When envisioning the new Northwest WorldGateway at Wayne County's Detroit Metropolitan Airport, the design team from Northwest Airlines and the architectural firm SmithGroup tried to capture the spirit of their city. To represent Detroit as "The Motor City," designers created a look that was industrial, clean and modern. Hard surfaces such as ceramic tile, terrazzo and stainless steel are used within high open spaces to create a feeling of great volume.

Project designers were concerned not only with the aesthetics, but also with durability and long-term maintenance costs, said Ken Koziol, senior design manager at Northwest Airlines. To achieve their goals, designers turned to the classic look of ceramic tile.

Although carpet is a common flooring material for airport designs, the design team believed that tiling could much better withstand the high pedestrian and other traffic a terminal must endure, while also providing a stylish and contemporary look. The Detroit plans called for tiling throughout the interior and exterior of the four-level, mile-long terminal, as well as in a 900-foot tunnel connecting the new terminal to the existing facility. In fact, the Northwest WorldGateway project involved the application of more than 1 million square feet of tile.

The project, a part of the airport's decade-long, $2 billion Capital Improvement Program, helped transform Detroit Metro into one of the most eye-catching airports in the country. It features stylish terrazzo floors, expansive tiled walls and sleek public areas designed to remind visitors of Detroit's status as "Motor City, USA."

Installation challenges

Once the airline and the architects selected ceramic tile, the logistics of the project had to be addressed by the tiling contractors. These included accessing a building surrounded by runways, transporting materials around the mile-long building with the only openings at each end, flooding and other extreme weather conditions.

Tiling the new terminal also required great versatility from the contractors. For example, only two different tiles were applied to more than 45,000 square feet of curbfront, while 35,000 square feet of intricately designed concession space called for 40 types of tile. Several tile sizes were used in the terminal, including those as large as 2 x 2 feet, which is uncommonly large in the tiling industry.

"Succeeding with a project as large as this requires bringing together solid contractors and supplier products," said Robert Michielutti, Jr., president of Michielutti Bros., Inc., one of the installers on the job. To meet its surface preparation and tile installation needs, Michielutti turned to TEC Specialty Products. They used TEC BC-205 Tuff-Lite [R] 5 Epoxy Matrix for the installation of the more than 400,000 square feet of terrazzo flooring in the terminal. The company also installed 45,000 square feet of exterior tile, decorating the curbside departure and arrival areas.

Artisan Tile Inc. tiled more than 410,000 square feet of the new terminal, including concourse walls, and the walls and floors of all bathroom facilities. For the walls in the concourse, 12- x 12- and 24- x 24-inch unpolished/honed Italian Graniti tiles were employed. The pieces were given a custom color, Aeropuerto Grigio. In the public bathrooms, the walls and floors consist of 12- x 12-inch unpolished/honed Mirage and Benghazi tiles as well as Graniti Fiandre unpolished G750 Asiago tiles. In all of these areas, TEC Full Flex [R] tile and stone mortar was used throughout, according to Jennifer Panning, president and CEO of Artisan Tile Inc., who added that the company also installed tiling in the terminal's concession areas.

Advance research

Long before installation began, the contractors and TEC performed the specific product tests required by Wayne County, the airport's owner. The tests helped them determine which grouts, adhesives and sealers would meet the demands of each particular application.

For example, before selecting the adhesives for the large-body 2- x 2-foot porcelain tile used throughout the interior of the terminal, Artisan and TEC focused on extensive adhesive curing tests. "We were concerned with curing times considering the weight of the large tiles, so we tested their adhesives to ensure we were using the absolute best products," explained Panning. "We also wanted to make sure we were using products that made the installation easy and efficient."

Shores Tile similarly worked together with the building product manufacturer in advance of the project to identify the best products for the tiling of the terminal's North Tunnel, which was comprised of a unique ceramic tile known as "Tunnel Tile." According to Shores Tile, there are only a few manufacturers interested in manufacturing this type of tile because of the extensive testing it must pass. The tile features special "key back ribs." The company applied 118,000 square feet of the tile in the 24-foot-high North Tunnel, which travels beneath a runway and serves as a gateway to the new terminal.

Weather obstacles

In addition to the logistical challenges that accompany a project so large, contractors also faced the challenge of the extreme Michigan weather to which the exterior tiles would be exposed. In Detroit, it is not uncommon for summer heat to give way to rainstorms, with temperatures dropping dramatically in only a few hours. Winter temperature changes can be equally extreme. All materials would have to be flexible enough to survive the rapid contraction and expansion caused by extreme weather changes throughout the year.

Indeed, the Michigan summer weather did interfere with the project. At one point, 2 inches of rain fell in one hour, flooding the North Tunnel 3 feet deep. After the water receded, Shores Tile had to develop a plan to ensure that the tiling could withstand similar challenges in the future. According to Michael Maiuri, president of Shores Tile, the installation products that they chose, which included TEC Xtra Flex [TM] Acrylic Additive along with Full Set[TM] Thin Set Mortar, were ideal for wet areas with its freeze/thaw resistance.

A key factor in the project's success was the extensive communication and teamwork between the design team, the contractors and the supplier. "If we had a question or a cause for concern, they were very willing to listen to us," said Maiuri. "They either helped us understand their products or we helped them understand what we needed their products to do."

On February 24, 2002, the new state-of-the-art facility, serving Northwest Airlines and its partners, opened to positive reviews from the traveling public. The completed terminal has 97 gates, 106 ticket counter positions and 21 security checkpoints. The passenger tunnel linking the concourses features a synchronized light and sound show. All of this adds up to what Crain's Detroit Business describes as "a blessing for business travelers."

Northwest WorldGateway Detroit Metropolitian Airport, Detroit, MI

Architect: SmithGroup
Terminal Occupant/Design Consultant: Northwest Airlines, Detroit, MI
General Contractor: Hunt Construction Group, Indianapolis, IN
Tile Installers: Artisan Tile; Michiellutti Bros., Eastpoint, MI; Shores Tile, Roseville, MI
Tile Suppliers: Terrazzo & Marble Supply Cos., Chicago, IL (terrazzo); Southern Aggregate (Georgia White marble chips); KPT, Indiana (Tunnel Tile); Pro Tile, New York ("key back ribs" on Tunnel Tile); Virginia Tile, Farmington Hills, MI (Italian Graniti tile); DalTile, Dallas, TX (Mirage and Benghazi tile); Bishop Distributing (Graniti Fiandre tile)
Building Product Manufacturer: TEC Specialty Products, Palatine, IL
Building Product Distributor: Virginia Tile, Farmington Hills, MI