When invited to consider all things Norwegian, one’s mind inevitably drifts towards water. Fjords and glaciers, herring and salmon, Vikings and oil rigs: all either spring from the cold waters close to the Arctic Circle, or are born between it and the great stretches of Scandinavian forest and mountain. It should be of little surprise, then, that the architects behind Oslo Airport, Gardermoen’s new terminal building decided to shape its interior along the lines of a flowing river.

“It is a straightforward, Scandinavian design,” says Øyvind Hasaas, Oslo Airport’s chief executive. He particularly admires the benches along the main walkway that are shaped like the pebbles you might find beneath the surface of an Arctic stream. “It is concrete, it is wood, it is stone. It is not this kind of ‘sophisticated’ architecture that you find elsewhere in the world. It’s a very functional airport.”

It’s an ambitious one, too. Not only does the new terminal add another 117,000m² of floor space, but it doubles the airport’s overall capacity to 32 million passengers. Another ten aircraft parking spaces have also been added, along with 11 new gates. What has most impressed observers, however, is not the scale of the new terminal, but how environmentally friendly it is. The first airport in the world to receive an ‘Excellent’ BREEAM rating, the new terminal was built with concrete mixed with a generous helping of volcanic ash, and uses passive house-level insulation, thermal energy and other recycled building materials to produce a structure designed to reflect the best of the Norwegian national character to new arrivals.

“The point that we are trying to make is that you should recognise that you have come to Scandinavia in general, and Norway in particular,” says Hasaas. “We have certain buildings, monuments, that are signatures from the nation. And when you come to this airport, you should know that you are in Norway. The architecture is about how the Norwegians are, and it’s kind of straightforward. It is simple, it is efficient. That is what we are trying to convey.”

Sustainable growth

That begins with the size of the terminal. Although flights from Oslo Airport have been taking place since 1912 – on land that used to belong to the armed forces, which had previously stationed dragoons and artillery – the facilities have never been particularly large. It seems that the proprietors, for the most part, have always thought that they could make do with as much as they needed, which, for most of Gardermoen’s existence, wasn’t very much at all. It took the arrival of the Nazis in 1940 for the airport’s first proper runway to be built. Previously, Norwegian pilots had been perfectly capable of landing their planes on the nearby fields and dirt tracks.

The new terminal is, in a way, a reluctant response to the growing capacity of Oslo Airport. Usually, when it came time to meet rising demand with new building projects, the operators had restricted themselves to renovating old hangars or, at a stretch, extending the runway by another kilometre or so. In the early 1990s, however, the Norwegian Government decided to build a new international airport, and chose to expand Gardermoen – an area 45km from Oslo’s city centre – for this purpose. Completed in 1998, the new site could accommodate up to 17 million passengers. It took just under a decade for the airport to reach its intended capacity, and for the operator to consider funding another expansion project that would make room for millions more passengers.

The resulting design competition was won by a team led by Nordic-Office of Architecture, the same practice that had designed the airport’s previous iteration. Its architects proposed a design that transformed the airport’s rectangular shape to that of a giant ‘T’, by building a new pier that jutted out from the main core. “It was their aim to build a very efficient terminal,” explains Hasaas. The effect was to double the floor space of the airport, while keeping the distance travellers had to walk to reach their gates to just 450m. “[An airport] is a logistical system, so the more compact you make it, the less area you need and the more environmentally friendly you become.”

This commitment to efficiency was matched by almost pathological attention to detail in boosting the sustainability of the new terminal. The building was intended to be a Passivhaus, a German design concept that aspires to high standards of energy efficiency. A prime example of this philosophy in action was the addition of a snow storage depot, where all the snow cleared from the runways and taxiways in winter is stored underneath sawdust until the arrival of summer, when it is used to cool the terminal.

“That was an idea that came to us from a nearby municipality that had used snow for similar purposes,” says Hasaas. “You collect a lot of cold energy during wintertime. Conserving it for the summertime, and using it to cool down the whole building, has proved to be quite efficient.” Gardermoen has also ventured underground for heat, sucking up grey and ground water, and using it to heat the terminal in the winter.

