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Engineering the impossible at Nunavut’s Iqaluit Airport

July 25, 2018

By Leslie Merrithew

The first P3 airport in North America is part of HISTORY’s ‘Project Impossible’ series

HISTORY is launching a new television series called Project Impossible and Stantec-designed projects will be featured in two of the episodes. The season will kick off on July 27 on HISTORY Canada, with a US release scheduled for later this fall. “Episode 9: Conquering the Arctic” airs July 28 at 4 pm PDT and features the first completed P3 airport in North America—the Iqaluit Airport.

Noel Best and Leslie Merrithew reflect on the project and its significance for the northern community.

‘Isolated from the outside world’—Noel Best, Principal, Vancouver, BC

Set deep in heart of the Great White North, the community of Iqaluit is one of Canada’s northernmost outposts. Translated to mean “a place of many fish,” Iqaluit became a city at the turn of the 21st century when the Northwest Territories split to create Nunavut. Iqaluit has seen steady increases in growth to its population as it serves as the gateway to most communities in Nunavut, including many military, mining, and resource development sites.

The continuous growth has caused a strain on the community, specifically on the airport and travel systems. Located on an island in a polar climate, the community is already isolated from the outside world. There are no roads or rails, and the frozen sea that surrounds it is too rough and tough to navigate during the winter months. The city is largely dependent on airplanes-–not only to get from A to B but for basic goods and services.

Iqaluit has had an airport since the military was based there during World War II. When the air force left in the 1960s, the airport was converted for commercial use. As travel and trade demands were rising, the City found itself needing to drastically improve its airborne operations. Rather than retrofit the old facility, they contacted us to provide feasibility studies for a new P3 airport project.

Overcoming obstacles and challenges through creativity and innovation is what made our work on the Iqaluit Airport truly special.

Pioneering a P3 project—Noel Best

Together with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) and the Government of Nunavut, we crunched the numbers to figure out if designing this airport was even viable. Our team estimated the price tag for designing and building an international airport in the arctic, as well as the cost of operating it privately for 30 years. With capital cost estimates at $230 million, the project couldn’t exist without more government funding. It would require a P3 partnership to make the airport a reality.

We were determined to prove (and fully realize) that it’s possible to produce great architecture and engineering solutions under the P3 process—however challenging it may be at times. Ultimately, our hard work paid off and the project was awarded 25% of funding from the federal government. Not only did our business case for a P3 project lay the groundwork for the Iqaluit Airport, it formed a foundation for the community that will last far into the future.

Overcoming obstacles and challenges through creativity and innovation is what made our work on the Iqaluit Airport truly special. Our team worked tirelessly to not only identify issues within the planning process but to adapt to new challenges throughout implementation.

‘Significance of future climate change’—Leslie Merrithew, transportation engineer, Ottawa, ON

Navigating a P3 approach to project delivery was demanding, but it was also just one of many challenges on the project. There were plenty of technical complexities, but it was hard just travelling to site at times. We also had work in two different languages (English, French) as well as maintain access to the single existing airport runway during construction.

The significance that future climate change trends had on design and construction was profoundly unique, forcing our team to come up with creative ways to solve an abundance of unprecedented arctic issues. Further, the geographic location of Iqaluit makes the airport one of the most northern flight hubs in the world—and the fact it’s isolated on an arctic island made matters even worse.

Impacts on construction:

  • The lack of daylight during the winter, spring, and fall seasons affected the scheduling and duration of the project.
  • The extreme cold caused crews to require long and frequent warm-up breaks.
  • Hurricane-level winds and snowfall caused the site and town to shut down at times due to blizzard conditions.
  • Site location made it harder to get spare parts or construction supplies.

Impacts on design:

  • The design had to withstand wind speeds up to 130 kilometers per hour.
  • The airport is built on delicate, permafrost-rich soils, so we had to install a passive heat transfer system to keep the building’s heat from melting the foundations.
  • Daylight is crucial to operations and mental health, so we maximized all useable daylight through site placement, building orientation, and window installations.
  • To combat common power failures and fuel shortages, we provided the airport with its own power generators.

Now, the airport connects the community of Iqaluit with the services in southern Canada while providing a vital bridge point between Nunavut’s northern communities and the rest of the country.

‘My favorite project to date’—Noel Best

The airport in Iqaluit serves as a primary meeting space for the community, so our goal was to create a vibrant gathering center for travelers, locals, and businesspeople alike. In terms of aesthetics, we were inspired to provide a holistic design that remains true to the spirit and practicalities of the northern community and traditions.

We believe the new terminal met and exceeded the expectations of the community—not only for the functionality of the architectural and engineering design but for its successful inclusion of Inuit art and culture.

The City of Iqaluit is enriched by a deep history, so we wanted to make a distinctive airport terminal that responded to both the culture and the environment. We sought out opportunities to use spirited colors, art, and woodwork as a reflection of the community. Now, the interior serves as a warm meeting place and a new community heart.

The Iqaluit Airport is probably my favorite project to date in what’s become a very long career.

  • Leslie Merrithew

    Leslie truly understands what airport design means to a community’s well-being and success, having been born and raised in Yellowknife, a geographically isolated city. She’s passionate about using civil engineering to connect communities and people.

    Contact Leslie
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