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Building a More Sustainable LAX

The Great Hall at the newly-expanded Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX.
The Great Hall at the newly-expanded Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

This past week, Los Angeles International Airport got a $1.9 billion, 1.2 million square foot upgrade with the much-anticipated opening of the Great Hall and South Concourse of its newly-expanded Tom Bradley International Terminal.

From a visual standpoint, the renovated terminal looks remarkable. The rigid, right angles and grid-like aesthetics of the original 1984 terminal now give way to a Pacific Ocean wave-inspired design with sweeping, curved rooflines and windows that invoke more natural sunlight. Inside, the curved, angled ceilings and large window panels also evoke familiar iconic landmarks like the Hollywood Bowl, The Getty Center, and the adjacent LAX Theme Building. The visually stunning and interactive Integrated Environmental Media Systems (IEMS), made up of multiple LED panels and LCD screens are one of the unique highlights of the terminal. And the over 60 retail and dining establishments bring an upscale shopping mall experience to the airport.

Natural sunlight illuminates the newly-expanded LAX Tom Bradley International Terminal.
Natural sunlight illuminates the newly-expanded LAX Tom Bradley International Terminal. | Photo: Elson Trinidad

From a user perspective, the more spacious waiting areas are a refreshing change from the cramped claustrophobic quarters of the old gates still operating on the terminal's east side, which will eventually be demolished and replaced with new ones by 2015. All of the new amenities will continue and enhance the airport's role as an emotional gateway for travelers, visitors, and immigrants alike.

The 21st century design of the updated international terminal also calls to attention one aspect that didn't yet exist in the 1980s: environmental sustainability. According to Los Angeles World Airports, the city-run agency that administers LAX, the new Bradley Terminal is designed to achieve a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Most of the terminal's sustainable practices were demonstrated during its construction phase. Building materials made from recycled content were used in the interior finishes, and over 75 percent of construction and demolition waste was recycled or salvaged. The interior of the facility uses low-emitting paints, adhesives, sealants, and carpeting. And several mitigation measures were used during the heavy construction phase, from noise and emissions retrofits to construction vehicles, to dust control, to increasing the efficiency of concrete mixers and other heavy equipment.

In terms of power and water use, in addition to a more natural sunlight-friendly design, energy-efficient lighting with occupancy sensors were installed to save electric consumption. The heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems are set to maximum efficiency temperatures. And low-flow plumbing fixtures were installed in all restroom facilities.

For such a large and prominent public structure, a LEED Silver certification is impressive. But is it sustainable enough?

Airports, by their nature, are not inherently sustainable facilities. They are usually located away from city centers, occupy huge swaths of land, with the majority of it being paved. And of course, airports, particularly large international gateways, are sources of air and noise pollution, although advances in aircraft technology are addressing those issues, such as the lighter composite materials that give the Boeing 787 Dreamliner increased fuel economy, and the relatively quiet jet engines used to propel the massive Airbus A380.

But other new airport facilities have already left LAX trailing in terms of sustainability. The Bradley Terminal's counterpart at Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport has a LEED Gold certification, utilizing innovative features such as rainwater capture and environmentally-friendly cleaning practices. Another LEED Gold certification has been attained just up the coast, at California's second-busiest aviation facility, with San Francisco International Airport's Terminal 2, renovated in 2011, boasting locally-sourced and organic food at its dining outlets, water bottle refilling stations, and a reclaimed water system used for toilets and industrial uses. And though much smaller in size and scope, Chattanooga Airport's renewable energy-powered general aviation terminal in Tennessee has earned a LEED Platinum certification, using 4,000 solar panels located in a nearby site to power the building. Additional sustainable measures include the use of 95-percent recycled building materials, and native plant landscaping.

Separated waste/recycling receptacles at the new Tom Bradley International Terminal.
Recycled building materials used during construction of the new LAX Tom Bradley International Terminal are part of the sustainable methods used in the facility. | Photo: Los Angeles World Airports

The newly-revamped terminal is undoubtedly more pleasing to the eye and more convenient to the traveler, but its day-to-day sustainable practices appear rather invisible, or even inconsistent. For example, a set of segregated waste and recyclable receptacles are located near the food court area of the terminal, but standard trash bins are placed in all other locations. Even more importantly, practices like the use of renewable energy sources and wastewater treatment and re-usage are not addressed in the new building.

The recent Bradley Terminal update is just part of a larger, $4.1 billion investment toward the overall modernization of LAX, which will include renovations to its domestic terminals as well as a second international terminal located across the tarmac to the west, which will be accessed by a large pedestrian and peoplemover bridge.

It would be even more impressive for a true 21st century, world class facility like a newly-renovated LAX to include solar power generation, with panels placed over open-air parking lots and structures, or even integrated into the roofs of buildings. Or treated wastewater to be used for non-potable uses like landscape irrigation and aircraft washing.

A facility with the size and scope of LAX has not just the obligation to be more sustainable, but the unique opportunity to literally demonstrate to the world how sustainable it, and the city and country it represents, can be, and how individuals can be inspired to take up some of those practices in their own daily lives.

Airports are places where journeys both begin and end. The journey to sustainability is now taking flight, so hopefully the upcoming renovated elements of LAX can make it soar to even higher heights.

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