Denver Int'l Expands into "Airport City" With Hotel, Conference Center & Transit Link

Jennifer Bradley
Published in: 

When plans for Denver International Airport (DEN) were first conceived in the 1980s, airport executives knew a hotel and mass transit connection to downtown Denver would eventually be needed. Their foresight is now beginning to take shape, in the form of an on-airport hotel/conference center that opened in November, and a new transit center slated to open this spring. 

"We never lost sight of that," notes Stuart Williams, DEN's project manager. "It may have taken us 20 or so years to get there, but we were able to fulfill that vision in a very unique and efficient manner, while adding to the overall iconic nature of the Denver International Airport." 

Project: Westin Hotel & Conference Center; Transit Center; Open-Air Plaza
Location: Denver Int'l Airport 
Owner: City & County of Denver Dept. of Aviation
Cost: $544 million
Program Management Team: Parsons; HNTB; CMTS; LS Gallegos; Civil Technology; CIG
Parsons Subcontractor: HNTB
Lead Architect/Hotel Architect of Record: Gensler
Associated Architects/Transit Center Architects of Record: Anderson Mason Dale; Iron Horse Architects
Primary Contractor: Joint Venture of Mortenson, Hunt & Saunders 
Excavation, Bridges, Roadways & Utility Relocation: Kiewit
Hotel & Conference Center: 519-room, 15-level, 730,000 square feet
Notable Features: 150-foot canopy; pool on 11th story; rooms with mountain views; largest glass curtain wall in U.S. hospitality sector
Conference Center Capacity: 2,500 people
Public Plaza Between Hotel & Airport: 82,000 sq. ft.; capacity for 4,500 people
Rail Line Connection to Downtown: 2 tracks; 22 miles; 37-min. travel time 
Security Checkpoint: 30 lanes initially; room for 18 more 

Key Subcontractors 
Fire Protection: Aero Automatic Sprinkler Co.
Food Service/Laundry Equipment: Baring Industries
Heating/Venting/Air Conditioning: Burgess Mechanical
Steel: Canam Steel
Roofing: Douglass Colony Roofing
Flooring: Floorz
Doors, Frames, Hardware: Gilmore Construction
Glass & Glazing: Harmon Glass
Millwork & Casework: ISEC
Low Voltage/Communications: Johnson Controls
Structural Concrete/Drilled Piers: Sky Blue Builders
Mechanically Stabilized Earth Walls: Slaton Brothers
Framing & Drywall: Spacecon
Electrical: Sturgeon Electric
Elevators & Escalators: ThyssenKrupp


The roof of the Jeppesen Terminal, designed by Fentress Bradburn Architects to remind viewers of the area's snow-capped mountains, is likely the most emblematic feature designers kept in mind when building upon DEN's iconic nature. Replacing Stapleton International Airport in 1995, DEN soon made a name for itself - currently as the fifth busiest U.S. airport. DEN made news this fall with the opening of the 519-room, 15-level Westin Hotel and Conference Center that connects with its main terminal. A transit center that will link DEN to downtown Denver via commuter rail is scheduled to open in the spring.

As the overall architect/engineer and program manager for the sweeping project, Gensler is cognizant of its significance within the industry. "This is the beginning of airport cities - the airport function, hotel function and transit center function are intertwined," explains Kap Malik, design director and principal with Gensler, and program manager for the DEN project. "This project has opened the gateway to how airport hotels are thought of.  Airports are no longer just about travel; they're about creating an experience." 

Mountain-size Project Scope

Creating "an experience" readily translates into "extensive projects," which, in turn, include a seemingly endless stream of details. In plainer terms, Parsons provided program management for the duration of the $544 million, multi-year project, with its first contract signed in September 2009. 

Scott Steckler, aviation studio leader at HNTB (subcontractor to Parsons), says that advance planning and concept development dominated the team's first 18 months on the project. In late 2010, the team delivered its initial report, and the airport decided to move forward with a transit center and 730,000-square-foot hotel conference center. 

