This week Portland International Jetport became the second commercial terminal in the United States to achieve LEED Gold certification (Gensler-designed SFO T2 was the first). We sat down with project manager Jim Stanislaski to put the achievement in perspective and understand what’s next in the field of sustainable aviation design.
Q: Why is LEED Gold certification so important to this project?
A: It shows that the Jetport and City of Portland are committed to environmental stewardship in a meaningful way. When most people think of Maine, they think of the natural environment. It’s one of the things that make Maine such a special place. As an important gateway to the state, the new terminal proves that a publicly-owned building can be sustainable, energy efficient and beautiful. The idea of a highly sustainable building was not seen as a marketing effort—it was simply what it had to be.
When the design started over four years ago, our initial charge was to deliver at least a Certified level, which is the lowest LEED rating. Near the end of design, the City of Portland passed a Green Building Code requiring that at all City buildings over a certain size and construction value should achieve a minimum LEED Silver rating. To show real leadership, we knew this design needed to be more ambitious than LEED Silver. Through a lot of great teamwork we pushed, tweaked the systems, and pushed some more and were able to achieve LEED Gold and the first-ever FAA grant for the geothermal system.
Q: Why are virtually no commercial airport terminals certified at a LEED Gold level?
A: Commercial airport terminals are very energy intensive buildings and as a result there is a misconception that achieving ambitious energy targets is just too difficult. Terminals are also a complex building type, due to large occupant loads, variable schedules and special systems like security, baggage and passenger boarding bridges. A terminal is also a building type that typically uses a lot of glass, which does not have the greatest thermal insulation value. Achieving results with this sort of complexity requires us to question everything and creatively integrate every system.
It’s important to note that while the LEED program has done a great job of transforming the marketplace and generating public awareness for the importance of sustainable design, these certifications are not the finish line. To solve the current energy crisis we need to look beyond LEED. We need to start thinking about how to achieve net zero energy and net-zero water airport terminals. On paper that may seem daunting, but we aren’t that far off from making it a reality.
I think we need to take a mental leap past the “being less bad” mindset and not be satisfied with relatively modest incremental energy savings. Architects and engineers are going to have to work more closely together to develop climate-responsive and resilient design strategies. We are also going to have to take a careful look at how building envelopes really perform. Clients are going to have to be willing to invest in renewable energy technologies, and state and local governments will need to provide grants and incentives to make these investments feasible. The good news is that if we take a long-term approach with these buildings, we can save a lot of energy and a lot of money over the long term.
Q: So what makes the Portland Jetport terminal so environmentally friendly?
A: With so many passengers cycling through on a daily basis, airports use a lot of energy on their HVAC systems. So we installed two systems that make the heating and cooling of the terminal a much more efficient process.
The first is a geothermal system that uses 120 wells, each 500 feet deep, underneath a new parking lot and therefore not visible to passengers. The system acts like a giant thermal battery- in the summer excess heat is rejected deep into the ground, and in the winter the system pulls heat out of the ground. This means the terminal has to burn less fuel to heat the terminal and use less electricity to cool it.
The second is a radiant floor heating system that takes advantage of the thermal mass of the concrete slab to improve passenger comfort. It’s much more efficient than systems that rely on blasting hot air out of ducts that are 20 feet high. Both these systems are not new; they are time-tested strategies that are designed to last a long time with very little maintenance.
The geothermal system alone is estimated to replace the burning of 100,000 gallons of fuel oil a year, saving the jetport approximately $200,000 a year on fuel costs. More importantly, the geothermal system cuts 2 million pounds of CO 2 emissions per year, which is the equivalent of taking approximately 180 cars off the road per year. Over the 40 year life of the system, that equates to 7,200 cars off the road in emissions reductions. This is the lasting impact that I am personally most proud of.
How we got the geothermal system is a great teamwork story. We were 100% complete with a conventional (albeit highly efficient) HVAC system design of boilers and chillers, when it looked like we might get the first-ever FAA grant for the geothermal system. At this point it would have been very easy for the Jetport to say “nice idea, but we are too far along in the design- this isn’t worth the front end risk, time and investment.” Instead, the Jetport took a risk, invested money to complete a study and drill a test well, and we secured the grant. The whole team: Jetport, Gensler, Amec, Haley & Aldrich and Turner showed great drive, flexibility and creativity to completely and quickly redesign the systems. Everybody had a can-do attitude and our team pulled it off in time to secure the FAA grant.
Q: What stands out about this terminal to the passengers who experience it every day?
A: The openness, abundant natural light and real wood roof structure are the most visible aspects that passengers have really appreciated. The wood roof is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) which promotes sustainable forestry around the world. The architecture is clear and uncluttered, and is meant to intuitively direct passengers without relying on a lot of signs. Successful buildings should fit within their unique geographical context- we hope this terminal tells passengers they have arrived in Maine—a place where they can experience the natural environment up close and personally.
Jim Stanislaski AIA, LEED AP will go to great lengths to explain how airports are a great place to illustrate innovation in sustainable design. A co-chair of the Boston Society of Architects Committee on the Environment, Jim believes in the power of design to craft a more sustainable world. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.