/ Articles / Sky-High Expectations: Exploring the Understated Elegance of GRG Precast Panels at LaGuardia’s Terminal B

Sky-High Expectations: Exploring the Understated Elegance of GRG Precast Panels at LaGuardia’s Terminal B

Sean O'Keefe on May 9, 2024 - in Articles, Feature, Featured

Described by the development team as potentially the most-complex aviation project anywhere ever, the new Terminal B at LaGuardia Airport symbolizes a top-to-bottom transformation of one of the nation’s highest-profile airports, and it does so with stunning style and grace. Representing the largest public-private partnership (P3) in U.S. aviation history, the $5.1 billion reconstruction of Terminal B was made possible by innovation across the board.

From contracting to execution and long-term operations—in addition to designing and building Terminal B—LaGuardia Gateway Partners (LGP) will manage and maintain the facility for 35 years under a lease agreement with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. LGP includes Vantage Airport Group, Skanska, Meridiam and JLC Infrastructure for development and equity investment. Vantage Airport Group leads the redevelopment program and management of Terminal B, while a Skanska-Walsh design-build joint venture leveraged the architectural and engineering expertise of HOK and WSP USA as design leads.

In rethinking the hierarchical minutia of travel, HOK and LaGuardia Gateway Partners dissolved barriers between passenger arrivals and departures at the new Terminal B. Taking cues from New York’s grand cityscape beyond, LaGuardia makes an immediate impact and sets the stages for a destination experience.


A central theme to the HOK design scheme was “Welcome to New York.” Articulated through a rethink of passenger prioritization, the HOK solution affords arrivals equal access to the emphasized experience of place generally reserved for departures. Contrasted with the low-ceiling, basement-like experience of many older airport arrival areas, passengers arriving at LaGuardia’s new Terminal B will share a grand atrium atmosphere of soft white lines, floor-to-ceiling daylight and views, and 60 feet of open air overhead. The contemporary form, sophisticated design language and bold vision take their inspiration from the city itself.

Whereas the original master plan suggested a headhouse with peninsular concourses extending into the airfield, as is typical, the LGP team instead envisioned creating two island concourses on the airfield. Pedestrian passage between the islands and the main terminal occurs through two 450-foot-long, 65-foot-high pedestrian bridges above the active taxiway. Offering a nod to New York City, the “Island and Bridge” solution offers passengers panoramic views of Manhattan’s skyline and surrounding boroughs while allowing travelers to feel like they’re part of the airport’s operations.

Perhaps more importantly, the design solution significantly increases airside efficiency and capacity by moving the new Terminal B 600 feet closer to Grand Central Parkway. This shift in structure recaptured 40 acres of land for airside operations, increasing airside capacity by 50 percent. The bridge solution also enabled the Skanska-Walsh team to build the new terminal over the top of the existing structure, an opportunity that decreased the construction sequence by two years while substantially decreasing the impact on ongoing airport operations.

The sleek, stylish GRG cloak of precast panels around the steel structure hardly seems to have been made in pieces and shipped to the site. The virtually seamless transition from floor to ceiling makes the experience of the infrastructure’s structure inviting and seemingly softer than expected.


A Special Challenge

In bringing all this elegance to life, the design-build team faced myriad choices: some difficult, some simple. Covering the walls and ceilings of 850,000 square feet of space with a beautiful, durable, sustainable building material that contours to the compound slopes expected of this design wasn’t easy. The decision to go with precast glass-fiber reinforced gypsum (GRG) architectural forms, however, was rather obvious. For some scopes of work, there aren’t many worthy competitors.

“LaGuardia’s Terminal B project had roughly 500 structural columns that needed to be covered,” begins Mario Botelho, director of construction services for CastWorks Architectural Castings at Armstrong World Industries. “Based on the architect’s 3D models, the CastWorks team fabricated more than 9,000 custom-molded parts for installation. Some pieces are 12 feet tall, and some assemble to 50 feet tall. GRG is the right material wherever there are repetitive shapes and cast openings for things like thermostats, speakers and other electrical devices running through walls and ceilings. Anything curved in two directions is a good application for our product.”

CastWorks architectural forms are precast panels made in custom-designed molds using chopped glass fibers that add strength and durability to a gypsum-based slurry. What starts as a liquid is sprayed into molds to cure, hardening to form a solid surface that retains the shape cast. In the case of LaGuardia’s Terminal B, the sleek shapes include round, square and beveled column covers, diffuser covers, and ceiling transitions that invite engagement.

“To form these panels, we began by making a prototype of each piece according to HOK’s 3D model,” says Botelho of the production process. “We create these using CNC [computer numerical control] routers with precision tolerances far greater than what the project requires. We then cast on top of that to produce a mold. Once the mold is ready, we spray on the GRG slurry with the glass-fiber reinforcement and let it harden to produce the ready-to-ship piece.”

On the jobsite, once a contractor installs the panels, they’re taped and filled, sanded and smoothed like flat drywall. For Botelho and the CastWorks team, the challenges are literally and figuratively multidimensional.

“Our services are often contracted as Design Assist,” says Botelho. “This means the contractor hires us to consult with the design team, contractors and sometimes other trades on the customization of panels ahead of production. There’s a tremendous amount of complexity in coordinating all of the MEP, electrical, security and such in these panels. Sometimes eliminating conflicts in the model can be a struggle because we’re getting compounding drawings from overlapping disciplines.”

Fabricating 9,000 individual precast panels and transporting them from a manufacturing facility in Ontario, Canada, to the Terminal B jobsite on the edge of the East River in Queens in a just-in-time delivery sounds daunting. For the CastWorks team, it’s business as usual.


