A beacon of sustainability

26 July 2019

The terminal building at Oslo Airport is being hailed for its commitment to sustainability at all levels of operation. Sean Willis talks to Øyvind Hasaas, the site’s chief executive, about how the Nordic — Office of Architecture project has set a positive example for new-build airports across the region and beyond.

When invited to consider all things Norwegian, one’s mind inevitably drifts towards water. Fjords and glaciers, herring and salmon, Vikings and oil rigs – all either spring from the cold waters close to the Arctic Circle, or are borne between it and the great stretches of Scandinavian forest and mountains. It should be of little surprise, therefore, that the architects behind Oslo Airport’s new terminal building decided to shape its interior along the lines of a flowing river.

“It is a straightforward, Scandinavian design,” says Øyvind Hasaas, Oslo Airport’s chief executive. He particularly admires the benches along the main walkway that are shaped like the pebbles you might find beneath the surface of an Arctic stream. “It is concrete, it is wood, it is stone. It is not this kind of ‘sophisticated’ architecture that you find elsewhere in the world. It’s a very functional airport.”

It’s an ambitious one, too. Not only does the new terminal add another 117,000m2 of floor space, but it doubles the airport’s overall capacity to 32 million passengers. Another 10 aircraft parking spaces have also been added, along with 11 new gates. What has most impressed observers since its opening in April 2017, however, is not the scale of the new terminal, but how environmentally friendly it is. The first airport in the world to receive an ‘Excellent’ BREEAM rating, the new terminal was built with concrete mixed with a generous helping of volcanic ash, and uses passive houselevel insulation, thermal energy and other recycled building materials to produce a structure designed to reflect the best of the Norwegian national character to new arrivals.

“The point that we are trying to make is that you should recognise that you have come to Scandinavia in general, and Norway in particular,” says Hasaas. “We have certain buildings, monuments, that are signatures from the nation. And when you come to this airport, you should know that you are in Norway. The architecture is about how the Norwegians are, and it’s kind of straightforward. It is simple, it is efficient. That is what we are trying to convey.”

“But, of course, it is important for airports of the world to show that we are contributing towards the reduction of emissions and becoming more energy efficient.”

Sustainable growth

That begins with the size of the terminal. Although flights from Oslo Airport have been taking place since 1912 – on land that used to belong to the armed forces, which had previously stationed dragoons and artillery there – the facilities have never been particularly large. It seems that the proprietors, for the most part, have always thought that they could make do with as much as they needed, which, for most of Gardermoen’s (the location for Oslo Airport) existence, wasn’t very much at all. It took the arrival of the Nazis in 1940 for the airport’s first proper runway to be built. Previously, Norwegian pilots had been perfectly capable of landing their aircraft on the nearby fields and dirt tracks.

The new terminal is, in a way, a reluctant response to the growing capacity of Gardermoen. Usually, when it came time to meet rising demand with new building projects, the operators had restricted themselves to renovating old hangars or, at a stretch, extending the runway by another kilometre or so. In the early 1990s, however, the Norwegian Government decided to build a new international airport, and chose to expand Gardermoen for this purpose. Completed in 1998, the new site could accommodate up to 17 million passengers. It took just under a decade for the airport to reach its intended capacity, and for the operator to consider funding another expansion project that would make room for millions more passengers.

The resulting design competition was won by a team led by Nordic — Office of Architecture, the same practice that had designed the airport’s previous iteration. Its architects proposed a design that transformed the airport’s rectangular shape to that of a giant ‘T’, by building a new pier that jutted out from the main core. “It was their aim to build a very efficient terminal,” explains Hasaas. The effect was to double the floor space of the airport, while keeping the distance travellers had to walk to reach their gates to just 450m. “An airport is a logistical system, so the more compact you make it, the less area you need and the more environmentally friendly you become.”

This commitment to efficiency was matched by almost pathological attention to detail in boosting the sustainability of the new terminal. The building was intended to be a Passivhaus, a German design concept that aspires to high standards of energy efficiency. A prime example of this philosophy in action was the addition of a snow storage depot, where all the snow cleared from the runways and taxiways in winter is stored underneath sawdust until the arrival of summer, when it is used to cool the terminal.

“That was an idea that came to us from a nearby municipality that had used snow for similar purposes,” says Hasaas. “You collect a lot of cold energy during wintertime. Conserving it for the summertime, and using it to cool down the whole building, has proved to be quite efficient.” Gardermoen has also ventured underground for heat, sucking up grey and ground water, and using it to heat the terminal in the winter.

Even the terminal’s building materials have contributed towards its BREEAM rating. The use of wood and low-carbon concrete contributed to a 43% reduction of CO2 emissions in the production of the building materials. A considerable effort was also made to ensure that much of the wood and stone was locally sourced. Up to 91% of the waste produced on-site was recycled or given away for use on other building projects, including, but not limited to, a vintage car museum.

Time to stand out

These systems sound like complex propositions to put in place at a major international airport. In Gardermoen’s case, however, the building work was delivered on time and on budget. “All in all, it’s a very successful project,” says Hasaas, cheerfully. “It is an advanced construction, and you need to have very skilled engineers and construction companies to support you, but that worked well and we are very happy with the delivery. We can’t say that we had any major issues during construction.”

Neither, according to Hasaas, have there been many problems in the first year of operation. “We had a successful summer last year,” he says. “A few small issues, but nothing to report about.” This may be a reference to a minor incident in June 2018, involving a broken X-ray machine, that caused widespread delays for passengers. The malfunctioning unit, however, was located in the older part of the airport, and the new capacity afforded by the terminal extension allowed it to simply transfer several operations to ease congestion.

Hasaas attributes the terminal’s mainly trouble-free opening to the fact that the operator and the architects consulted extensively with the airlines and the handlers to ensure that any design would meet their needs. “Then, of course, you don’t encounter problems later,” says Hasaas. “Everybody is agreeable to how you are going to [proceed] and what the modus operandi [will be] for this airport. And that was all taken care of and, also, one of the major successes for Oslo.”

Gardermoen certainly stands out in its bold commitment to efficiency; harvesting and saving energy from every conceivable nook and cranny. Yet it is hard to imagine these same lessons being applied to larger, more established airports like Heathrow and LAX that not only already occupy large tracts of land but also lack the kind of resources on show at Oslo. Does Hasaas consider Gardermoen an example that the rest of the world can follow?

“I think it depends on if you start from scratch,” he says, adding that it’s much easier to incorporate these features in new builds than through extensive modifications to older terminals. “But, of course, it is important for airports of the world to show that we are contributing towards the reduction of emissions and becoming more energy efficient. There is always a potential to do that, and I think some of the measures that we are taking at Oslo Airport show that it’s possible.”

In that sense, the new terminal at Gardermoen has not just been designed to reflect the best of Norway. It is, in short, designed to show us how to travel at our best, by not only thinking about the carbon emissions generated through air travel, but also taking active measures to reduce them. “We need to be more sustainable when it comes to energy consumption,” says Hasaas. “That is how we develop.”

Oslo Airport, originally designed by Nordic — Office of Architecture.
The architectural firm won a competition to redesign the airport.
The design centres on improving efficiency while maintaning the 450m-long floor space.

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