Green Design Takes Flight at San Francisco International Airport

Green Design Takes Flight at San Francisco International Airport

Designers are tapping advanced building technology as well as concepts dating to ancient times to green a terminal at San Francisco International Airport that will be the new home for Virgin America and American Airlines domestic flights.

The goal of the $383 million renovation at SFO is to replace a structure that was once the heart of the airport with a 587,000-square-foot building that sets new standards for the comfort and safety of travelers and environmental responsibility.

Driving the design for SFO's new Terminal 2 is a desire to "bring back the joy of flying," said Melissa Mizell, a senior associate at Gensler. The firm is the master architect for the project with Turner Construction as the design build general contractor.
SFO New T2
"We want to deliver a high-performance, energy efficient building and passenger delight," Mizell said.

Scheduled for completion in spring 2011, the new terminal is designed to serve 4 million passengers a year and meet standards for certification by the U.S. Green Building Council at the LEED-Silver level, at minimum. The designation is the second of four certification levels awarded under the USGBC's Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design assessment and rating system.

To achieve the rating, the terminal will incorporate energy and water efficiency elements and other resource-saving features that are expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 1,667 tons each year.
SFO T2 Yesteryear
The measures are to include:

  • Lighting and other building systems that are expected to annually reduce energy use by 2.9 GWh, natural gas consumption by 116,00 therms and carbon dioxide emissions by 1,640 tons.
  • Plumbing fixtures that use 40 percent less water and a dual plumbing system that will enable use of reclaimed water from the airport's water treatment plant for toilets and other non-potable purposes.
  • Use of building materials, coatings, flooring and furniture made with recycled content and low-emitting substances.
  • A displacement ventilation system that brings filtered, fresh air into rooms and displaces existing warmer air by pushing it up and out through exhaust points.
  • A "zero waste" strategy that includes an aggressive recycling program for airport operations, employees and travelers; composting of waste from food services; and use of biodegradable tableware by vendors.
  • A paperless ticketing system.
  • The country's first "airport food marketplace" to focus on locally grown and produced offerings.
  • A pedestrian bridge to Bay Area Rapid Transit trains and the airport's people mover, called AirTrain.
  • Plug-in electrical chargers for airport ground services equipment.
  • Prime parking spots for hybrid vehicles.

SFO New T2 Lobby
Gensler, Turner, SFO and their other project partners had to first strip down the structure originally christened the Central Terminal.

It was a state-of-the-art facility when it opened in 1954 and featured the first jetways at time when boarding and exiting planes involved climbing stairs in the open air.

The black-and-white photo above shows the Central Terminal under construction, and the one below shows the terminal's lobby circa 1957.

SFO T2 Lobby 1957
The terminal was revamped in 1983 and housed international flights until the airport's new International Terminal opened in 2000.

Although operations offices and a control tower occupy upper floors, for the past decade the public has largely seen the building as something to bypass between Terminals 1 and 3.

The seismic retrofit and green makeover of Terminal 2 began in 2008 with builders peeling away the structure to reveal its steel frame.


"We want to build the most sustainable terminal we can deliver and that process started at the very beginning," said Ivar Satero, SFO's deputy airport director for design and construction, as he stood in the cavernous shell of the new terminal.

Satero and a posse of project teammates that included colleagues from Gensler and Turner held a media tour of the construction site during Earth Week.

Builders have thus far recycled 93 percent of construction waste, diverting 15,100 tons of material that otherwise would have gone to landfill.

When it is complete, the expanded and strengthened structure will include:T2 map

  • A diagonal bracing system that uses 30 percent less structural steel than a conventionally designed building but enables it to better withstand earthquakes.
  • A new building envelope of metal and glass that gives the terminal an open and airy feel.

The expanse of glass enables daylighting for much of the occupied space, a practice that long predates electricity. At least two other aspects in the building involve age-old concepts.

Terrazzo flooring made with recycled glass chips will cover most of the public space, except the waiting area at the gates. "Terrazzo is durable and has been used since the time of Roman stone masons," said Turner project manager Jill Shearer.

In another practice that dates to ancient Rome, travelers will be able to fill their water bottles throughout the terminal. Designers have updated the fountain concept and given it a new name: "hydration station."

With natural light, decor in bright but soothing colors, plants and comfortable seating, the terminal is intended to evoke a "relaxing courtyard" in the area stretching from the 6,000-square-foot "recomposure zone" -- a Zen garden-inspired space that greets travelers after they've passed through security -- to the "holdrooms" at the gates, said Mizell.

T2 interior

Along the way, airport visitors will find:

  • A 30,793-square-foot retail area with 12 restaurants and nine stores.
  • Free wireless access to the Internet with plug-in stations, work counters and benches throughout the terminal for business travelers.
  • Two play areas for children.
  • Sculptures and other works by local and internationally known artists.

Floor-to-ceiling windows will enable travelers to easily view arriving and departing planes from the gate area. In addition to supporting natural lighting, the design element is intended to provide travelers visual diversion and ease the anxiety of waiting for flights. "Passengers won't have to worry or wonder whether their planes are there, they'll be able to see them," Mizell said.

Bolstering both those ideas is the sleek bar planned at the tip of the terminal. "The best views of the runway will be from the cocktail lounge," said Mizell.

More information about the airport's sustainability efforts, including its carbon offset program for travelers, is available at

Other members of renovation project team include Michael Willis Architects, Hamilton-Aitken Architects,  lighting consultant JS Nolan and Associates and LEED consultant Lynne Simon & Associates.

Gensler has had a leading role in more than 50 airport projects, including work on Terminal B at Mineta San Jose International Airport.

All images and renderings courtesy of Gensler and San Francisco International Airport.