San Francisco International Airport Terminal 2, Environmental Graphics and Wayfinding

Above and Beyond

A sleek new San Francisco International Airport terminal exceeds LEED goals and engages passengers in the joys of sustainable travel.   

Passengers making their way through SFO’s new Terminal 2 have become participants in modern sustainability, San Francisco style. Opened in April 2011, the renovated terminal goes beyond LEED requirements while offering “a different kind of travel experience”—what the design team at Gensler calls an “epicurean” experience of pleasure, living modestly, and treading lightly.

Style and sustainability

SFO wanted a “stylish” terminal design and signage “one-half focused on hospitality and one-half focused on sustainability,” says Judi Mosqueda, SFO’s Project Manager of Design & Construction. SFO sought out Gensler for a design solution that is “sleek, modern, and a little more.”

“Our desire was not just to earn LEED points, but to be truly sustainable,” adds Mosqueda. The result is an environment that is an extension of the Bay Area’s culture and aesthetic. Travelers are immersed in San Francisco’s point of view on sustainability, a point of view that inspires travelers to participate in traveling green.

Mosqueda cites the terminal’s 14 glowing gate cubes as “especially stylish,” setting the SFO’s traveler experience apart from the typically generic standard. More than gate markers, “...the cubes are wayfinding lanterns that are adaptable with changeable films on inner surfaces for flexibility over time,” says Tom Horton, Gensler’s Design Director for Brand Design. Not only do changeable films allow the airport to easily adjust to new airlines’ branding color schemes, but materials and energy are saved by not having to replace entire cubes. The cubes also incorporate energy-saving LEDs. The highly visible glowing cubes are key wayfinding beacons in a space the architectural team at Gensler designed to be “open, not cluttered,” says Horton.

“When the project began, the city of San Francisco’s mandate was for the airport to meet LEED Silver standards. But SFO’s Director wanted LEED Gold, and to achieve more than was required,” says Mosqueda. With this directive in mind, SFO brought on design/build partnership Turner Construction and Gensler to help them reach beyond LEED Silver. As a result, SFO T2 is the first LEED Gold-certified airport terminal in the U.S.

“SFO was committed to sustainability from the get-go,” says Horton, and the airport encouraged Gensler to not only use sustainable materials and processes whenever possible, but to look for ways to inspire travelers with sustainable thinking. A prime example is the Gensler team’s treatment of a glass wall that looks out onto a dumpster. Designers created a series of graphics on “Lessons in Lifestreams Impacts.” In one sense, the graphics hide what’s going on behind the glass, explains Horton. “In another sense, it’s an opportunity to engage people graphically by explaining how to reduce the waste stream.”

Treading lightly

Amenities in the new terminal are also designed to inspire sustainable action in travelers. T2’s Dehydration and Hydration Stations enable flyers to empty and fill re-usable water bottles before and after passing through security. Flying with re-usable water bottles reduces the significant volume of waste created by single-use water bottles.

“While native San Francisco travelers will soon adapt to this amenity, travelers from other cities will see these stations too, triggering their awareness of the possibility of traveling with re-usable water bottles,” explains Mosqueda. “SFO is educating the public to become savvy travelers who carry re-usable water bottles with them. We want this to become the norm.” The stations earned T2 a LEED education signage credit.

Hungry passengers also find “anti-chain” local food options and no trash bins—only receptacles for composting and recycling. Mosqueda says the local food program is going well, with the second-highest spend rate per customer among U.S. airports.

Material selection and integration

In its materials selection, Gensler faced the challenge of balancing durability, beauty, and sustainability. Its architectural role and close collaboration with contractor Turner Construction and primary fabricator Fluoresco Lighting and Signs helped ensure that signage and graphics were well integrated.

“The collaboration can really inform the architectural design process,” notes Horton. “EGD can become integrated into the overall environment.” One example of this integration is that the restroom symbols became part of a restroom entry wall, not just applied to it.

Gensler’s materials palette consists primarily of acrylic, glass, aluminum, and stainless steel. Fluoresco helped support the project’s sustainability goals by using recycled aluminum and stainless steel when possible, says Greg Chavez, Project Manager. And, he notes, “Everything was LED illuminated for energy savings.”

