Super Fly

Jason E. Kaplan
New terminal construction at PDX

After falling behind a grueling schedule, PDX is nearly ready to roll out the green carpet and welcome the world to the Pacific Northwest.

Share this article!

Behind the ticket counters at Portland International Airport is a basic white wall, a construction feature likely ignored by most of the daily crush of global travelers.

But behind that wall is something quite impressive.

The new terminal’s ceiling features Douglas fir sourced from 11 sustainably managed forests in the Pacific Northwest. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

At any given time of the day, upward of a thousand workers are closing out a critical phase of the Terminal Core Expansion (TCORE) project, the main component of the larger, $2.8 billion PDX Next airport capital initiative. Flooring, wall treatments, ticket kiosks, security checkpoints and bathrooms are going in. Food and retail vendors — 22 Oregon favorites, among them Blue Star Donuts, Grassa and Pilot House Distilling — are readying their spaces. Employees of all stripes — airline, concession, security — are being trained. After a three-month delay announced earlier this year, the project, which began in 2019, is chugging toward a major checkpoint.

It wasn’t easy to get here, project leaders attest, with sky-high sustainability and diversity goals, a supply-chain-altering global pandemic, a protracted labor shortage and a war in Ukraine that drove up raw material prices. Compounding the complexity is the fact that this has been a remodel of an existing, fully operational international airport, not new construction.

“Something like this had not been attempted before, not at this scale,” Vince Granato, chief projects officer for the Port of Portland, operator of the airport, tells Oregon Business.

Vince Granato of the Port of Portland is the Chief Projects Officer. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

The terminal expansion is split into two phases, with many of the eye-popping and traveler-friendly features included in Phase I. For years the project team eyed a May 2024 completion deadline for the first phase, but following a series of safety incidents in late winter, the Port of Portland announced Phase I completion had been pushed back to August. The overall TCORE project is now expected to wrap in late 2025.

To visualize the space that’s supposed to open in late summer, imagine the PDX terminal as a rectangle with a wide “T” overlaid. The “T” itself is the Phase I construction zone, closed to the public since 2021. The two lower chunks of negative space on either side of the “T,” used heavily by passengers in the current airport layout, will be closed and remodeled in the second phase.

Now, as Phase I winds down, the Port of Portland has been keen to show off, hosting government officials, media and building- industry personnel on regular hardhat tours.

After four years as a construction site, the current — temporary — layout might have become normal to regular airport-goers.

They might catch a glimpse of the new roof as they touch down, but much about the terminal project remains hidden from view of the traveling public.

It’s one reason many are stunned when they first see it.

“Everyone says the same thing when they come here,” says Port spokeswoman Allison Ferré, a frequent tour guide. “Wow.”

“It’s hard to orient yourself in this space from a rendering or a map,” she adds. “You really have to see it for yourself.”

Art by Design

The first thing most people notice on tours is the showstopping, 9-acre mass timber roof, designed by ZGF Architects to feel like a flourishing forest canopy. Hundreds of glue-laminated (glulam) beams support a lattice of swooping Douglas fir, all of it sourced from 11 sustainably managed Pacific Northwest forests.

Gene Sandoval of ZGF Architects with models and drawings of the new PDX ceiling. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

Below the waves of wood are the floors, presently covered with protective cardboard and stored building material. ZGF has incorporated three types of flooring: an epoxy-based, roller-bag-friendly terrazzo; two versions of the Instagram-famous PDX crosshatch carpet; and a novel edge-grain product made of young Oregon white oak (see sidebar “On Solid Ground” on page 40). Much work is happening under the floor, as well, with the complicated process of installing a new baggage-processing and security system over the existing system. Opposite the entryway, before floor-to-ceiling glass, is a prominent mezzanine flanked by stadium seating sure to be among Portland’s most coveted commercial spaces. Here, with compelling views all around, Loyal Legion will pour from 99 local taps.

On a drizzly spring evening tour, the terminal still felt brightly lit. Designers intended for two-thirds of the interior light to be natural daylight, whatever the weather outside.

“There’s actually a lot of light in Oregon,” said ZGF partner Gene Sandoval. “There’s as much brightness in an overcast sky as there is in a clear sky, so what we did was just harvest it.”

At either side of the terminal are security checkpoints. Above each is a massive video wall that will display scenes of natural beauty — sunny forests, gentle waves, etc. — that will change throughout the year to reflect external conditions. The video wall relates to a commitment to “biophilic” design, the architectural concept that indoor spaces should connect — and connect the human users — to the outdoors. Airports are cold, hard, stressful places, the thinking goes. So ZGF and its team incorporated nature throughout the terminal, from curvy shapes to warm colors to the 54 black olive, ficus nitida and podocarpus trees intended to create in passengers a feeling of walking through a forest as they gird themselves to pass through TSA airport security.

Interior landscaping was placed at “stress points” in the terminal, explained architect J.P. Paull of the landscape design firm PLACE. Chief among them are areas that lead to security stations.

“Anything that you can do to soften the experience is going to help,” Paull says. “In particular, people react to plant types not as a uniform element but as a multidimensional one. You can put down one plant type and that will help reduce people’s stress. But if you can provide something that has multiple different types of plants and textures, that’s going to reduce stress even more. And that’s what we tried to do.”

The terminal project stretches back around 12 years to a time of master planning at the port. Officials first discussed immediate needs — like more parking and a better light- rail connection —  but talk eventually spread to the main terminal building and passenger- processing area. Constructed in 1958, it had become cramped,out of date and, due to its innate “inflexibility,” was determined to require a total overhaul. Four years later, the Port began planning the current project with its airline partners, the project’s main backers. The PDX Next campaign would include smaller-scale concourse reconfigurations and bite-size improvements to light rail and bike-trail amenities, and further out, the daunting $2.1 billion terminal expansion.

