Passenger Terminal Complex at DEN

Denver, Colorado, USA

With a deadline of only three weeks to create the terminal’s conceptual design, Fentress Architects broke the mold of traditional airport architecture by “turning the building upside down.”

Inspired by the majestic Rocky Mountains, Fentress Architects’ design for the Denver International Airport’s Passenger Terminal Complex serves as a memorable expression of civic pride with a strong sense of place. The terminal rises from a solid stone-like base to become a spectacular pavilion, covered by one of the largest tensile membrane structures in the world. Set against a breathtaking view of the Rocky Mountains, this gateway to the West leaves a lasting impression on all visitors to the region.

The design solution was enabled by moving the building’s mechanical infrastructure from the roof to underground, therefore inverting the typical arrangement. This allowed for the main terminal to be eventually transformed into an open, light-filled volume. It also eliminated thousands of pounds of structural steel and building materials.

Triangular clerestory windows on the east and west sides and huge glass curtainwalls on the south and north are supported by cable trusses. These trusses not only complement the tensile character of the space but also reveal generous roof overhangs with sweeping edge catenaries. 

Entering the main terminal, travelers are struck by the enormous scale of the environment, with the roof peaks rising up to 150 feet, while an intuitive circulation system offers easy navigation from level to level. Passengers then proceed from the ticketing area to an elevated walkway. This walkway encircles and overlooks a particularly expansive Great Hall.

Award-Winning Design

The Passenger Terminal Complex at Denver International Airport is Fentress Architects most celebrated project.  It has garnered nearly 50 honors, awards and citations including:

  • #1 Best Large Airport, USA Today, 2021
  • 25-Year Award, AIA Western Mountain Region, 2021
  • 25-Year Award, AIA Colorado, 2020
  • #1 Best of the Biggest US Airports, Wall Street Journal, 2018
  • Top U.S. Airport and No. 3 in the World, Skytrax World Airport Awards, 2017
  • #5 in Mega Airports, North America Airport Satisfaction Study, JD Power and Associates, 2017
  • World’s Most Beautiful Airports, Top 10 List, CNBC, 2011
  • World’s Most Beautiful Airports, Top 15 List, Travel + Leisure Magazine, 2010
  • Best Airport in North America, Annual Readers’ Survey, Business Traveler Magazine, 2005-2010
  • #1 Airport in Design and Functionality, Travel + Leisure Magazine, 2009
  • America’s 4th Favorite Architectural Landmark, AIA and Harris Interactive Poll, 2007
  • Top 5 Airports, Wall Street Journal, 2001
  • Grand Award, Gold Nugget Awards, Pacific Coast Builders Conference, 1995
  • Honor Award, Design for Transportation, U.S. Department of Transportation, 1995
  • Honor Award, AIA Denver, 1994
  • Honor Award, AIA Western Mountain, 1994
  • Honor Award, AIA Colorado, 1994

Sustainable by Design

Fentress’ innovative selection of roofing material and technology was a sustainable strategy that has conserved energy and consequently saved money. The fabric roof transmits sufficient daylight to significantly reduce energy needs for artificial lighting and related cooling loads, making DIA’s passenger terminal complex one of the world’s largest daylit structures.

The roof design especially reduced material requirements (structural steel, concrete, and embodied energy), while providing a durable, self-cleaning system. The roof’s configuration provides vents for warm air and so reduces cooling energy costs.

More recently, the airport installed three large-scale solar projects, thus bringing the total amount of solar power produced there to 8 megawatts, the highest amount of solar generation at a commercial airport in the United States.