Wayfinding: removing complexity

SFO had not been known for having a strong wayfinding program. When Gensler came on board, the airport’s primary goal was “clear wayfinding for passengers,” recalls Mosqueda. “They recognized that knowing one’s way is a major stress factor for a lot of people, especially infrequent flyers.”

Gensler responded by analyzing the existing system and designing a wayfinding program that balances the connection to the existing standards with a stronger, simplified program. “The airport was very interested in consistency,” explains Horton, but consistency wasn’t typical within the visually chaotic airport, as their Design Review Commission had commented. “Black and white is the predominant color scheme that already existed,” says Horton. “There was a heritage nod to the rest of the airport that does play to an advantage. This allowed the number of new signs to be reduced because the black and white signs were much more visible.” The Gensler team built mock-ups to test the starkness of the black and white signs. The black Sintra and vinyl signs overhead are easily adaptable over time and can be updated quickly in-house, reducing transportation (and saving energy) needed for repairs. Messaging and symbol standards developed for the existing airport by Ilium Associates were folded into the new wayfinding program.

From an architectural design standpoint, Gensler removed complexity by adding expansive, naturally illuminated spaces that intuitively guide passengers at key decision-making points, such as post-security, pre-baggage claim, and the departure lounge. Natural daylight makes the terminal easier for travelers to navigate, creates a more healthy environment in which to travel, and helps save electricity used for lighting during the day. The wayfinding program augmented by Horton’s team went through additional fine-tuning when various members of the public were invited into the building and observed while they attempted to find their gates, baggage claim, and other key amenities. “We took note of the difficulties they encountered and then adjusted the signage to be more useful,” explains Chavez.

Airport as museum

SFO is the only U.S. airport that’s an accredited museum, and Gensler’s design of T2 highlights unique art installations by world-renowned artists.” New York artist Janet Echelman’s suspended, mesh-like volume “Air Ocean” mimics San Francisco’s famous wind and fog pockets. At night, color-changing LEDs illuminate the airy structures. A bird call bench made by artist Walter Kitundes invites kids and adults to participate in getting connected to local ecology.

After T2 was built, bird-strikeproof window glass with a striping pattern (like distraction marks on glass for humans) was mandated to protect birds from mistaking the image of sky reflected on glass for actual open sky. Bird-strikeproof glass will become a part of future SFO projects, preventing birds from making the fatal mistake of flying directly into windows. This is a big part of San Francisco’s push towards more sustainable architecture, as glass buildings are having a devastating effect on wild bird populations.

The difference

SFO saw the renovation of T2 as a opportunity to “change the traveler’s experience, and make the terminal feel very different,” says Mosqueda. “Natural light, a warm energy” as Horton describes it, now floods strategically selected stretches of the terminal. Local culture—from food to art—helps define T2 as a unique destination in and of itself. Along with simplified, stylish wayfinding signage using typographic classic Univers and international symbology, “T2 is now becoming the standard for SFO wayfinding,” says Horton.

Through passenger participation, Mosqueda also wanted to “make progressive sustainability measures meaningful,” especially among demographics she sees most apt to participate: 20- to 30-year-olds and families. With 640,000 square feet of terminal space for 5.5 million enplaned passengers, T2 has indeed become a different kind of space through which millions of passengers can find themselves inspired participants in living more sustainably.

--By Naomi Pearson, eg magazine No. 04, 2012

Editor's note: Naomi Pearson is a designer, illustrator, and consultant living in Brooklyn, NY. She also works for the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Exhibit and Graphic Arts Department at the Bronx Zoo. She is a member of the SEGD Sustainability Forum.


Client:  San Francisco International Airport

Client Team:  John Martin director; Ray Quesada, Judi Mosqueda project managers; Vicki Sundstrom sign coordinator

Project Area:  640,000 sq. ft.

Opened:  April 2011

Design:  Gensler

Gensler Brand Design Team: Tom Horton design director; Robert Cardozo project manager; Tim Huey, Melissa Santos designers

Design Consultants:  KTD Keilani Tom, John Gachione; Ilium Associates Don Sellars

Fabrication:  Fluoresco Lighting and Signs primary fabricator; AccuBraille room identification and code signs

Photos:  Bruce Damonte, Nick Lehoux

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