Airline check-in counters and a baggage conveyor can be seen at left. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

Officials wanted a new terminal that would be sustainable and reflect the unique character of Oregon and the Portland area. It should be spacious and flexible and tie in with the broader look of the airport. It should accentuate what already works at PDX while improving safety and wellness. It should be beautiful, be calming to travelers and function for at least 50 years. 

“We wanted it to be a civic place that would celebrate Oregon in many ways,” says ZGF’s Sandoval. “Celebrate the natural beauty, the natural materials, and also celebrate the skill and the craftsmanship.”

The first, glimmering designs were submitted in 2020, and they doubled the size of the main terminal within the same footprint. ZGF, the primary architect at PDX since the 1960s, and its managing partner, Sharron van der Meulen devised the concept theme of a walk in the woods to help manifest calm in a typically tense space. Clear paths of travel were designed to help ensure efficiency in passenger processing. Wave patterns in the smooth terrazzo flooring subtly guide travelers from the ticket counters to the security checkpoints.

Renovating existing buildings is now seen as a having far less impact on climate change than new construction by producing less “embodied carbon,” i.e., carbon emitted during the manufacture, transport and assembly of building materials. But this move at PDX raised the degree of construction difficulty considerably, according to Dave Garske, vice president of Hoffman Construction, one-half of the joint venture leading the project.

“It definitely doesn’t make things any easier,” Garske says. “Having the traveling public right outside your construction area 24-7 is very complicated and very risky. We’ve also got TSA and Port operations folks below the emplaning level with an operating baggage and security system that’s running all the time. Being able to keep them all safe as we’re transporting materials in and out, and also making sure that the construction area is secured, has been something else.”

Dave Garske of Hoffman Construction. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

Given an ambitious checklist and a razor-thin margin of error, the Port’s board of directors opted not to employ the low-bid method common in government contracting. They instead selected an alternative — and more expensive — delivery method, Construction Manager-General Contractor, or CMGC, which ties in the major players from the start. Public projects often include a 1% to 2% set-aside for art. But using CMGC allowed the project team to incorporate art from square one.

“It’s art by design,” says Granato of the Port of Portland. “We’ve found that it adds a lot when you don’t have to go with the easiest, fastest, cheapest possible way to build.”

Blessing in Disguise

Such ambitious design led to a tight and unforgiving construction schedule. To keep the airport running while the roof was constructed and installed, football-field-size roof panels were prefabricated entirely off-site. They were then hauled on modular transporters the mile and a half to the terminal, maneuvered into place and connected, all during four-hour gaps in airport operations in the middle of the night.

Stress is natural in airport work, where little problems can quickly snowball into avalanches. Slowdowns in the graveyard shift can affect the day shift. If the day shift is late, that can impact flights departing PDX. Slowdowns at PDX can ripple to LAX and other airports. In no time, global air travel can be staggered all because of a sleepy construction worker in Portland.

In February construction ceased and the opening of Phase I was delayed following four instances of dropped items from height. Photo by Jason E. Kaplan

The inherent stress is one reason leaders at the airport are proud of TCORE’s safety record. At the time of this writing, the project had gone 12 months without a lost-time day. (Oregon OSHA has one complaint on file regarding the TCORE project. The incident took place in November 2021, and the cited party is the Port of Portland. Firefighters were delayed responding to a fire in an electrical room due to missing signs and locked doors. Oregon OSHA ultimately determined appropriate action was taken to correct the hazard.) But in February, items were dropped from height twice in quick succession. Nearby TSA agents could have been hurt. Hoffman Skanska called an all-hands meeting where leaders again underlined safety and finishing the project strong.

Then, right after work resumed, two more drops. “After that, I said, we’re shutting it down,” Granato says.

The joint venture called a “safety reset” and froze the project for three days. At the next meeting of the Port’s directors, Granato and Skanska’s project lead, Joe Schneider, let them know the May completion date was not going to happen.

“There was just too much stress on the schedule,” Granato tells OB. “Everybody was feeling it.”

Safety is a bottom-line issue across the construction industry, as it is at PDX, where in 1997, three ironworkers fell to their deaths in the collapse of a seven-story parking structure due to loose bolts. Today a plaque on the first floor of Parking Garage 1 commemorates Donn Soto, Nick Colouzis, Christopher Rider “and all the craftspeople who made it possible.”

Schneider said after the reset, workers thanked him.

“The safety incidents turned out to be, in an odd way, a blessing,” he said.

New Hope

Phase 1, which represents around two-thirds of the terminal core project, is now scheduled to open in August, though an exact date has not been announced. The celebration won’t last long: The day after Phase I opens, Phase II begins.

Travelers love PDX. It consistently makes lists of best large airports, like the J.D. Power and Associates list, which ranked the airport at No. 12 among large airports in 2023. The teal carpet with geometric shapes that covered most of the terminal from the 1990s until 2015 was so popular that sections of it were sold as rugs — and later inspired the design of a Trail Blazers uniform and a sneaker. The new carpet isn’t quite the same design but is so recognizable that social media-savvy travelers post photos of their shoes to signal they’re headed into or out of Portland.

While no one uses “LAX” as a shorthand for the city of Los Angeles, or “MSP” as a nickname for any part of Minneapolis other than the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, when locals or frequent visitors talk about “PDX,” they might mean Portland International Airport, but they might also be talking about Portland itself. Planners hope the new design will make travelers love PDX —the airport and the city — even more.

“Right now, Portland has kind of been struggling,” said says Sandoval of ZGF. “But when you go to the airport and you see this project, you feel this sense of optimism and civic pride. It represents positivity and it represents hope. It represents civility and what all of us coming together can do.”

Click here to subscribe to Oregon Business.