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From Salt Lake to Sea-Tac, HOK’s Matt Needham Puts Himself in the Shoes of His Airport Clients

HOK's design for Salt Lake City Airport establishes a unified 78-gate facility that is essentially creating an entirely new airport in Utah’s capital.

Architect Matt Needham has always been fascinated by urban design and transportation.

Needham traces his passion for transportation projects back nearly two decades when he examined train stations along the Hudson River as part of his thesis at Syracuse University. Since graduating with a degree in architecture, Needham has spent his career as an aviation planner and designer on the West Coast (“the Upstate New York winters are just too cold!”). As senior Aviation + Transportation planner and a regional leader of HOK’s A+T group in San Francisco, he is the senior planner and aviation architect for one of the country’s largest airport projects: the $3 billion+, 2.6-million-sq.-ft, 78-gate redevelopment of Salt Lake City International Airport.

Our project in Salt Lake City began with the design of a 48-gate facility as part of the new Salt Lake City Airport Redevelopment Program and grew from there. This first phase, which includes a new central terminal and parking garage and the west portion of the South Concourse, will open in 2020. The airport later decided to also develop the North Concourse, which added 30 gates and will open in 2021. By the end of this year we will deliver full construction documents for the first half of this North Concourse. All 78 of the airport’s new gates will open by 2024. About three-fourths of the gates are for Delta Air Lines, who has been a terrific partner. Because the airport is near the Wasatch Fault, our integrated architectural and engineering design team has designed all the new buildings to meet rigorous earthquake safety standards. 

My favorite part of the design for Salt Lake City’s new central terminal is the creation of a canyon that will activate the space. “The Canyon” (above) is a magnificent art installation that spans both sides of the new terminal, equivalent to the length of a football field. We are working with the artist Gordon Huether to incorporate large-scale, permanent pieces celebrating the region’s natural beauty into the terminal. There also will be a large, comfortable gathering space where large groups can welcome home returning military members and church missionaries. This meeter-greeter room will have a fireplace and large windows with mountain views. Besides that, I think being able to check in your skis at any ticketing area—whether in the garage, curbside or at the third-level ticketing area—without going to the oversize bag check area will be pretty cool!

I enjoy working on airports because they function like small, self-contained cities. They resemble urban town squares and accommodate millions of passengers per year. The best airports represent their cities and regions in identifiable ways. Salt Lake City’s redeveloped airport, with its breathtaking views of Utah’s mountains, will provide a very strong sense of place.

Salt Lake City International Airport Passenger Terminal

I try to put myself in our aviation client’s shoes and understand where they are coming from.
There is a tremendous amount of coordination required on a project as massive as Salt Lake City’s (above), which is completely replacing an airport’s obsolete facilities to create a modern hub airport—all without disrupting its ongoing operations. Beyond enhancing the passenger experience, which these days is everyone’s mantra, we’re responsible for delivering a timeless, cost effective and sustainable facility that will streamline the airport’s operations and maintenance for years to come. We are optimizing all of the back-of-house operations and specialty facilities like the Ramp Control Tower. We also want to provide the best experiences for employees of the airport, airlines and concessionaires. Engaging all the project stakeholders and then synthesizing their different needs into a singular, flexible design is one of HOK’s strengths.

The next transformation in the passenger experience could come when baggage solutions are as flexible and distributed as passenger ticketing. Imagine dropping your bags off in the hotel lobby on your way to the airport. Or maybe you leave them in the parking garage when you arrive at the airport. Or your baggage gets shipped from outside of the airport directly to your home or hotel room. So far the trials for these systems have required people to drop off their bags a few hours before a flight departs. Requiring that much lead time won’t win a large market share. The real revolution—and it may be via an Amazon or Google delivery mechanism—will come when this can happen faster.

Self-driving cars and automation will have a big impact on the airports of the future. One impact of the predicted increase in driverless vehicles is that airports will need less capacity in their garages and this revenue source will decline.

Sea-Tac Airport Rendering Exterior

We’re wrapping up the design of a six-gate, 32,400-sq.-ft. Concourse D Holdroom for bus transfer passengers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (above). We have collaborated with the airport and The Walsh Group, our design-build partner, to create a small but beautiful jewel box. I’m proud that we have worked to optimize the design of this $24 million design-build project with the same intensity that we brought to a $3 billion+ project in Salt Lake City. We bring this passion for design and technical excellence to every A+T project.

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