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Size Matters Not: Designing Sustainable Airport Terminals 

Sustainability, air travel, and India are not three concepts that pop to mind as single thought, but I believe that will change when the new Gensler designed terminals at Chennai International Airport in March of 2012.

Situated in India’s Tamil Nadu region, Chennai Airport is a gateway to the southern part of the country, an area replete with lush vegetation and a rich cultural heritage. When Gensler won the rights to design the airport’s Kamraj Domestic Terminal and Anna International Terminal we aimed to create a local jewel that could gain global recognition for its commitment to sustainability. We went about bringing this idea to fruition by carefully considering the airport’s relationship with its surrounding environment.

Anyone who has traveled to Chennai knows that people’s relations to the natural resources are at the forefront of everyone’s mind. The tropical climate imbues the city with an incredibly verdant landscape, but it also forces the city to rely on monsoon rains to replenish its water table. Given the unpredictability of the rainy season, Chennai has suffered water shortages in the past and has no major river on which it can rely when water gets scarce.

Keeping this in mind, we designed the roofs at the Kamraj and Anna terminal to capture rainwater and channel it into underground cisterns where it can then be stored for later use. This will give airport officials a serviceable reserve of potable water to rely upon.

Our design also pays homage to India’s traditional use of interior courtyards and regional landscapes in larger buildings by placing lush tropical gardens, the type that are prevalent throughout Tamil Nadu, between the terminals’ pre and post-security areas. Passengers leaving security walk through an area flanked by the gardens, and the gardens are also visible to passenger as they move through concessions and the post-security area. This inclusion of a sustainable garden area evokes a sense of place for travelers regardless of whether they are or are not familiar with the Tamil Nadu.

Our design also relies heavily on natural light to reduce the need for electricity usage during the day. Each terminal comes with large glass curtain walls that stream light into the column free space. In addition to reducing to the terminal’s energy build, this approach creates a more relaxing environment that makes passengers and airport staff members feel connected to the outside world rather than segregated from it.

Once completed, Chennai will be the largest airport run by the Airports Authority of India (AAI). Conventional wisdom may say otherwise, but I don’t think size has to be an impediment to designing sustainable buildings. Whether it’s a skyscraper or an airport terminal, architects committed to sustainability can find a way to make any structure, regardless of shape, size or placement, more environmentally friendly.

Our greatest hope with Chennai is that it will reinforce the importance of sustainability and of connecting buildings to the regions that house with all the passengers who pass through it. Achieving sustainability on a global scale starts by advertising its importance at various places throughout the world. We think we’ve built such a place with Chennai International Airport.

Bill Hooper lives and breathes airport design. He’s traveled the world to design terminals from Jeddah to Chennai, and has the travel stories to prove it. He’s flown a flight with chickens on board, passed time in business class with an actress who shared her pharmaceuticals, and once rode the baggage claim belt at Washington National Airport (not as fun as one might hope). He is a Principal at Gensler and leads our global aviation and transportation practice, and you can contact him at bill_hooper@gensler.com.

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