Touching Down at T2

07.01.2011 by Adam Moore


As Gensler principal Jeff Henry stands in the Recompose area of the newly renovated Terminal 2 at the San Francisco International Airport—a uniquely calm space located just past security, featuring comfortable seating and abundant natural light—he takes in the reactions from travelers encountering the redesigned terminal for the first time since its April opening.

"People seem to be more relaxed," he says. "I would say that somehow the environment takes a bit of the edge off of the anxiety of traveling. One person recently said, 'The air smells much cleaner in this terminal.' And that's not really the case, but I think that's one of the psychological impacts of the daylight—it just does something to your brain to make the experience a much more elevated one."

And while it's unlikely that any design firm will discover a way to take all of the stress out of air travel, Gensler's renovation of SFO's Terminal 2—commonly referred to as simply "T2"—may come the closest to helping passengers forget they are at an airport. Home to both American and Virgin Airlines, T2 gracefully blends a strong dose of Bay Area culture, hospitality-inspired flourishes and sustainable design—it is the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design [LEED] Gold airport terminal in the United States—to create a strong case for what the future of air travel could look like.

In the minds of Henry and the design team, creating an authentic Bay Area experience for travelers was crucial to providing an entirely new airport experience.

"When I think about the Bay Area, it's kind of a fluid, non-corporate sort of mindset," Henry says. "We feel like we have a unique thing going on here, and we wanted to somehow bring that sensibility into the design. From a planning standpoint, that certainly guided how the retail, food and beverage, and amenities came together. It feels a little more eclectic, a little more unexpected, and less corporate than most airport environments."

Inspired by the Ferry Building Marketplace, located at the foot of San Francisco's famed Market Street, T2's food, beverage and retail offerings place an emphasis on local, organic foods and wines, including an eponymous restaurant from renowned chef Cat Cora. For travelers who don't consider themselves foodies, T2 offers a taste of the city's many cultural opportunities. As the first U.S. airport to also be an accredited museum, the terminal is home to a 60-foot, boomerang-shaped display case featuring a variety of thought-provoking traveling exhibits. Its location within one of the terminal's retail avenues and between two restroom blocks makes it a popular place for groups to gather and mingle.

T2 also houses a handful of permanent artworks specifically commissioned for the renovation, all of which tie into the terminal's recurring sky and cloud motif. Janet Echelman's ethereal hanging sculpture, "Every Beating Second," was inspired by the Summer of Love and can be found hanging in the terminal's Recompose area, while Norie Sato's "Air Over Under," found on the terminal's glass façade, depicts the dual experience of being under or over clouds while flying. Kendall Buster's "Topograph" creates an illusion that forms what might be fragments of a larger mysterious mass—like clouds—while a collection of three Marc Adams tapestries in the terminal's arrivals lounge helps warm the space where travelers reconnect with friends and family upon their return to San Francisco.

The frequent presence of soothing, inviting artwork dovetails nicely with Gensler's decision to incorporate touches of high-end hospitality into T2, all of which have a direct impact on travelers' stress levels as they work their way through the 640,000-square-foot space. Wooden wraps on the ceiling create an almost residential feel in the ticketing areas, while Fritz Hanson Egg and Swan chairs, as well as benching and stool options from Arconas, Leland and Allermuir add to the high-end "club" feel of the main terminal. Gate seating areas are organized into a variety of configurations, including dining seating, work-oriented seating with power outlets, and clusters for large and small groups. Carefully integrated flight information throughout the terminal keeps travelers in the loop and allows them to focus on enjoying the area's various amenities.

"When you're hanging out in one of the departure lounges, it almost feels like you're a member of an airline club without having to pay the price, and that's because there's so much consideration to the environment—the carpet, the furniture, the artwork," Henry explains. "There was a lot of encouragement by SFO to do those things."

But perhaps the most striking addition to T2 is the Recompose area, situated just beyond the TSA screening area. Because the design team had very little control over the security experience, the idea was to make the exit and transition into the terminal as pleasant as possible. Featuring abundant greenery and a variety of seating options, Recompose gives travelers a chance to put their shoes and belts back on in comfort, and survey the wide range of retail and marketplace offerings available. A tremendous amount of natural daylight works to create a healthier, calmer environment, as well as intuitively guide passengers through the terminal's areas.

"One of the overarching goals was to try and put a smile on people's faces as they walked through the space," Henry says. "Part of that is creating a better look and feel for the interior environment. Instead of having a seating area that looks a certain way, we really considered what those seats were, what they felt like and how people would interact with them—that alone brings a hospitality impact to the space."

nd while T2's design has set a new standard for passenger comfort, its environmental performance is also noteworthy. The terminal has been designed to save 15 percent more than the energy cost of a terminal designed to meet California's already-stringent building code, resulting in an annual savings of $170,000 in operations costs. A large part of this is due to the terminal's innovative and efficient displacement ventilation system which runs along the walls and circulates air at the floor level (as opposed to pushing it down from above), using 20 percent less power than conventional systems. The terminal's plumbing fixtures are 40 percent more efficient than typical fixtures, and reclaimed water from the airport's Mel Leong Treatment Plant supplies toilets and urinals.

The design of T2 also fits into SFO's greater goal of generating zero waste in a number of ways, with the most visible one being Gensler's decision to retain a substantial portion of the existing terminal's infrastructure. The volume of the space remained unchanged, meaning that the design team did not need to demolish existing steel or buy new steel; that in turn reduced the global warming impact of the renovation by 12,300 tons of CO2. An aggressive recycling policy and composting for food waste will also help reduce the amount of waste and carbon footprint generated by the airport.

One of the more unique experiments in waste reduction can be found in the terminal's "hydration stations," which are designed to allow travelers to fill up reusable water bottles for the trip ahead. According to Henry, SFO's ultimate goal is to stop selling bottled water altogether, but for now, the hydration stations serve to educate the public and begin shaping environmentally friendly habits among travelers.

"One of the things we like about it is whether you bring a bottle or not from home, while you're traveling you learn about it, you think about it, and maybe start implementing better practices in your own life," he says. "Part of the zero waste initiative is building awareness among the public, so they go back and try things in their own lives."

With 3.2 million passengers expected in the first full year of operation, it has yet to be seen if T2's art-filled, hospitality-influenced design will prove flexible and efficient enough to become a larger model for the industry. But based on the number of wowed reactions witnessed by Jeff Henry and his team in the spacious, light-filled Recompose area, it's safe to say that this experiment in reshaping and modernizing our transportation infrastructure is off to an strong start.


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san francisco international airport
806 South Airport Boulevard
San Francisco, CA
(800) 435-9736

project team
architecture + brand design
2 Harrison Street, Ste 400
San Francisco, CA 94105
(415) 433-3700

associate architect
Michael Willis Architects
301 Howard Street, Ste 500
San Francisco, CA 94105
(415) 957-2750



associate architect
Hamilton-Aitken Architects
525 Brannan Street
Suite 400
San Francisco, CA 94107
(415) 974-5030

design/build contractor
Turner Construction
343 Sansome Street, Ste 500
San Francisco, CA 94104
(415) 705-8900

Bruce Damonte, images courtesy of Gensler