FAA calling on architects to come up with new air traffic control tower designs

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Air traffic control towers have been central features of airports since the beginnings of aviation. Many of them have also become architectural landmarks. Now, the FAA is seeking new designs for control towers that are both functional and distinctive. Here with more, Project Engineer Zane Edwards and Contract Specialist ThuyLihn TranNguyen.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Great to have you both on.

ThuyLihn TranNguyen: Thank you.

Zane Edwards: Thank you, good morning.

Tom Temin: And tell us what the vision is you have here for this project, we’ll get into the contracting mechanism. But what are you trying to accomplish here? Because I thought, in your big cities, the towers are already, landmarks in many ways now.

Zane Edwards: That’s exactly right. So in a lot of our major airports, the ones that control sort of the flow of traffic through the [National Airspace System] – your Atlantas, your Chicagos, LAs – those airports have seen lots of investment, and they’re in really pretty good shape. We have over 500 control tower and radar facilities. And a bunch of these are in regional municipal airports, smaller airports, they haven’t seen the investment in recent history. A lot of them are over 40 to 50 years old. They haven’t reached their end of useful life, they’re getting close to it. And they really need some love, to be honest. So our vision is, with the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passing, it’s gonna provide us with the big – we’re not exactly sure the amount of funding, but a much larger investment than we normally see through our appropriation process, and it’s going to allow us to hopefully replace around 100 of these sort of towers. So what we’re doing with this competition is we’re saying, hey, we’re going out to the industry, we’re really great in the FAA at replacing and designing single towers, one of the time we’ve done it in the in times, we’re great at it, that process is pretty well set. But we’re not geared to develop to do something at this scale, and this short of a timeframe. So we’re going out to industry saying, hey, we know you guys can help us. We really want to hear your innovative design ideas and construction ideas. Tell us how you do it and tell us how you could do it quickly?

Tom Temin: Well, one more question on that, because almost every airport is operated by a local or regional authority that is somehow connected to that state or local government. And it can get complicated if you’re talking about the big airports, but also the small ones. And so who is responsible for maintaining and the capital investment in those smaller airports? Is that a federal function or you have to work with those state and local authorities?

Zane Edwards: So it can be. So a lot of these facilities we do own and maintain, there are also a number of other that the airports own and will maintain. And there’s some of the airports only that they maintain. But there’s all sorts of different sort of agreements. And so we read at this point, we’re hoping to take the opportunity. And just from a portfolio perspective, say we have a chance to really improve the quality of the infrastructure.

Tom Temin: And Ms. TranNguyen, how are you going about this? That is to say, is it a challenge competition? Is it a contract? What do you have out there on the street right now?

ThuyLihn TranNguyen: Yeah, so what we’re currently doing, and we’re gonna release a full and open competition. So the company of any size is welcome to participate in the competition. We’re looking from that experience to no experience at all. If you’re great at designing, or you have just a knack for designing, and you could be a college student and you’re interested, feel free to participate. That’s what we’re looking for. Because there’s opportunities down the line in the different phases that we have that you can join with a more experienced firm, if you still happen to succeed and pass the [first step].

Tom Temin: And in general, what are the requirements you’re putting out there, I mean, it has to be a certain height, and it has to have windows all around. But beyond that, these are highly technical facilities. So what are some of the criteria that they have to meet in order to have a chance here?

Zane Edwards: For the first phase, what we’re really looking for is we’re looking for a conceptual design statement and conceptual execution statement. Both limited to five pages, high-level ideas, tell us how you would go about this problem, what you think the vision is to solve it, and how you would actually execute that vision to the end. So really, what we’ve been limited to, the first go-around, the phase one of this it’s = we want the towers to be 60-119 feet in height, adjustable in that sort of window. We want them to be rapidly constructible. We’re aiming for a 50-year lifespan. It does have to support a control cabinet. But at this point, we’re not providing any sort of specifics on control cabinets, we really are just trying to get the concepts and the idea is out there. We’re also very interested in sustainability, not just from an energy efficiency or water reduction sort of point of view. But can we do on site, renewable energy generation? What about lowering our carbon footprint with different construction materials, different construction types? So those are the things we’re sort of looking for in the upfront Phase One of the search.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with FAA Project Engineer Zane Edwards, and with Contract Specialist ThuyLihn TranNguyen, and you mentioned that there are phases to this program. So the first phase is a kind of downselect of the best designs and what do the awardees get to continue?

ThuyLihn TranNguyen: So in this competition, we have three phases total. And for the first phase, as we discussed briefly, we’re requesting the offers to submit innovative design concept and execution approach that facilitates the rapid deployment of the new air traffic control tower. And in that phase, we’ll be selecting up to 15 successful offers, [then] proceed to phase two. And then in phase two in the request for the qualifications, the offers must submit a financial capability as well as past performance corporate experience of the proposed teaming arrangement. And in this phase, we will be selecting up to six successful offers to participate in phase three. And then lastly, in phase three, which is the request for offers, we are requesting offers to submit a 10% design as well as a conceptual construction deployment plan for multiple towers. And in this phase, we’re also asking for a cost proposal to advance the design to 50-80%. And or more offers may be selected for this phase, or there could be a potential that we may not select any offers at this phase.

Tom Temin: And the ultimate goal here is the same tower in all of the places that will be replaced, or is there some accommodation for regional variation? You might not want something that looks the same in New England, as in southwestern United States.

