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New Ecuadorian Airport Overcomes Challenging Site

Aerial view rendering for the first phase of the Quito International Airport
The first phase of the Quito International Airport recently reached substantial completion. The new airport includes a four-level passenger terminal, runways, a helipad, a control tower, and supporting structures. MMM Group Limited

Despite extraordinary site challenges, the first phase of Quito International Airport was recently completed, paving the way for a spring opening.

December 18, 2012—Constructing the new Quito International Airport in the Andes Mountains, 18 km east of Quito, Ecuador, presented myriad challenges, not the least of which is the fact that the site is located in one of the most active seismic zones in the world, the geotechnical conditions are fragile, and the topography is precarious. And yet despite these challenges, the airport’s initial phase recently achieved substantial completion, and the airport is scheduled to open in the spring.

Quito International replaces the existing Mariscal Sucre International Airport, which was constructed in 1960. At that time, Mariscal Sucre was located north of Quito but eventually became surrounded as development extended in that direction. Now in the center of a city, the airport is constrained from growth—its runway cannot be lengthened to accommodate modern aircraft, and its facilities cannot be expanded to handle increased passenger traffic. As a result of the airport’s deficiencies, six serious accidents have occurred there in recent years.

In the early 1990s, MMM Group Limited, an engineering consulting firm headquartered in Thornhill, Ontario, Canada, contacted the Ecuadorian government about developing a new airport facility. The Ecuadorian government subsequently undertook a study to identify an appropriate site within reasonable proximity to Quito. The preferred site is located approximately 20 km from the existing airport. MMM, along with a development team, pursued the project with support from the Canadian Commercial Corporation, the Canadadian government’s international contracting agency. The team submitted a proposal for design, construction, and operation of the new airport in late 2001, and in January 2002 it was awarded the contract for the project. 

 Exterior view of reinforced-concrete, Quito International Airport terminal

To resist earthquakes, the terminal is framed with a combination of
reinforced-concrete moment frames and steel brace frames.
Javier Romo, MMM Group Limited

MMM is the prime consultant to Aecon AG Constructores S.A., a joint venture construction team composed of Aecon Constructors, based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, and Andrade Gutierrez, based in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. McMillian Associates Architects (formerly API Architects, Inc.), based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, provided the architectural design for all of the main structures in the first phase.

This phase comprises on-site infrastructure work; a four-level, 38,000 m2 passenger terminal; landside facilities including a four-lane off-site highway, a terminal approach road, and arrival curbs; and airside facilities, including a 4,100 m runway, a parallel taxiway, and a helipad. This phase also includes an air traffic control tower and such airline support buildings as a fire station.

Construction of the airport began in 2006 on the site, a 1,400 ha plateau near the equator located at an elevation of 2,450 m. Surrounded by volcanoes, the plateau comprises layers of ash from past volcanic activity. “The existing soil in its natural state is loose and weak and unsuitable to build on,” said Janine Turner, P.Eng., P.E., the project director for MMM, in response to written questions from Civil Engineering Online. Furthermore, “the addition of water and load causes the soil to collapse.”  

While uncontrolled deposits of water can negatively impact the site, the team found that strategically adding water to the disturbed soil creates a material that behaves like water-resistant concrete. A 1 m thick layer of this engineered fill was used to stabilize the 4,100 m long runway and parallel taxiway, which comprise a mixed asphalt wearing surface over an asphalt-stabilized layer and granular base. The runway and taxiway are designed to accommodate the loads of Boeing 777 aircraft, Turner said.

Graphic indicating that the Quito International Airport is located on a 1,400 ha plateau in the Andes Mountains

Quito International Airport is located on a 1,400 ha plateau in the
Andes Mountains, near the equator, at an elevation of 2,450 m.
McMillan Associates Architects

The airport’s other structures were also constructed on the engineered fill. However, the main condition dictating the structural design was seismic activity. The terminal, air traffic control tower, and fire station/maintenance facility were each designed to remain standing and functioning following any seismic event, Turner said. The equipment inside each of the structures is secured with seismic constraints.

The terminal is founded on spread footings connected by narrow grade beams for lateral stability. Its frame comprises a combination of steel brace frames and reinforced-concrete moment frames. “This system provided both the strength necessary to resist the seismic loads as well as the ductility required to absorb a portion of the seismic energy,” Turner said, adding that “careful detailing of the expansion joints was [also] required to accommodate the building movements anticipated under these severe load conditions.” Additionally, the terminal roof is framed in long-span structural steel trusses and is designed to carry the loads imposed by a layer of volcanic ash up to 120 mm thick.

Another challenge was that the site did not have an existing water supply, and the closest off-site supply was approximately 18 km away. As a result, a pipeline was constructed to carry water to the site, and a treatment plant was built on-site to treat the water for domestic use as well as fire protection. “Water at the new Quito International Airport site must meet the requirements of the World Health Organization,” Turner said.  

As if all of that wasn’t enough, a significant archaeological find was discovered on the site during construction. To ensure the artifacts would not be lost, Aecon AG Constructores adjusted its construction staging and worked in cooperation with an archaeological team to carefully retrieve the relics prior to proceeding in these areas, Turner said.

A significant archaeological find

A significant archaeological find was discovered during construction
of the first phase of Quito International Airport. Aecon Constructors

The first phase of the airport achieved substantial completion in October 2012 and is scheduled to open in the spring. The remainder of the project is expected to be phased in over 30 years. Those phases will include expanded passenger terminals, larger general aviation and cargo facilities, a second parallel runway and taxiway, and a parking garage.

The new airport is expected to provide Quito, and Ecuador as a whole, significant economic benefits, Turner said. She added that as the airport is completed, “one would expect there will be elements such as a hotel, office, commercial facilities, and related industrial development which occurs around all international airports.”



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