Stretching 485 feet from the main terminal to one of two Terminal B island concourses located on the airfield, this is the structural steel bridge before getting dressed. Spearhead’s technical challenge was to attach the precast GRG panels that compose the interior’s structural covering while accounting for overlapping and adjoining trades of many sorts. (Spearhead Construction)

“We worked very closely with the people from Skanska-Walsh,” notes Botelho. “They visited our manufacturing facility several times to ensure their job was on schedule.”

Where things get complicated is subcontracting the panel installation in concurrence with the terminal’s phased build-out. The multistage delivery of Terminal B resulted in Skanska-Walsh buying out the panel installation by assembling a conglomeration of five different subcontractors to do the work.

“Once Skanska-Walsh awarded each phase, we worked with each of the five subcontractors to establish a specific production plan tailored to their scope, schedule and workflow,” adds Botelho. “We produced a set of shop drawings that showed all the connection points, where joints were and other specifics to deliver a comprehensive set of instructions for each unique configuration. The firms doing this work ranged from The Donaldson Organization, which has been in the business for some 60 or 70 years, to Spearhead Construction, a relatively new enterprise led by a dynamic businesswoman, Andee Hidalgo.”

A graduate of West Point and combat veteran who served in the U.S. Army’s 3rd Armored Division during Operation Desert Storm in Kuwait, Hidalgo is no stranger to challenging situations. When she founded Spearhead Construction in 2016, she named her specialty interior installation business in honor of the 3rd Armored Division’s characteristic insignia. When Spearhead Construction considered the various phases of work out for bid on the GRG installation scope, Hidalgo and her Advisory Board identified the bridges connecting the terminal to the islands on the airfield as the most challenging scope of work, which for Hidalgo made it the most interesting.

“Honestly, this job wasn’t for the faint of heart,” says Hidalgo. “We were working with industry giants in HOK, Skanska-Walsh and Armstrong World Industries at an operational airport building a large, difficult scope of work involving complex logistics, a tight timeline and a huge number of adjoining trades.”

Casting some 9,000 individual custom-molded parts for installation can be a tedious task. Armstrong World Industries hosted Spearhead Construction, LGP, HOK and each of the other primary specialty ceiling and wall contractors in tours of their Ontario, Canada, production facility. Fine-tuning logistics through scheduling and sequencing is critical to a smooth installation. (Spearhead Construction)

As presently configured, Spearhead Construction runs lean through access to significant supplemental skilled labor as a signatory with the carpenters’ union. Accordingly, Spearhead can scale trade manpower to the requirements of high-stakes public and commercial projects. In 2018, when Skanska-Walsh awarded Spearhead the contract to install the 267 pre-cast GRG panels required to cover the first of two bridges four stories above one of LaGuardia’s active taxiways, Hidalgo followed her Army training and took pre-emptive measures to ensure the odds were in her favor.

“I took my team to Canada to meet Armstrong World Industries for a ‘page-turn’ through our entire scope of work, piece-by-piece,” says Hidalgo of an intense effort to eliminate resolvable conflicts pre-production wherever possible. “They were in full production mode on preceding phases of the project, so we could see the entire process. We spent a lot of time understanding the logistics of the just-in-time delivery process, how they crate the pieces for transport, sequencing them to arrive in the installation order, and understanding how they attach to the structure.”

On the jobsite, installation involved maneuvering the precast members in tight spaces. Although 485 feet long, the pedestrian bridges were just 33 feet wide, limiting the ability to rotate some pieces during placement. Compounding matters, many pieces are integrally designed around mechanical, electrical, security and other building systems, necessitating close coordination among trades who could otherwise find themselves competing for space in limited quarters under tight timelines.


Onsite, precast panels await installation in specialty crates that arrive and are stored in a precise order. While Armstrong World Industries thrives on repetition of product, the exacting nature of work at Terminal B made each piece’s installation a virtual one-of-one experience. Spearhead Construction’s union relationships were invaluable to ensuring the highly skilled labor required. (Spearhead Construction)


“We spent a lot of time creating heat maps to identify areas we needed to work in and when we needed to be there,” says Hidalgo. “This gave us the best chance to coordinate our activities with other trades. To install these ceiling sections, we’re talking about two framers on a scissor lift hanging these huge pieces 30 feet up in the air in some places.”

To get it all done, Spearhead relies on teamwork, communication and a culture of commitment to individual accountability.

“We spend a lot of time planning operations, covering down for each other, and making sure everyone working on the job understands the tasks and prioritizes the mission,” says Hidalgo, whose grit and determination are already paying off. After completing LaGuardia Terminal B, the U.S. Department of Commerce named Spearhead Construction the 2021 Minority and Veteran-Owned Business of the Year. “When you think of infrastructure, I doubt that grace or beauty comes to mind. The precast GRG panels developed for LaGuardia are a beautiful architectural product that people want to touch, sit on and engage with.”

Since completion, LaGuardia’s new Terminal B was named the 2023 World’s Best New Airport Terminal based on a passenger survey conducted by airport rating firm Skytrax. It’s the first airport anywhere to earn LEED v4 Gold certification while also achieving an Envision Platinum using the framework developed by the Institute for Sustainable Infrastructure.

“It takes a lot of courage to step onto a jobsite of this magnitude as a small business,” notes Hidalgo. “Leadership is about assembling the right team, staying focused and motivating that team to remain mission-driven every day.”

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About Sean O'Keefe

Sean O'Keefe is an architecture and construction writer who crafts stories and content based on 20 years of experience and a keen interest in the people who make projects happen; email: [email protected].

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