“LEED is the tail wagging the dog.”

So said David Callan, director of sustainable design & high performance building technology for Syska Hennessy Group, Inc., Chicago. He was describing the tendency to rely on “checklists” when designing and building an airport terminal.

Photo: Aileen Cho
Port Authority’s DeCota and Knoesel attended roundtable.
Photo: Aileen Cho
ENR and Aviation Week co-host gathering of airport movers, shakers.

Speaking at a McGraw-Hill-sponsored aviation roundtable held Oct. 21 in New York City, Callan noted that building a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified facility amounts to implementation, but not innovation. “It’s not the be-all end-all,” he said.

The “tail wagging the dog” became a key phrase for the airport experts at the second annual roundtable co-sponsored by Engineering News-Record and Aviation Week (both units of The McGraw-Hill Cos.) Four top airport officials and five representatives of design, engineering and construction firms discussed the challenge of going green.

LEED is a start, but it is not enough, they agreed.

Merely checking off a list to get LEED points does not automatically mean the building becomes more sustainable. For example, Mike Chalmers, a vice president with DMJM Harris, a unit of AECOM, said that installing pre-conditioned air systems can be considered a LEED item, yet it consumes more energy overall. “LEED doesn’t address life-cycle costs,” he said. “It’s a starting point, and a good one, but we need to build on it.”

That will require innovative thinking for the design and building team on an airport project, noted Vlasta Poch, a Washington, D.C.-based design principal for HNTB Architecture, Inc. “The building itself becomes a much easier exercise with the LEED checklist—that’s an established routine by now,” he said. “But it’s still up to you as designer to see what are the right and best sustainable features for this particular site. There’s no boilerplate [solution].”

The challenge “forces consultants and the owner to work together in a cohesive way. It’s not just about �let’s get a silver or gold rating.’ You have to sit around the table with the team,” he said.

Other challenges lie outside the control of the team. For example, Poch noted that airports can’t by law install escalators that respond to motion detection and thus only run when needed. “Cost perception is one roadblock,” said Chalmers.

A case in point was Philadelphia Airport. Director Charles Isdell told of how last year the airport decided to spend about $1 million over five years to get 7% of its energy per year through clean wind energy. But when asked how much money the investment would save, Isdell cited the cost and “interest seemed to dissipate,” he recalled.

“[Americans] don’t like long-term investments,” said Callan. “So it’s difficult justifying things that cost a lot today but pay off in the long term.”

Steve Wareham, director of operations for Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport, added that “softer benefits are hard to measure. For example, better lighting equals more productivity, but can you say it’s 10%? It goes for the passenger experience as well. There’s no measurement of the benefit.”

Callan contended that those measurements are coming. “If you get only a 1% increase in productivity�you’ve paid off your energy costs. Ten percent? You’ve bought your building.”

William DeCota, aviation director for the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, pointed out that “only about 12% of an airport is in an area that we can influence.” He can only enforce streamlining and green initiatives to his 1,000 employees, he said. But the port authority’s goal is nevertheless to be carbon-neutral by 2010. The challenge there is that “we still have to understand the full range of what’s possible,” he said. “What is sustainable beyond LEED?”

Reducing paperwork involved in air travel through e-technology and reducing congestion and idling time of planes will be key, DeCota added.

Edward Knoesel, environmental services manager for the port authority, said that it is working on a $150-million delay reduction program that includes upgrading a runway from 150 to 200 ft with high-speed exits and staged taxipads to better sequence takeoffs. The runway will also get LED taxiway lights. Moreover, the agency is in discussions with New York City regarding a potential zero-emission taxi fleet, he added. “There could be stations where the cabs can change batteries. It would be very exciting,” he said.

DeCota noted that the sustainability of an airport design may create benefits beyond energy savings and environmental compliance. “How do we serve our customers? How do we create �wellness’? How do we create an identity for New York? There are so many things that address fundamental needs.”

It may make more sense to follow green guidelines for airport construction, as depicted in manuals created by LAX and Chicago. “Let these manuals be the baseline,” said Callan.

That baseline could be built upon with carbon footprint studies and passenger satisfaction mapping in designing a terminal, the airport experts suggested.