June 4, 2019

Geoff Neumayr: Better Airports for the Future

Geoff Neumayr is not one to accept the status quo. As Chief Development Officer for San Francisco International Airport (SFO), Geoff spends his days constantly trying to reshape how airports are conceived, designed and constructed. He’s also remarkably committed to making them more adaptable, resilient and experiential for those who need them in the decades ahead.

“Here at SFO, we’re trying to create the best airport for the future. We want to be a model for the entire industry,” Geoff explains during a recent phone call. Because his team oversees the entire development operations for SFO, they’re able to advance new ideas and processes across the entire continuum of airport development. They touch the entire development process “from cradle to grave,” he explains further.

Geoff was kind enough to spend time talking with me about his ideas for the future of aviation, new project delivery models, and how airports can achieve their full potential. We’ve published key pieces of that discussion below:

As Chief Development Officers for San Francisco International Airport, what are some of your team’s biggest goals for the next few years?

Truthfully, our challenge is creating the best airport possible for the future. We have to make capital decisions through the lens of what’s the best for today, tomorrow and 30 years from now. And when any airport makes those kinds of decisions, they have to consider the status of their infrastructure, the rapid growth of air travel, limited runway capacities across the country, sea level rise and climate change. Building the best airports for the future is a complex, exciting opportunity.

What I always stress with my team is that we’ll be most successful if we move beyond our current norms. When you read about the aviation industry it’s easy to get caught up in the millions of passengers and billions of dollars that define it, but if you look closer, you realize profits margins are quite small in this industry. We have to do a lot with a little, and that demands intense focus around innovation and eliminating waste. That’s why through my work at SFO and with the Design-Build Institute of America, I’ve become a staunch advocate for progressive design-build delivery, where an owner works with a unified team toward a best-value price. I think there is still a lot to be defined about our airports of the future, but I am confident progressive design-build should be the lead catalyst for creating them.

Airports are large, complex buildings and campuses. What excites you the most about designing and developing them?

The best aspect of aviation is that every building is different. We have terminal buildings, boarding areas, medical centers, office space – you name it. We have these projects with a singular common purpose that also allow us to build everything from big highways to beautiful buildings and incredible guest experiences.

I also love how our work requires us to think like entrepreneurs. We’re self-financed and don’t operate off tax money, so that empowers us to focus on our own definition of design excellence and ROI. We know the financial benefit of doing things the right way – not just on time and on budget, but in a truly sustainable and resilient manner. We’re in the driver seat and there’s so much potential.

You referenced progressive design-build earlier. I know you’ve been a key leader for the Design-Build Institute of America and advocate regularly for progressive design-build as a delivery platform. Why does this work so well for aviation projects?

The traditional approach to designing, engineering and building aviation projects in the US is really inefficient. The owner inks separate contracts with different entities (architect, engineer, etc.) which ultimately leads to disconnect, individual teams playing adversarial roles, and lots of money wasted. Moreover, the traditional process is ripe with low-cost options, RFIs, change orders, and it forces us to treat everything as a commodity. We define success as simply getting to the end of a project, when the quality and value of the final solution should be the true measure.

Furthermore, the traditional model encourages us to set up a budget at the beginning of a project and never really revisit it. We treat the budget as this untouchable thing until the realities of the job push it far beyond the initial target. Then, we have to value engineering the heck out of the projects. It’s just not a good approach.

The inefficiency of the past has led us to progressive design-build. Under this model, an integrated team is formed and comes to shared agreement on cost, schedule, goals and expectations. There is one contract and one target price established. And, once this unified approach is set and the contract signed, all the stakeholders are aligned and there’s nothing left but to work together to achieve our goals. When issues arise, we have a common goal and can fix them quickly and effectively. It never escalates to damage control mode. I believe our entire industry should be embracing progressive design-build to deliver better projects, conserve costs, reduce risk – but we’re not there yet.

What’s the time horizon for the aviation industry collectively moving in that direction?

We’re making great strides. I talk to others who are advancing progressive design-build, or at least recognize that we need a more integrated model. I think our contracts are beginning to take better shapes that are advantageous for the future.

Where we’re behind is just getting people out of their comfort zones and having them step outside the norms of the past. It takes time to change culture and action, that’s a given. But, I do think the measurable value of progressive design-build is undeniable. The proof, the dollars saved – that’s what will push us there.

You’ve been connected to the aviation industry for decades. What’s one challenge it faces and one opportunity it should seize for the future?

The constant challenge we face is creating incredible airports within our budget scope. We need to make decisions that make the most of every dollar. Beyond that though, there’s are some tough issues coming our way that we’ll have to deal with. I don’t think we can continue to create buildings that waste a lot of energy. I don’t think we create infrastructure that fails during hurricanes and earthquakes. We have to prioritize safety and security in new ways.

These are issues our industry is working to respond to each day. We’re being held accountable to design excellence that can adapt, protect, withstand and sustain. And, the entire world is looking in our direction. We need to strive to lead the world in confronting these issues. What an incredible challenge, but if we shift our perspective, what an incredible opportunity we have to lead.

If you were to bring all the Chief Development Officers for major airports in the country together for a conversation, what topic would the primary focus?

Many of us do get together and so often the conversation comes back to project delivery, how we manage relationships, how we conserve costs. We all recognize the fact that project delvery needs to evolve. That’s why I advocate so strongly for progressive design-build. I recognize some of my colleagues see other models as the way forward, but for me, it’s progressive design-build. So we need to keep having this discussion moving forward. It’s a hot topic and we can’t lose focus.

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