The drive for greener travel - exploring sustainable airport design

Peter Farmer landscape BW

Contact Peter Farmer, Design Director, Aviation

There are many trends that have been accelerated and intensified by COVID-19, either directly or indirectly. But none more so than sustainability within the aviation sector. While building infrastructure may only account for 1% to 10% of an airport’s overall carbon footprint, our responsibility is to reduce this impact to a carbon-zero or even carbon-negative position. And customer and passenger demands are increasingly aligned with these ambitions.

Here, Peter Farmer, Benoy Design Director and Aviation Lead, discusses Benoy’s work within the aviation sector and their approach to sustainable airport design.

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At Benoy, environmental and wider sustainability considerations are at the heart of all of our design responsibilities. As well as an average of over 25 Built Design Awards per year over the past five years , Benoy has achieved over 35 sustainability accreditations, and seven within the aviation sector. From project inception through to completion, we employ a rigorous Responsible Design Management System (RDS ) to maximise social, economic and environmental sustainability within the context of each project brief. This supports our unique Purpose, People, Place, Planet approach, which aims to ensure each project we undertake delivers optimal impact and value on multiple levels.

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A mode of travel is an individual’s choice, and we all need to make our own informed decisions. While we may choose to travel less by certain modes, we need to recognise the important role aviation plays in global economics, trade and social cohesion. While passengers may or may not acknowledge the importance of aviation beyond facilitating travel, many want reassurance that the industry is doing all it can to minimise the environmental impacts of flying. And these concerns are filtering down to every aspect of an airport’s operation and services. Indeed, research shows that almost half of passengers are willing to pay more for a carbon-neutral (off-set) aviation experience. This preference varies region to region, with 60% of travellers in Spain willing to pay more for carbon neutrality, whereas in Japan this figure is much lower.

Once the decision to fly in made, sustainability remains crucially important to the passenger experience. Pragma’s recent Pulse research shows that within airport terminals, sustainability is becoming central to our commercial choices and retail decision making. As well as genuinely seeking sustainable purchases, passengers today want to feel good about the decisions they make. And it’s important that not only do we make sustainable purchases available, but that the environment within the airport feels as sustainable as possible. We can also see that other trends, such wellbeing, transparency, provenance and authenticity, are in many ways linked to sustainability. And they are becoming increasingly important aspects of individual choice and preference.

Commercial offers within terminals are even more important to airport economics than before the COVID-19 pandemic. Ensuring we meet passengers’ aspirations for these spaces and experiences is therefore vital. While many of the traditional commercial components remain, some are being replaced by more varied and disruptive brands. We’re also designing for eclectic retail mixes, often in the form of markets’ offering more diverse opportunities, wider ranges, variety and change. As part of this process, strategy teams are working with airports to accommodate more local and sustainable partners, with a focus on ethically sourced, craft-based, environmentally friendly and regionally relevant products. 

The use of space within airport terminals is also under scrutiny. As designers, it’s essential we use spaces efficiently rather than simply adding new areas. We’re also employing flexibility techniques and systems, allowing for the easy adaption of spaces for multipurpose use – a clear improvement compared to the fixed, rigid and wasteful single-use spaces of the past. As an additional driver, commercial partners are reducing investment in fixed assets within airports. Motivated by economics as well as sustainability concerns, partners are increasingly looking for loose and recyclable asset models, while certain brands are prioritising product placement and remote fulfilment over larger, fully stocked concessions. 

These developments are making for a dynamic commercial and passenger environment that tends to present unique and exciting design challenges. These projects also require even more effort to curate, particularly from the perspective of commercial and operational teams. In short, the increased focus on sustainability within aviation is raising everybody’s game. 

At the start of every aviation project, we establish a bespoke sustainability agenda, which we review in depth with our clients and stakeholders. These agenda topics seek to maximise a project’s potential for positive social, economic and environmental gains. We’ve based our Responsible Design Management System (RDS) on RIBA’s Sustainable Outcomes Guide, which is also based on the UN Sustainable Development Goals. In line with these global frameworks, it’s essential we actively seek to make a positive difference, rather than just offsetting emissions or other environmental impacts. We then manage and update this agenda as a live tool throughout the project, making design and lifecycle decisions in conjunction with the client. This process enables us to maintain a transparent project strategy, with a view to driving continuous improvement in sustainable airport design and development. 

At Benoy, the starting point for creating great places’ begins with an inherent understanding of location, environment and population. It’s an approach we apply to every project and sector we work in, including aviation. Across our growing aviation portfolio, we work closely with our sister company, Pragma, who provide research-based insights into passenger behaviour directly linked to commercial performance and value. Find out more. 

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