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Striking Airport Brings Travelers to Georgian City

Ground view exterior rendering of the new international airport in Kutaisi, Georgia
A new international airport in Kutaisi, Georgia, features a 4,500 m2 terminal with three gates and five passport booths; its exterior is defined by a visually arresting, geometric hourglass corner detail. © Nakaniamasakhlisi

Construction work on a new international airport in Kutaisi, the newly named seat of government in Georgia, has been completed.

December 10, 2013—Despite Kutaisi, Georgia’s, long history, it is still a developing city. The legislative center of Georgia was recently relocated from the country’s capital, Tbilisi, to Kutaisi, and as a result, the United Airports of Georgia LLC commissioned an airport to support international and national travel to the new seat of government, administered from a new parliament building in the city. That airport, located within the Caucasus Mountains, has just opened: a modest but strikingly contemporary passenger terminal with a dramatic interior courtyard highlighted by a honeycomb-like timber roof system that gently reaches down to touch the floor and acts as the building’s central column. The exterior of the airport is defined by a visually arresting, geometric hourglass corner detail.

The 55 m tall steel and concrete airport control tower and office building, commissioned by Sakaeronavigatsia Ltd., contains 670 m2 of office space as well as space for meteorological services. For natural ventilation, the geometrically folded, curving tower boasts a “breathable” perforated metal skin over a concrete core; light-emitting diode (LED) lights embedded between the tower’s skin and core along one side of its curves are programmed to changes color at night as wind speeds change.

The 4,500 m2 airport terminal is an open, welcoming place by design, according to Ben van Berkel, the cofounder and principal architect of Amsterdam-based UNStudio, who designed the airport. In Georgia, according to the architects, entrance lobbies are meant to be distinctive, welcoming spaces, and the design of the airport terminal reflects this; it has been designed to act as a foyer for the city.

Inside, the airport contains three gates—two international and one domestic—and five passport booths, according to material provided by the architect. The terminal is designed around the central courtyard highlighted by the wooden honeycomb column, formed as the ceiling descends to the floor. This central focal point provides a roundabout to direct passenger traffic as well as a barricade between secure and public sections of the airport. Departing passengers have access to the exterior courtyard in the center of the building.

“[The terminal] is a place of attraction, and of extending the view,” Van Berkel says. “The reason I played with that idea of the central landscape in the building is simply because if you look at the surroundings of this project, you see all these wonderful mountains, and the skyline is quite spectacular. … So I wanted to pick up something of that context: of the landscape, of the location, and of the infrastructure at the same time.” 

Interior render of the new international airport in Kutaisi, Georgia which displays a wooden honeycomb column which descends from above to the floor

The wooden honeycomb column, which descends from above to
the floor, provides a roundabout to direct passenger traffic as well
as a barricade between secure and public sections of the airport.
© Nakaniamasakhlisi

A hybrid system of concrete, steel, and wood was used for the terminal building. The seemingly freeform shape of the center of the terminal building and its exterior detail were created using modular construction, according to Maurizio Teora, a structural engineer and director at Arup Italia, in Milan. An Arup team drawn from London, Amsterdam, and Milan, which Teora led, consulted on the airport planning, structural engineering, and sustainability aspects of the project.

“There is a lot of rationale behind [the terminal design],” Teora says. “We tried to understand the architectural concept there, the drivers, and to rationalize it into a structure—to give form to the real architecture idea.” The repeating aspects of the structural design also simplified construction on-site, Teora says.

The airport is located atop a very soft layer of clay that covers sand combined with very large gravel and saturated with groundwater, according to Peter Markovits, an engineer with the Hungarian engineering firm MTM Kft. Budapest, and the chief structural engineer for the project, who responded in writing to questions posed by Civil Engineering online.

The difficult soil conditions and the seismic requirements—which followed a mix of European and Georgian standards—also complicated the project, Markovits said.

A 400 mm thick concrete slab forms the basis of the foundation, supported by drilled piles, according to Markovits. Areas with high loading were supported by pile groups, he noted.

A steel structure supports the majority of the roof, with eight steel raking columns located within the building’s central wooden honeycomb column, according to material provided by the architects. Pile groups support the bases of six of these steel columns.

Rendering of a steel frame which supports the majority of the roof

A steel frame supports the majority of the roof, with eight steel
raking columns located around the building’s central wooden
honeycomb column system. © UNStudio

“The structures we designed were not extremely difficult,” Markovits said, but added, “the circumstances and techniques we could take into consideration for the execution made it very problematic.” Because of the remote location of the site, experienced local contractors were in short supply, he noted.

“The biggest challenge was to design a high-tech building and execute it in an area where the executing technologies and building equipment were not prepared for such structural solutions,” Markovits said. Once the client decided to have the steel frame and laminated wood pattern of the terminal building prefabricated off-site, the project became feasible. “We designed the whole steel and wooden structure in the same 3D TEKLA model, and the manufacturing was made 3,000-4,000 km away from the job site,” Markovits noted.

“The architectural design was made in Amsterdam, the structural design in Hungary, the steel was manufactured in Hungary, the wooden elements in Germany, [and] the site was in Georgia,” Markovits said. “It was an excellent cooperation!”

Once the prefabricated elements arrived on-site, erection of the steel structure took only six weeks, Markovits explained. “All the items were exact [to a millimeter scale]—it was the same with the laminated wooden pattern as well,” he said. “No site correction was needed [and] in three months all the upper structure was erected without any problem.”

Interior rendering of the airport which offers sweeping views of the mountainous landscape

The airport is located within the Caucasus Mountains, and its
design is meant to offer sweeping views of the landscape. The
honeycomb central column brings light and natural ventilation into
the center of the passenger terminal.
© Nakaniamasakhlisi

The project went from initial concept design in October 2011 to completion within two years, a turnaround speed that impressed Markovits, Teora, and Van Berkel alike. Construction began a scant two months after the initial concept design stage, and airport services were able to begin before the terminal building was completed.

The performance of the building’s envelope, with natural ventilation maximized through the central courtyard, keeps the heating and cooling requirements for the terminal building relatively low, according to Teora.“A gentle breeze is always present,” Teora says. “That is why [the location] is good for passive systems and introducing natural ventilation into the building.”

The terminal building and tower have tapped into an underground aquifer for use in sprinkler basins, according to material provided by the architects. The water will also circulate through the flooring in both buildings to regulate temperatures as part of the airport’s geothermal system. Gray water is collected for reuse underneath the terminal and solar panels are located atop a portion of the terminal roof.

“It is a modern project in a developing country,” Teora says. “[That] is challenging to implement, [but] we’ve been lucky to have a client with a broad view, a modern approach, a ‘Class A’ design team who are keen on having not only a good place, but also having a ‘Class A’ project, which is what we have.”

Currently, 30 flights land each week at the airport and that number is expected to increase to 40 by spring 2014. By 2014 to 2015, one million travelers are expected to pass through the airport, which will also act as an art gallery to highlight to work of young Georgian artists, according to the architects.



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