Is now the right time to talk about designing for flexibility?

Guest Author by Guest Author | Aug 27, 2020

Written by Piet Ringersma, Senior Airport Architect, NACO

Flexibility has become of paramount importance to all of us as in recent times. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact societies, economies, and industries around us, we are all having to make constant adjustments.  While some people are remarkably flexible and able to take the required adjustments in their stride, others struggle to do so. Put simply, our degree of flexibility as individuals is something that is in-built, it is in our nature.

The same is true of buildings and infrastructure such as airports. Those that are conceived with a keen eye on flexibility, are able to adapt more easily to change. If flexibility is not prioritized in a structure’s design, it often falls short when conditions change.

One significant change that airports are experiencing now is the minimum distance requirement between passengers in their terminals – so called ‘social distancing’ – and additional health verifications. This means that terminals now have space-requirements imposed on them that the terminals were not designed to accommodate. The ensuing “scramble for space” and make-shift arrangements lead us to ask: ‘Is now the right time to talk about designing for flexibility?’

If indeed we have discovered a new-found appreciation of flexibility in each of us, why not refocus on flexibility in approach, ways of working, and even the design of our airports?

What does flexibility actually mean?

When we talk about flexibility in the context of airports, it is important to define what we mean exactly, since there is room for wide misinterpretation. Generally, when we talk about flexibility in airport design, we do so from two perspectives: flexible in structure or flexible in re-use.

Flexible in structure: A building that is flexible in structure is conceptualized not only with an open plan and a logical grid of supporting columns/walls. These elements are also dimensioned and structured to withstand a multitude of loads across their open plan. This allows the building’s interior to adapt easily to multiple different purposes and uses and also to cater to shifts in footfall. This may also be considered a form of flexibility from the functional perspective.

Flexible in re-use: This refers to the selection of materials and the manner of their assembly. In this case, the design assures that the selected elements of the supporting structure (and many of the finishes) are easier to deconstruct and rebuild when requirements change and are thus “circular” in nature. This offers flexibility from an investment perspective.

In this context, it becomes obvious that designing and building new terminals, facilities and airport expansions with flexibility in mind is not simply about creating the most basic structure for the sake of ease. In fact, it is more about realizing the potential to build thoughtfully and with the understanding that society can change quickly and in significant ways. Incorporating this potential into the design at the outset could save time, effort, and costs in the long run.

Why talk flexibility now?

Incorporating flexibility into airport design is not new. But, the COVID-19 crisis has made this, and related questions in our society impossible to miss or ignore. At NACO for example, one of the many areas we are currently looking into is airport operations scale-up or restart. This is the process of airports restarting or scaling up their operations as travel restrictions during COVID-19 recovery ease and air travel/transport begins to pick up. Part of this involves investigating the various changes that need to be in place particularly where space is concerned.

Put bluntly, in the short term, the current downturn in air travel means fewer passengers and therefore, one would assume, more space availability. However, with social distancing and additional health measures in place,  more space is required now than before the COVID-19 outbreak.

Even if we were to look ahead to 2021-2022 for example, it is quite possible that larger waiting areas will still be needed to accommodate social distancing due to the continued threat of COVID-19. Looking beyond this timeframe however, we also have to ask, whether this additional space should  stay forever?  This is where we suggest that design should take into account the temporal nature of some of these requirements and build in flexibility to address this.

Back to design basics – Practicality, functionality, and sustainability

This brings us to the suggestion that perhaps, this renewed need for flexibility reflects a need to return to design that prioritizes practicality, functionality, sustainability and, by extension, circularity. This is in part driven by a generational shift, where the prosperity of a city or nation, is not necessarily judged by building the most expensive and lavish structures, but also by creating buildings and structures that are adaptable to change and optimized to fulfil their purposes effectively and efficiently.

Amsterdam Airport Schiphol’s one-roof-terminal-complex – a project that NACO has worked on since the 1960s – is a good example of this. Its open plan and logical grid of supporting columns/walls are dimensioned and structured to withstand a multitude of loads across its open plan. This allows the building’s interior to adapt easily to different purposes, uses and also cater to shifts in footfall. For instance it allows for a range of internal changes in terms of architectural design and security, while keeping the exterior (the building envelope) in place.

Schiphol departures hall 1 in 1968 – Copyright ROB C. CROES – Photo Collection ANeFo (General Dutch Photo Bureau), National Archive

We have observed over the years, and through our projects around the world, that airports are often at the centre of society’s changing needs and demands and that their buildings tend to (and possibly should) reflect that.

Schiphol departures hall 1 in 2018 (Copyright NACO Peter Rieff)

Where queues once formed as passengers checked in, the move to self-service formats has led to shorter lines and alternative, if not more comfortable, uses of space. Biometrics is also set to have an even greater, revolutionary influence on travel and the use of space through airports as concepts such as OneID come into play. Add to this the potential of new aircraft designs and other technologies coming online, and we have an even stronger argument for greater adaptability and flexibility in designing for change.

Schiphol is not only a good example of being flexible in structure, but also of testing projects that are flexible in re-use. The material of airport taxiway pavements for example is being re-used and the latest vehicle checkpoint into the airport restricted area has been designed with maximum circularity in mind. 

Timeline of Schiphol’s terminal complex and its adaptability over 50 years of changing requirements (Copyright NACO)

The bigger question on the horizon: Climate change

In the midst of the current crisis, climate change has taken something of a backseat when it comes to airport concerns. Having said that, the recently published luchtvaartnota, or Dutch Aviation Policy Note, returns some prominence to the subject. So, climate change certainly has not gone away. Indeed, it should remain a critical part of our reasoning for incorporating flexibility.

A changing climate means we need to adapt our airports to withstand impacts such as impending floods, droughts and erratic weather patterns. In an earlier NACO article, we outlined three layers – prevention, minimisation of effects and crisis management – that airports should consider in preparing for climate change related impacts.  To be prepared is to be flexible and adaptable to change. This also ties into the question: why talk flexibility now?

It is partly due to the recognition that any impact will not just be limited to physical or legal change. There is also the shift in mindset. People, particularly younger generations, have become so acutely aware of their own climate impact that a drop in passenger air travel is not inconceivable.

All of these gradual shifts in opinion, practice, and process will make it necessary for airports to seek out new ways to use their space and build revenue streams. That could mean opening up space to third parties, drawing maximum yield from non-passenger revenues and almost anything else that lies between these two points.

So, is now really the right time to talk about flexibility in airport design? Absolutely. And that is because we have the benefit of seeing today, in real time, where the need is most apparent. Our world is set to change phenomenally in the years to come. The airports that understand and pre-empt this change, will be the ones that thrive and ultimately survive the next challenge.


Piet Ringersma is an airport architect, with a passion for airports and more than 30 years of professional experience in the field of architecture. He has specialized for over 20 years in the assessment of airport building requirements and the related capacities. Piet Ringersma has worked on terminal designs all over the world including Asia (China: Beijing, Taiwan: Taipei), the Americas (Brazil: Viracopos, Aruba: Oranjestad), Africa: (South Africa: Johannesburg), Middle East (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia: Riyadh) and Europe (Amsterdam, Helsinki).


The article was provided by a third party and, as such, the views expressed therein and/or presented are their own and may not represent or reflect the views of ACI, its management, Board, or members. Readers should not act on the basis of any information contained in the blog without referring to applicable laws and regulations and/or without appropriate professional advice.

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