When Skidmore Owings & Merrill (SOM) was asked to renovate the terminal at Kansas City International Airport the brief was to make it “the most accessible in the world.” It was a lofty goal for an airport that sees just 3.8 million passengers annually.
SOM’s new 1.1-million-square-foot gateway to Kansas City is the largest single infrastructure to date in the city. In addition to its accessibility upgrades, it boasts 39 gates, a 6,000 space parking garage, and a travel experience simulator for those new to or anxious about flying. Thanks to the new facility, Kansas City International Airport can now accommodate up to 16 million passengers each year.
Planning for the terminal was a community-focused effort that began in 2017. SOM, along with its collaborators, Edgemoor, Clark | Weitz | Clarkson, and KCAD, visited with residents in six city council districts and across state lines in Kansas. From these sessions, it was evident the new airport had to be reflective of the city, comfortable, and—most of all—welcoming. This sentiment was furthered by the Kansas City mayor and city council, both of whom issued a resolution calling for the terminal to be “the most accessible in the world.”
“From the earliest stages of our design process, we worked with the city to figure out different ways to make the terminal more inclusive and accessible, and to open the possibility of travel to people who may not have had that opportunity,” said SOM Managing Partner Laura Ettelman in a press release. “That was a powerful idea that came directly from the residents of Kansas City.”
When SOM first unveiled its design for the airport in 2017, it presented a more curvy structure. Soon after the initial renderings and design plans were revealed, AECOM tried to win back the project from the Maryland-based Edgemoor Infrastructure & Real Estate and SOM team. After refining the designs and soliciting additional community feedback, the project took off.
The new I-shaped structure spans just two levels, with departures on the upper floor and arrivals on the lower floor. Its entrance is flanked by large spans of glass and copper-colored aluminum, where a series of Y-columns line the entry to provide structural support in addition to visual interest.
Interiors are outfitted with warm-toned materials. Slabs of hemlock run across the ceilings and a rich marble terrazzo covers the floor. Many of the terminal’s materials were locally sourced and its wood is FSC-certified.
Throughout the terminal are a number of art installations from local artists, including mosaics that preserve materials from the old airport, a 732-foot-long Missouri limestone wall, and a colorful wind spinners sculpture by Nick Cave.
After check-in and security, travelers proceed through two parallel concourses with retail shops and restaurants situated down the middle; all of these spaces are on the same level to make the terminal more accessible. Other initiatives around the airport that promote accessibility and inclusivity include signage with large fonts, broad curb lanes and access roads that better accommodate wheelchairs, desks set to wheelchair-friendly height, large toilet stalls, all-gender bathroom facilities, and a quiet room developed with a local dementia advocacy group.
For those traveling as a family, there are restrooms with dedicated space for nursing, areas where traveling pets can do their business, as well as a sensory room for children.
Among the airport’s unique features is The Kansas City Air Travel Experience, a mock aircraft cabin outfitted with seats, overhead bins, and a bathroom to comfort and familiarize passengers who may be uneasy about or new to flying. Passengers can book a test run at the simulator in the days leading up to their flight.
The new Kansas City Airport is also setting an example when it comes to sustainability. The airport is the first and largest project to achieve LEED v4 GOLD BD+C: NC in the Midwest and only the second in the country with the designation. While today the building’s operations run entirely on electricity, in the future it will run on renewable energy, as the airport has plans to build a solar farm.
“All the ideas we put forward in the design—the emphasis on inclusion, accessibility, and sustainability, mixed with preservation, art, and natural materials—come together to express the civic purpose of this terminal,” added SOM Design Principal Peter Lefkovits. “It’s a striking new gateway that prepares Kansas City for the long run.”