The conference center alone is 26,000 square feet, with facilities that can accommodate up to 2,500 people. An 82,000-square-foot open-air plaza is located between DEN's main terminal and the hotel. "This is a public venue space that can accommodate 4,500 people for city and airport events such as concerts, farmers' markets, art shows, exhibits, even car shows," says Amber Brenzikofer, Parsons' DEN improvement project manager. "The goal of the plaza and hotel conference center is to host events that will draw people from the city and surrounding areas to the airport, essentially making it a destination."

To help that goal become a reality, travelers will soon be able to ride from Denver's downtown Union Station to the airport (or vice versa) in 37 minutes. New two-line commuter rail service, slated to begin in April, will also allow for expanded bus service by tying to the Regional Transportation District. "This allows DEN to integrate into the surrounding communities like never before," notes Brenzikofer. 

The new 22-mile rail segment will also be a huge benefit for many of 30,000+ people who work at the airport, adds Steckler. "It really changes the dynamic," he observes. "It's more in line with the European model of transportation with this kind of hub." 

Anderson Mason Dale, architect of record for the transit center project, was responsible for designing that hub. Andy Nielsen, a firm principal, agrees that the concept is new in the United States, especially the connection between the plaza, hotel and transit center. "It (the plaza) is centrally located and will be a crossroads as people make their way from the train and hotel to the Great Hall," he explains. "The integration of major conference functions within the podium of the hotel will be an important new amenity for the airport. Not only will it make corporate or conference events easily accessible for air travelers, but the connection to the heart of Denver at Union Station will make access to and from the city a snap."   

For customer convenience and airport security, a TSA checkpoint was designed into the Transit Center. Passengers arriving by train or bus from downtown Denver will be routed from Level 1 in the transit hall to Level 4 of the terminal, and then travel a secure corridor into the Great Hall, already processed through the new screening area. The new checkpoint will initially have 30 lanes, and was designed to accommodate 18 more in the future.

Travelers arriving on Level 1 will be able to check in for flights and submit their bags for screening inside the transit center, then proceed to the plaza or airport terminal, just 200 feet away. Plans for a baggage system that is tied directly to the main terminal building are already in the works. 

Hospitality Highlights

While DEN's manmade mountain range of white roof peaks has welcomed passengers to the airport and area for two decades, the new Westin Hotel and Conference Center has become an additional focal point. Its design represents a bird in flight, says Brenzikofer. "The saddle in the middle of the hotel preserves the vista of the terminal roof and mimics the curved lines of the terminal roof peaks," she adds. The signature design of the hotel complex is the 150-foot-long porte cochere, which cantilevers beyond the plaza and toward the Jeppesen Terminal. 

The hotel rooms offer spectacular views that connect guests with mountains to the west, plains to the east and the airport's internationally recognized tent peaks to the north, Nielsen relates. While Munich Airport in Germany offers similar conveniences, the volume of new activities and amenities at DEN have set a new standard for airports and hotels in progressive U.S. cities, he notes. "Even Munich does not offer an experience like you find in the hotel's pre-function space that overlooks that dramatic train station below," says Nielsen. "Nor does it have a plaza that so seamlessly connects to a powerful architectural space like DEN's Great Hall." 

Malik concurs, adding that guests and passengers are "always having an experience" in DEN's new facilities. "The hotel guests are connecting to the transit hall or the existing airport terminal," he begins. "The main hotel lobby floats at Level 6, one level above the plaza. It was designed to give exclusivity to hotel guests, but also connect to whatever events are happening down below." 

Other noteworthy features include a pool on the 11th level, floor-to-ceiling windows to showcase the Denver skyline and Rocky Mountains, and a 7-foot-tall, 13.5-foot-long glass curtain wall system, which Malik says is the largest ever used in a U.S. hospitality project.

