Indianapolis Opens First Sustainable Post-911 Greenfield Airport

A major metropolitan airport may not be the first thing that comes to mind when considering the concept, but what better place to address the principles of sustainability than the very hub of petrochemical, carbon-belching human endeavor? Applying these principles to such a facility is one of the best ways to further bring the whole idea of sustainability into the mainstream.

“An airport is a giant, living laboratory for these ideas,” Ripley Rasmus told me this week when I spoke with him about the November 11th opening of the new Indianapolis International Airport (IND), including new runways and ramps, parking facilities, and the Colonel H. Weir Cook Terminal. Rasmus is the director of design for the St. Louis-based international design and architectural firm HOK, and the lead designer for the $1.1 billion project.

The new airport is part of a 30-year master plan for Indianapolis. Replacing the worn out, 1950’s era airport was a key element in revitalizing the metro area and hopefully attracting more tourism and convention business, as well as (hopefully) luring airlines to use the new facility for more direct flights to and international flights from Indianapolis. Accordingly, when the idea for a new airport was first discussed in the 70’s, sustainability and energy efficiency wasn’t on the playlist.

By 2001, Rasmus and his team aggressively pushed for sustainability when bidding their designs to city officials. HOK won the day and Indianapolis now boasts, as Rasmus terms it, the first “sustainable, post-911, greenfield airport” in the United States.

Building in response to the natural environment

The most striking feature of the new terminal building is the soaring, arching roofline. The roof and glass walls are a “response to the natural environment,” says Rasmus. The shape of the roof addresses the daily procession of the sun, letting in the light while protecting the inside space from direct solar radiation except during sunrise and sunset.

In terms of controlling temperature, “heat is the problem.” With thousands of hot bodies and all the attendant machinery generating heat, sheltering the space from direct sunlight is key to energy efficiency, as is, on the other hand, harvesting the natural daylight. With the high glass walls and sweeping roof, very little heat is transfered from the sun to the inside of the building, and during the day very little artificial light is required to light the terminal, all leading to energy conservation and cost reduction. But the building’s design is aimed to inspire as well.

“One of our main objectives was to let people see where they are,” Rasmus says. “When you walk in this airport, you will look out across the Indiana landscape and see downtown.”

Civic Plaza

At the heart of the new Weir Cook Terminal is Civic Plaza. The 200-foot diameter circular space denotes Indianapolis as the Circle City, and is the centerpiece of the terminal, ringed by mostly local retail and restaurant outlets and crowned with an 80-foot high skylight. The plaza’s high ceiling and high-performance “low-E” glass curtain walls minimize solar loads. A radiantly chilled/heated granite floor help maintain temperature by cooling from the ground up and allowing the warm air to naturally gather at the top of the structure. All this lends itself to a very efficient lighting and HVAC system that airport operators expect will save them over thousands of dollars annually in heating and cooling costs (obviously it’s a little early to give exact figures with the airport open now for less than a month).

Civic Plaza is the buffer zone between check-in and security, helping to “humanize” the continually deteriorating experience found in many airports in the post-911 world. The two large halls beyond the Plaza, one leading in to each concourse, are specifically designed with modern security measures in mind, and also have their own integral ventilation systems to increase overall efficiency.

Low-flow faucets and toilets are used throughout the facility.

Jets, aprons, taxiways, and runways

The terminal building is all well and good, but what about the jets? That’s where, literally, the rubber meets the road in terms of addressing some of the most daunting environmental concerns. Here’s how some of those concerns are addressed at IND:

  • Aprons and taxiways are lined with channels to collect glycol used for deicing aircraft. The chemicals are collected, heavy hydrocarbons are filtered out, and the glycol is recycled.
  • “Transitional zones” absorb and filter water through natural bioswales, with the purified water runoff going into a nearby creek.
  • Terminal gates lie between the two main runways, rather than on the fringe as did the old terminal. Average taxi time has been reduced by at least 70%, reducing fuel consumption and saving airlines about $12 million dollars in fuel costs
  • Airport landscaping uses only native plants.

Hoosiers helping Hoosiers

Something that Rasmus told me the community took very seriously in the construction of the new airport was the old adage Hoosiers helping Hoosiers. Over 90% of the materials used in the construction of the airport came from within 500 miles. In fact, much of it came from the old airport. Many materials were recycled, including the high-strength concrete from old cross-runways and taxiways. Thousands of metric tons of the concrete was ground up and reused in the foundation of the new terminal building – the old providing a ready source for the new and significantly reducing the carbon footprint of the airport’s construction.

LEED certified

IND is the first airport built from the ground up with LEED certification in mind, and airport authorities are currently in the process obtaining certification. While it is much too soon to say what level of certification the airport might achieve, Rasmus indicated that silver is possible, and perhaps even gold – emphasizing that it this stage, he is just speculating. A final certification should be forthcoming in about 12 months.

A step into the 21st century

One new airport isn’t going to change the environmental footprint of an entire industry, mode of transportation, or, for that matter, way of life. Moving toward a sustainable transportation infrastructure obviously won’t happen overnight. It moves forward in stages and in steps.

As the saying goes, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Make that single step into a facility like the new international air terminal in Indianapolis, and the journey to sustainable air travel is begun.

Image Credits: Indianapolis Monthly

Tom is the founder, editor, and publisher of and the TDS Environmental Media Network. He has been a contributor for Triple Pundit since 2007. Tom has also written for Slate, Earth911, the Pepsico Foundation, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, and many other sustainability-focused publications. He is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists

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