commitment to develop custom structural components for the project illustrates a desire to challenge architectural solutions built from the standard kit of parts available to the industry by finding ways to use the same parts for a diverse range of solutions. The feasibility of creating custom components for an economical project was greatly enhanced by creatively finding multiple applications. As a result, the castings found their home in the roof structure, the glazing structure and the furniture of the project.

Typical airports often treat the airside service aspects in a very rudimentary way, where the architectural expression gives way to pure pragmatics. Prince George created a unique challenge, however, because passengers board all aircraft directly from the service apron area and therefore have a more direct relationship with all of the baggage handling and other functions. Passenger experience could be enhanced significantly if the airside service functions of the terminal were handled elegantly without sacrificing economical construction means. Creating a high-quality working environment for the baggage handlers was identified as equally important, and is often overlooked in typical terminals. The design team addressed both concerns through the development of a polycarbonate-glazed curtain-wall system with integral polycarbonate scissor doors. The gentle translucence of the polycarbonate skin allows the baggage-handling area to glow as a welcoming beacon as passengers arrive at night. During the day, it also provides a beautifully daylit working environment for employees, while concealing the baggage storage areas from passenger view. The team detailed bi-folding scissor doors to seamlessly integrate with the envelope when in the closed position. When open, the doors provide weather protection at the entry points. The approach underscores the desire to redefine the perception of some of the most basic functional aspects of airport terminals in a manner that enhances the experience of passengers and employees alike.

Jury Comments

Representing an innovative example of art in architecture, this project utilizes innovative technology only where it needs to, resulting in simple beautiful surfaces and minimalist details. The project shows that simple detailing such as the steel-to-timber connections enhance the beautiful interior while also minimizing the sense of material mass, contributing to a feeling of openness to the exterior and a roof that appears to float. The project is particularly elegant given the context of normal cost constraints.