Even the terminal’s building materials have contributed towards its BREEAM rating. The use of wood and low-carbon concrete contributed to a 43% reduction of CO2 emissions in the production of the building materials. A considerable effort was also made to ensure that much of the wood and stone was locally sourced. Up to 91% of the waste produced on site was recycled or given away for use on other building projects, including, but not limited to, a vintage car museum.

All the energy saved in constructing and heating the terminal, however, is almost nothing compared with the emissions generated by aircraft flying in and out of Gardermoen. Fortunately, the airport is attempting to reduce those, too. “We are using biofuel,” explains Hasaas. Partnering with airlines such as Lufthansa and KLM, the airport operators made the decision to introduce a small supply for aircraft through its common hydrant system.

Financial responsibility

From a financial standpoint, the logic of the move is not immediately clear. While the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has committed to boosting annual fuel efficiency by 1.5% between 2009 and 2020, coupled with a halving of carbon emissions by 2050, low oil prices have arguably killed any incentive for airlines to comply.

“We are one of the few airports doing that, for the time being,” says Hasaas, with Oslo Airport joining Bergen and Halmstad, in Sweden, as the only airports to offer the alternative fuel in Scandinavia. Biofuel is, after all, very much a loss leader. While projections by state airport authority Avinor show that up to 30% of Norwegian aviation fuel could come from alternative sources that it termed ‘forestry waste and pulpwood’, this figure hinges on generous state subsidies to create a viable commercial market. That could be expensive. According to one specialist in aviation fuel interviewed by Oil Price, “It’s an extremely complicated process and requires significant investment.”

For Gardermoen, however, it isn’t about the money. “It’s not a big portion, but it’s about showing that there is a possibility to operate airlines and aircraft on biofuel,” explains Hasaas. “There is, of course, a cost challenge there, but someone has to start.”

These systems sound like complex propositions to put in place at a major international airport. In Gardermoen’s case, however, the building work was delivered on time and on budget. “All in all, it’s a very successful project,” says Hasaas, cheerfully. “It is an advanced construction, and you need to have very skilled engineers and construction companies to support you, but that worked well and we are very happy with the delivery. We can’t say that we had any major issues during construction.”

Neither, according to Hasaas, have there been many problems in the first few months of operation. “We have had a successful summer,” he says. “A few small issues, but nothing to report about.” This may be a reference to a minor incident in June, involving a broken X-ray machine, that caused widespread delays for passengers. The malfunctioning unit, however, was located in the older part of the airport, and the new capacity afforded by the terminal extension allowed it to simply transfer several operations to ease congestion.

It is important for the airports of the world to show that we are contributing towards the reduction of emissions, and becoming more energy efficient.

Hasaas attributes the terminal’s mainly trouble-free opening to the fact that the operator and the architects consulted extensively with the airlines and the handlers to ensure that any design would meet their needs. “Then, of course, you don’t encounter problems later,” says Hasaas. “Everybody is agreeable to how you are going to [proceed] and what the modus operandi [will be] for this airport. And that was all taken care of and, also, one of the major successes for Oslo.”

Gardermoen certainly stands out in its bold commitment to efficiency; harvesting and saving energy from every conceivable nook and cranny. Yet it is hard to imagine these same lessons being applied to larger, more established airports like Heathrow and LAX, that not only already occupy large tracts of land, but also lack the kind of resources on show at Oslo. Does Hasaas consider Gardermoen an example that the rest of the world can follow?

“I think it depends on if you start from scratch,” he says, adding that it’s much easier to incorporate these features in new builds than through extensive modifications to older terminals. “But, of course, it is important for the airports of the world to show that we are contributing towards the reduction of emissions, and becoming more energy efficient. There is always a potential to do that, and I think some of the measures that we are taking at Oslo Airport show that it’s possible.”

In this sense, the new terminal at Gardermoen has not just been designed to reflect the best of Norway. It is, in short, designed to show us how to travel at our best, by not only thinking about the carbon emissions generated through air travel, but also taking active measures to reduce them. “We need to be more sustainable when it comes to energy consumption,” says Hasaas. “That is how we develop.”