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SFO’s Harvey Milk Terminal 1: Sustainable inside and out


San Francisco International Airport sets the industry standard for climate action and health, writes Kirsten Ritchie, Gensler’s global director for climate action and sustainability.

The aviation industry is known as a significant contributor of carbon emissions around the world, and San Francisco International Airport (SFO) wanted to change this narrative.

When SFO began to consider expanding and redesigning Terminal One (T1) – one of their oldest terminals – they challenged the design build teams to create a facility that is a worldwide benchmark for air travel, providing unmatched guest experience as well as reducing its climate impact.

After five years of renovation, Harvey Milk Terminal 1 (HMT1) re-opened to the public in 2021. Consisting of a complete modernisation of the original T1 and a brand-new Boarding Area B, HMT1 is named after local activist and civil rights icon, Harvey Milk.

The renovation expanded its capacity from 10 million passengers per annum to 17 million, and sustainable thinking was woven throughout the design and construction.

SFO worked closely with the builders to ensure that demolition and construction materials were salvaged and recycled, and the team achieved over 90% diversion from landfill and fulfilled SFO’s goal of zero waste.

Compared to its predecessor, the new terminal is designed to use 70% less energy and achieve a 95% reduction in operating carbon emissions.

On the material side, low-carbon concrete, steel, flooring, ceiling panels and wallboard were used, leading to an almost 20% reduction in the embodied carbon footprint.

The project teams leveraged technological innovation throughout the terminal to deliver an efficient and high-performing environment. In addition to being an all-electric facility, T1 features an innovative baggage handling system that uses half the energy of traditional models, as well as energy-efficient escalators and elevators.

With a 2.5 MW PV system, 15% of the project’s energy use is provided for the radiant heating and cooling that helps keep occupants comfortable inside.

Water conservation is a pressing issue in the Bay Area, and HMT1 is designed to deliver innovative solutions for this challenge.

The terminal is dual plumbed, supplying clean drinking water for occupants and designed to use reclaimed industrial wastewater for toilet facilities. Bathroom fixtures and faucets are low flow and equipped with sensors, reducing water demands 33% below LEED baseline.

HMT1 is the first airport terminal in the world to achieve Fitwel, WELL, and LEED Platinum certifications. The facility is not only committed to sustainability and resilience, but it also prioritises user health and wellness.

Inside the terminal, dynamic glazed windows change with the sun’s location to reduce glare, and the air filtration system provides healthy indoor environments, a feature that became especially important during the COVID-19 pandemic.

SFO’s goal of zero waste required the project team to pay special attention to the terminal’s recycling, waste, and food scrap programmes.

Gensler worked closely with SFO on the design and placement of food scrap, recycling and waste receptacles to encourage maximum material recovery and diversion from landfill during operations. The company’s digital experience design team helped to craft a campaign that organised SFO’s sustainability efforts into three main stories, focusing on zero carbon, zero waste, and wellbeing.

The topics were then distilled into digestible moments that were displayed on digital monitors, posters, construction barricades, and across social media platforms, reminding users of the terminal’s ongoing sustainability efforts.

In addition to the terminal’s expansion, HMT1’s concourses and gates are designed to anticipate fluctuations in air travel. These facilities are also adaptable to the needs of multiple airlines and aircraft types, ensuring the terminal’s long-term usability.

For an elevated travel experience, HMT1 is a showcase for local artists. A museum with rotating exhibits encourages visitors to savour every moment of their journey, and sculptures and murals adorn the terminal’s interior, from the arrivals lobby to waiting areas.

The past few years have brought great change to the aviation industry, and SFO’s HMT1 demonstrates the importance of innovation and design thinking in the field. By tackling the pressing issues of sustainability, resilience, and wellbeing, airports can make travelling more friendly for passengers as well as the environment.

A legacy of leadership

SFO is an airport industry leader in sustainability. In 2011, it opened Terminal 2, the first airport terminal in the United States to achieve ‘Gold’ status for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), one of the most popular green building certification programs used worldwide.

In 2016, SFO become only the second airport in the US to achieve industry certification for its advanced carbon reduction efforts, which have cut greenhouse gas emissions from airport-controlled operations by 39% since 1990.

In 2018, SFO signed a landmark agreement with major airlines and fuel suppliers to expand the use of sustainable aviation fuels, a low-carbon and sustainably produced drop-in alternative to jet fuel.

The airport has earned numerous environmental awards for carbon reduction, sustainable design and guidelines, protection of endangered species, and employee wellness. And in April 2019, SFO was honoured for creating the world’s first certified Zero Net Energy (ZNE) facility at an airport.

SFO next set its sights on a more ambitious goal – achieving campus-wide ‘triple zero’, carbon neutrality, zero net energy use, and zero waste going to landfill.

With this bold target, the Harvey Milk Terminal 1 project team pushed the envelope of sustainable design and construction, taking advantage of every ‘zero’ innovation available.

“We’ve always been about pushing the boundaries of how sustainable an airport can be,” said airport director Ivar Satero.

“With Harvey Milk Terminal 1, we were further able to challenge the status quo, applying the very latest developments in sustainable building design and across our future operations.”

Even before the new facility took shape, SFO found innovative ways to apply sustainable practices to every aspect of the project. One of the first steps in the construction of Harvey Milk Terminal 1 was to extend the useful life of the existing Boarding Area B, which dated back to 1963.

This phase created ‘Interim Boarding Area B’, with a refreshed interior space, new passenger amenities, and a new extension to the concourse.

The pavement of this new section utilised a carbon-sequestering concrete from Blue Planet, a Silicon Valley-based company, which produces a lightweight concrete aggregate (rocks) by capturing excess carbon in the air and using less energy to make the aggregate than traditional limestone rock.

Harvey Milk Terminal 1 design team

The design, construction and project management teams for Harvey Milk Terminal 1 included:

  • Terminal 1 Center Design-Builder – Hensel Phelps/Gensler/Kuth Ranieri;
  • Terminal 1 Center Construction Manager – AECOM & Cooper Pugeda Management Joint Venture,
  • Boarding Area B Design-Builder – Austin Commercial & Webcor Builders Joint Venture, HKS/Woods Bagot/ED2 International/KYA;
  • Boarding Area B Construction Manager – WSP/Parsons Brinkerhoff/AGS.

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