Among the structures built over the years at Reagan National Airport, one stands clearly above the rest as the airport’s pride and joy. Complete with towering steel columns, Jeffersonian domed ceilings and large glass panes, Terminal B/C opened to rave reviews in the summer of 1997. Long-time employees vividly recall the sense of renewal and delight that was unleashed after passengers poured in and airlines began service there. With the new terminal, a new era had begun.
Fast-forward twenty-three years to the construction of a new 14-gate concourse now in progress within view of the celebrated B/C terminal. Architects are keenly aware that they have a tough act to follow. For them, the most obvious design choice was to complement the existing structure with a new one that looks the same to the casual observer. But behind the glass and metal exterior, advances in technology and lessons learned over two decades of terminal operation sparked advanced concepts that depart from a cookie-cutter approach.
Architect Louis Lee, part of the engineering team for Project Journey, oversaw design of the new concourse that will ultimately relocate more than 6,000 daily customers from the confines of Gate 35X to more comfortable surroundings complete with jetbridges, seating areas, shops, restaurants, city views and an airline lounge. Lee speaks about airport terminals in terms normally reserved for living beings. The design of the new concourse “respects its relationship and dialogue with the current architecture,” he said.
The relationship is evident in the use of similar materials, colors, geometry and matching scale between existing and new buildings. When viewed from high above, it looks like the terminal is gaining a fourth pier almost identical to the original three. But a unique layout is taking shape inside. The base of the concourse has a “centrum” with huge city-facing windows and generous space as the hallway turns towards gates gradually instead of at a right angle. Columns are spread more widely apart to increase interior sightlines and create fewer obstacles for chairs, amenities and passenger flow. Doorways to jetbridges are more numerous to maximize parking of regional jets, which use a smaller footprint than mainline aircraft. Another difference most people won’t count is overhead: Only six mini-domes top the ceiling at the end of the new pier instead of nine at the ends of the current piers. Though fewer in number, the new domes are larger than their counterparts.
Glass is another feature that has evolved, due to advances in technology and building code requirements. Lee noted, “We looked very hard and found a close match in terms of compatibility and appearance, so the glass will blend in seamlessly while meeting high performance standards.”
One factor that was never debated is color. The shade of yellow that has coated interior steel since 1997 is officially known as Ochre (pronounced OAK-er), but the nickname that stuck over the years among airport maintenance crews is “National Yellow.” That same yellow will be applied inside the new concourse for consistency and to acknowledge the sunny demeanor of the original National Hall. Designers like Lee caution the yellow may look lighter at first, but it will emit the same brilliance passengers experienced when Terminal B/C first opened. Over time, Lee says, the colors should blend together as the new building matures.
According to Lee, the key to success of borrowing from old blueprints and advancing new concepts is the people who were involved. A firm affiliated with the original Terminal B/C design was also involved in new concourse plans – bringing some of the architects back to the table. “The designers were not surprised to see we wanted a complimentary building, but at the same time they brought a lot of experience to improve on old designs in the new project. We revisited decisions made over 20 years ago to justify what elements should remain for the new construction. That gave us a high level of confidence which will greatly benefit the project,” Lee said.
Group work was much easier this time around, thanks to communications technology. On the original B/C terminal project, a scaled model of the complete structure was built as a point of reference. Designers had to fly to Connecticut to see it up close. Today, views of the concourse design are layered with details that are viewable in a shared computer database that lets engineers zoom, rotate and fly through with each stroke of a mouse.
For Lee, one of the best aspects of his job is visiting the site to see the new concourse design coming to life. “It’s amazing to be part of this effort to improve our customers’ experience,” he says. “There’s nothing more fulfilling than to see a building getting constructed and realizing the dream after the countless hours of effort.”