He describes the integration of art into the facility as seamless and in perfect harmony with the architecture. "We didn't want to dilute the iconic design," he explains. "In the future, this will be the heart and face of Denver." 

You Say Potato ...  

When discussing the massive DEN project, Malik prefers to talk about opportunities rather than challenges.  

Space constraints were a pervasive   "opportunity" noted by multiple team members. Many people assume DEN has a lot more breathing room than it actually does, says Steckler. Contrary to popular belief, designers had to work within plenty of height and length requirements to squeeze in the aggressively sized project, he explains.  

Major bridges and roadways limited the width of the podium that accommodates the hotel lobby, transit station, baggage check and conference facilities, adds Nielsen. They also affected vertical transportation, rights-of-way for tug and baggage handling, major mechanical systems, hotel food service, retail space and loading, just to name a few. "Many of these functions had specific and uncompromising vertical and horizontal alignments, which had to be strategically arranged," he explains. "The payoff is that the density of activity creates great energy throughout the facility."  

For Malik, a particularly exciting part of the project was creating the "passenger path" that helps visitors transition from airline passengers to hotel guests. With the airport as a functioning machine in its own right, designers had to pioneer ways to connect services such as baggage screening and security, and guide passengers/guests through a hotel - while still creating an iconic gateway, he emphasizes. 

"The height of the hotel is capped because of the radar system and sightlines for the airport," he notes, offering just one detail. Traffic laws and a bylaw prohibiting anything that blocks the view of the tent peaks for arriving passengers were other architectural constraints. 

Design standards from Starwood Hotels, Westin's parent company, were also a factor that required regular meetings with several groups, adds Steckler. 

Co-locating key working groups for the duration of the project mitigated the challenges of working in an airport that operates 24/7 and coordinatiing so many vital participants, reports Williams. "It was really a huge benefit," he reflects. "Decisions had to be made quickly and things had to be vetted in a fast manner. Just having everyone here to be able to gather around was a big benefit."

With the November inauguration of the hotel and conference center still fresh, focus is accommodating the transit service, which is scheduled to start in spring. Once that is complete attention will eventually shift to long-term plans for future expansion: a terminal and east/west concourses, as well as a new baggage system. For now, though, DEN personnel are enjoying the excitement of an impressive finished product. 

"People in the city are incredibly proud of it," reports Williams. "They see the benefits, especially as the metro area continues to grow and traffic congestion with it. Visitors are thrilled with the design, and the project definitely has a lot of 'wow' factor to it."  


Improving Efficiency From Design to Long-Term Maintenance

Building information modeling (BIM) was used from the onset of the hotel/transit/plaza project at Denver International Airport (DEN). 

While many within the industry focus on the initial capital costs of using the digital technology, Stuart Williams, DEN's project manager, explains that BIM offers real savings in operations and maintenance. A 3-D model for DEN's $544 million, multi-year project was built from the very beginning, and then incorporated directly into the construction process, says Kap Malik, design director and principal with Gensler, and program manager for the DEN project.

"We were able to hand a model to our construction managers," Malik recalls. "It's really amazing how basically no one was carrying drawings around. You go to the job site, and everyone's on the iPad, pulling up the model, modifying details in real-time, then sending it back. We were able to innovate the entire design and construction process with BIM." 

Given the huge number of details contained in the mammoth project model, DEN dedicated a new technology team to managing it. Scott Steckler, aviation studio leader at project subcontractor HNTB, notes that when the project is complete, the team will provide the deliverable model to the airport, which can then be used for facilities management. "It will be a fully up-to-date model with all the hidden stuff: mechanical systems, telecommunication systems, any RFIs that went into the project and came back to our Revit model." 

Williams was thrilled that contractors could make design or product changes in the field, and those changes were reflected immediately in the model. "We are very committed to this process at the airport, to be able to predict maintenance and forecast costs for years to come.


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