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Photo © Bruce Damonte
A work by artist Norie Sato rises above Terminal 2s glass entry. The airport—which is also an accredited museum—displays work from its collection throughout its public spaces.


San Francisco International Airport Terminal 2

San Francisco, California

Welcome Departures: Improving travel experience and building a sense of place drive sustainability in an unlikely building type.

By William Hanley
July 2012

You could be anywhere. The airport terminal puts you in a quintessential "non-place," a transitory location detached from the cultural life around it, anthropologist Marc Augé famously wrote. And as any frequent flyer knows, at most U.S. airports that disconnection only makes the interminable lines, intimidating security, antagonistic customer service, and a long list of other frustrations all the worse. "You always wish the airport experience could be better," says Melissa Mizell, a senior associate at Gensler and a design director on the firm's major renovation of Terminal 2 at San Francisco International Airport. "This was our chance to do something about it."


Location San Francisco, California (Shore of San Francisco Bay)

Gross area 640,000 ft2 (59,460m2)

Completed April 2011

Cost $383 million

Annual purchased energy use (based on simulation) 103 kBtu/ft2 (1,170 MJ/m2), 6% reduction from base case (31% cost savings)

Annual carbon footprint (predicted) 19 lbs. CO2/ft2 (92 kg CO2/m2)

Program Curbside, ticketing, TSA, restrooms, retail, concessions, museum display, departure lounge, play areas, yoga room, baggage claim, back of house



Building management system Johnson Controls

Doors Dorma (retail); Besom (sliding)

Wall coverings Xorel by Carnegie

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The project took the former International Terminal and turned it into T2, a 640,000-square-foot, 14-gate hub for American Airlines and Virgin America. Neither Mizell nor Gensler principal Jeff Henry had previously worked on an airport project. "Our goal was to challenge existing paradigms in the aviation industry," says Henry. Working with Gensler's airport specialists and a broad team of consultants, the designers wanted to mitigate some of the irritations of air travel by privileging visitor comfort. At the same time, they devised ways to reduce energy needs and earn the $383 million terminal LEED Gold certification—all while introducing a sense of San Francisco into a notoriously generic building type.

The project team kept the existing steel structure, making only a few alterations, such as removing two columns. "We had good bones to work with," says Henry. Airport officials estimate that the decision saved 12,300 tons of carbon (versus new construction). The designers' most striking move was replacing bunkerlike concrete walls with large windows. From the departures lobby, travelers can see through a TSA checkpoint to the gates and even out to the tarmac. "One of our goals was to make the whole experience more intuitive," says Henry. "You walk up to the entrance, and you immediately understand the journey."

TSA regulations leave little room for variation in screening areas, but Mizell and Henry used a shift in scale to create a sense of hope. From the low-ceilinged screening area, travelers emerge into a light-filled "recompose" lobby with nearly 30-foot-high ceilings. "There's a light and a comfortable bench at the end of the tunnel," says Mizell.

Daylight streams into the terminal from clerestories and skylights, reducing the need for its electronically controlled electric fixtures. To further save energy and avoid the canned-air feeling of a typical terminal, the designers employed a displacement ventilation system. Air diffusers placed near the floor pool conditioned air at low levels while heat from people and machinery carries contaminated air upward. Photovoltaics mounted on expanses of flat roof supply the airport's central plant and are designed to account for 15 to 20 percent of the energy used by the terminal.

Fitting the air diffusers into the design in unobtrusive but effective locations was a challenge, according to Neil Joson, principal at SJ Engineers. "We had to be creative, using places such as the top of the baggage carousel for the displacement grilles," says Joson. "It turns out to be the perfect location for the displacement diffusers, since people are milling around the carousel."

Other diffusers discreetly occupy intervals between retail spaces that line a central concourse. Here, the designers aimed to create a streetlike feel and introduce tenants that have a connection to San Francisco. Restaurants have "outdoor" cafés that jut beyond their facades. An artisanal grocery stocks local cheeses. And a restaurant by celebrity chef Cat Cora brings Bay Area culinary star power to the gates.

Retail tenants are encouraged to obtain green business certification from the county. They can offer compostable water bottles, but Gensler has provided "hydration stations," bottle-friendly water fountains, throughout the terminal for refilling containers. The design of each retail space is overseen by a rotating review panel—Mizell is currently a member.

"We wanted to create a hospitality feel," says Henry. His firm gave the lighting and tile surrounding the mirrors in restrooms a domestic softness. And, as sure a sign as any that you have just landed in San Francisco, the terminal's yoga room is designated by a cross-legged figure rendered in the same style as the restroom icons.

The most innovative signage ties the terminal's visitor comforts and place-making strategies to its sustainable elements. Decals on one of the large windows explain the terminal's waste management program—while partially obscuring compost from view. Signage at the hydration stations, in the bathrooms, and elsewhere detail how passenger practices—such as using an electric hand dryer—can help reduce the terminal's ecological impact. Mizell hopes the attention to sustainability makes the terminal distinctly San Francisco. "We wanted to educate people coming from different places and maybe drive a little creative competition with other cities."


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