Fort McMurray airport expansion – McFarlane Biggar Architects + Designers

The new terminal building under construction.
Image courtesy of office of mcfarlane biggar architects + designers

In the future, the pragmatic goals of survival, balance and sustainability will govern all design decisions, either by regulation or to remain competitive and win clients and commissions. It is within this climate of calculated trade-offs that the design of the expanded Fort McMurray airport by Vancouver’s Office of McFarlane Biggar Architects + Designers (OMB) was born.

The newly expanded terminal, opening next month, is expected to handle 1.5-million passengers annually. It will increase the current airport’s size by five times. It will also be stocked with all of the modern amenities one would expect at a world-class airport including a full service hotel, brand name retail outlets, plentiful parking, as well as commercial lease space.

The project was designed to accommodate the continued expansion of the oil industry in Alberta, but it’s not just being built on unrealistic hyperbole of a vast supply of oil, economic growth and endless resources. It is being built sensitively, with a deep understanding of both current and future needs. It's a measured compromise.

While $258-million dollars seems like a big investment for a compromise. Infrastructure projects of this scale based on the shifting tides of geopolitical markets are a dangerous lot. From Canary Wharf in London to the free trade zone of Jebel Ali in the UAE, infrastructure projects are always risky when taken on without forethought, and often lack constraint. But the Fort McMurray airport project is a well-calculated risk, conceived of in phased growth increments and guided by smart planning principles.

The expanded terminal is neither a characterless utilitarian project, nor is it an ostentatious marketing ploy. OMB’s approach is economically, socially and architecturally based in sound sustainable design principles. Local materials, modularity, expandability, in-floor heating and winter-strength materials requiring minimal maintenance are all key components of an infrastructure project designed for a rapidly growing region. Canadian Architect magazine has already praised the project for its design sensitivity. I would agree, but I would also praise the project for its self-regulation measures for limiting growth and expansion as a hopeful subtext that the oil sands will not continue to grow at the rates we have seen so far.

Over a decade ago, William McDonough and Michel Braungart put forward a simple idea in their book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. They suggested that a culture of sustainable fabrication and consumption can only be achieved by working with the key players within western capitalism. Only if you can change Ford, Dow, 3M and others can a truly sustainable design paradigm shift actually occur and then even capitalism, itself, could be transformed as a result. The Fort McMurray Airport Expansion has a bit of this same spirit.

McFarlane Biggar Architects + Designers are recognized as leaders in the use of innovative wood technologies, and they have maintained their focus on innovative wood construction in this project as well. As reported in The Globe and Mail, the architects believe in using innovative engineered wood products and wood systems in order to help them think about building and how wood could play a more significant role in long span structures and tall buildings. As pointed out in the Globe article, “Wood’s natural ability to sequester carbon has also put it at the forefront of sustainability debate and discussion – making a case for wood where wood was previously not an option.”

In the end this project is far from perfect, and while it doesn’t make me think more highly of the oil sands, I do admire how these architects approached sustainable programming, planning and design holistically with a full awareness of what this project represents to others across Canada. The end result will be a beautiful, efficient, modern airport that all Albertans may benefit from, but the project also presents a measurable raising of the bar for design’s increasing role in shifting perceptions towards a more comprehensive view of sustainability that may even include adjusting the politics, values and economic aspirations of a not-so-sustainable client to respect the environment as a key partner.

If this airport were located anywhere else, it may have just won design awards and been praised for its sensitivity, but Fort McMurray is no ordinary place. This project offers a valuable lesson for us all in why accepting challenging commissions may be the best way to create true change in our design practices.

Eric Nay is an architect, designer, artist and a professor at OCAD University. His blog, Made in Canada, profiles examples of Canadian design innovation, including sustainable buildings and design, craft practices and innovative businesses across the country.

If you liked this article, please subscribe or donate today to support our work.

A\J moderates comments to maintain a respectful and thoughtful discussion.
Comments may be considered for publication in the magazine.