Impossible.  It can’t be done.

Up until the turn of the 20th Century, those sentiments usually greeted any attempt to craft a machine that would allow humans to fly. Then, on a remote windswept beach in North Carolina, Wilbur and Orville Wright proved that yes, it really could be done.

The Wrights’ effort had required years of research and experimentation, aided by some good fortune and good timing. And though the longest of their four successful flights that day lasted only a few minutes, those short hops made it possible for others to make greater strides in technology and, eventually, take a few steps on the Moon.

One hundred years later, at the dawn of the green building movement, many design and construction professionals expressed skepticism that major airport terminals could achieve any type of LEED rating. Terminals’ energy and operational requirements just didn’t lend themselves to energy-efficient technologies, they said.

Garages, office buildings, and other airport facilities?  Sure, that’s doable. And perhaps terminals could incorporate enough elements to possibly bring basic LEED New Construction Certification within reach. But a “precious metal” rating? Not gonna happen.

Then in 2006, Terminal A at Boston Logan International Airport performed a Wright-like breakthrough by becoming the nation’s first LEED-certified terminal. Last year, new terminals in Oakland and Indianapolis began the process of receiving LEED-NC certification while on the other side of the planet, Rajiv Gandhi International Airport in Hyderabad, India, became the world’s first LEED-Silver airport.

Now, it seems, having LEED among a terminal construction project’s goals seems almost as routine as booking tickets online, especially
in California. The renovation and expansion of
Terminal 2/Boarding Area D at San Francisco International Airport is aiming for LEED Silver, a goal that new facilities at Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport may achieve as well.

Terminal 2 at San Diego International plans to be the region’s largest LEED Silver building when its improvements program is completed in early 2013, with a Gold rating not out of the question according to airport spokesperson Steven Shultz.

Could LEED-rated terminals proliferate in other parts of the country? To be sure, terminals do present owners and project teams with a host of inherent hurdles that make many sustainable technologies and practices either impractical or more than the construction budget can handle, especially at a time when the reliability of revenue streams is in doubt.

On the other hand, tremendous strides have been made in green building technology, with materials and systems increasingly becoming more prevalent and more affordable, especially when long-term paybacks are considered.

And as more local governments mandate a minimum of LEED Silver for new public buildings, airport facilities have more incentives to find ways to comply.

And even when LEED isn’t possible, airports are still taking advantage of sustainable technology to trim their energy costs through measures such as LED lights for runways and taxiways.

Denver International Airport (DIA) is taking sustainability a step further, having recently entered into a partnership to develop a 1.6-MW solar energy project on airport property. A second 1.7-MW project is under consideration.

“We are the type of facility that sustainability fits, because we’re here for long haul,” says Dave Rhodes, DIA’s Deputy Manager of Aviation and head of Planning and Development. “The building will be here for a long time, so it makes sense for us to save energy and get the benefit of a long payback.”

Green airport terminals may well always be a highly challenging proposition. But impossible? Well, those skeptics have been wrong before….