Zane Edwards: 100%. So we do recognize that we wanted to be adaptable, not just aesthetically, to make them look a little different, but also environmentally. We’re going to build these in northern Alaska, we’re going to build them in southern Florida. So you’re going to have different energy sort of uses, different insulating properties, different loadings – wind loading, seismic loading, high-snow loading, just depending where you are. We’ll have different foundation types. We recognize that so they need to be site adaptable.

Tom Temin: Got it. And here’s a detail question: Do control towers have, like bathrooms at the top level where the controllers are? Do they have to go down stairs and into a terminal or something?

Zane Edwards: That’s a legitimate question. I’m actually glad you brought that up. Because there is one nuance to control towers that I do want to sort of explain to people: So we spent a lot of money to build these buildings for the view, right? That’s the key. So we don’t want to put anything in the Cabinet that will obstruct the view – it’s a 360 sort of window to the sky to the airfield below. You control the movement areas and the planes approaching and departing. So there is a restroom one floor below. But what we do have is an exemption to the ABA, which is the American Barriers Act for accessibility to the cab and one floor below, right? So that we can’t bring the elevator overrun into the cab because it would block the view. So there’s no way to get people with accessibility needs into the cab. So the capital one floor below that there is an exemption for us.

Tom Temin: Interesting. Yeah, and with respect to the ability to sustain on-site energy, for example, generate energy, that’s a tough one too. Because you can’t put a windmill on top of a control tower, because then you’d have a big rotating shaft, where airplanes are flying. So that’s not an option. So maybe solar or that type of thing?

Zane Edwards: We have one net zero facility in Tucson, Arizona, which is photovoltaic. It’s got a pretty big PV farm. There are some idiosyncrasies with that – you got to make sure you’re not blinding the controllers with reflection. You gotta make sure not blinding the pilots with the reflection. But we do and even lots of airports themselves will – San Francisco is an example – heir parking garages are covered with PVs. Their terminal buildings are covered with PVs. So you can do that. We could also do geothermal types of things in different climates. So there are other ways to meet, maybe not necessarily net zero – there’s not there’d be very few facilities that we think we could achieve that on, but we can make them more sustainable. We can reduce energy consumption, and we can reduce – water reduction.

Tom Temin: And if you have on-site generation, by whatever means, then in some sense, then you’re more resilient because if the utility goes out, the tower doesn’t have to go out and therefore the airport, and the air traffic doesn’t have to go out.

Zane Edwards: Absolutely right. So resiliency is another thing we want people to consider. So one of the goals of the procurement is the – I always mess up the name of it, because they change it all the time – but it’s like the the high performance, sustainable federal building. And one of the tenants of that is resiliency. So we do want people to look at things like flooding, natural disaster, forest, fire, whatever, and take that into consideration in their design concept.

Tom Temin: And [ThuyLihn], give us a sense of the timelines here. So the final deliverable eventually will be a plan, financial and construction, correct, but not a tower itself?

ThuyLihn TranNguyen: So the “final” final will be the design itself, 50%-80%. And then we’ll be looking at the cost proposal to have it produced all the way to the 50%-80%. So that is what we’re looking for in phase three. And then the remainder, the 20%, we’re going to work with on another procurement to complete out the 20% based on the location of where the tower is going to be.

Tom Temin: So each tower or each, say, regional set of towers could have competitive bids for the actual construction down the line.

ThuyLihn TranNguyen: Correct. Possibility, but right now we’re focusing on this design procurements. So we’re not sure the strategy on the future of what those will be at the moment.

Tom Temin: And just a final question there. Some of the big airports do have distinctive towers that have become local landmarks. I’m thinking of Boston Logan, which is two big sticks with kind of a bridge in between them. And even in Washington – Reagan National is kind of an interesting looking tower. You can’t tell whether it’s a water tower or a missile site or an air traffic control tower. Are you looking for some sense of, I don’t know, playfulness or architectural distinction in these as well as clearly the critical function they perform?

Zane Edwards: Oh, absolutely. But we also want the offers be cognizant of there’s a balance between the economic and the aesthetic, right. So the cool thing about towers is they’re tall. They’re typically the tallest structure in these locations, these smaller towns. They’re visible for miles, super recognizable. So we want to not to be eyesores, right? So we don’t need to, I guess East Germany sort of construction, we would like to make them look a little better.

Tom Temin: Yeah. No Brutalist architects need apply.

Zane Edwards: Right, exactly, that’s a better way to phrase it.

Tom Temin: Alright. Zane Edwards is a project engineer on the program Integration and Support Team at the FAA. Thanks so much for joining me.

Zane Edwards: I’d like to leave you with one thought is sort of my pep speech to the industry: So you know, we’re looking for a 50-year lifespan on these buildings – architects, engineers, academics, this is your chance to put your stamp on the aviation industry for decades. So please, if anybody has any interest, check out the solicitation on the landing page and provide your thoughts. We really want to hear him.

Tom Temin: All right, you want to bring those constellations in for a safe landing. And a ThuyLihn TranNguyen is a contract specialist with the FAA. Thank you as well.

ThuyLihn TranNguyen: Thank you. And then if you’re interested, please, please register for SAM. That is my number one thing that I remind everyone of you’re not registered, register. So that you can participate. The beauty of this contract is that you get to be innovative, be fun, and we’re looking for that. So participate as much as you can and start by just registering for SAM.gov

Tom Temin: Sam – no longer beta – .gov.

ThuyLihn TranNguyen: Correct, no longer beta.

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