The Greenification of SFO

[T2 info and images gleaned from the SFO website and Gensler’s interactive map]

I have a habit of hanging out in airports. There’s no way around it when you have to judge a flight on its price point rather than its convenience, and you don’t happen to own a private jet. Usually I walk, compulsively pacing from one side of the terminal to the other like a caged animal in a vain attempt at exercise. But despite all that time and unlike the travelers who have their pet hubs and favorite restaurant near gate 63, I don’t remember airports very well. For the most part uniformly unremarkable and unpleasant, they blur together in my mind – a mush of waxed tile corridors, black pleather chairs, slightly sticky table surfaces, overpriced boxed sandwiches, and herds of people of all shapes, heels clicking, roller bags clunking, in various states of distress.

I understand there is logic behind the homogeny: airports are optimized to serve a very specific function – shuttling people from one place to another in an organized fashion – with hundreds of smaller systems built in to enable this. Travelers need to be dropped off with space on the curb for a goodbye make out session; they need to purge the taste of microwaved ziti with microbrewery beer; they need to pay for overweight luggage on one side of the world and watch it pop out of a chute on the other; they need to catch up on work emails while waiting for a delayed flight. And under their shoes and over their heads is the massive infrastructure created to move everything along – heating and cooling, waste removal, baggage conveyance, aircraft maintenance, security measures . . . A while ago we got used to a particular airport model and have since stuck with it. However, even though our tried and true designs may be adequate, now that we’ve become conscious of just how detrimental our travel indulgences are, it’s time for a revamp.

Enter the new Terminal 2 at my very own San Francisco International Airport [casually called T2]. Operational as of April 14 – only three years after SFO decided to drop $383 million on renovating their abandoned former international terminal – this LEED™ Gold certified facility is now the home of American Airlines and Virgin America. I admit, my first thought after emerging from a jetway has never been, “gee, I wonder what the LEED rating for this place is,” but why not? I lug my backpack to BART to get to the airport. I carry a water bottle and frequent drinking fountains. I stress over separating the scraps of my plastic-wrapped lunch into the correct compose/waste/recycling bins [that is, if the airport even offers the choice]. Shouldn’t I hold the terminal itself to the same standards?

In the 1960’s, Pan Am, the premier U.S. airlines in the glamorous early days of commercial flight, began passing out “First Moon Flights Club” membership cards and reserving seats for future jaunts to outer space. Although flight attendants no longer attend charm school, Gensler, the architecture firm behind T2’s design, is proclaiming T2 “a clarion call for the return to the joy of travel.” We may not be cavorting on the moon just yet, but we do have the amenities of T2 to soften the disappointment of regular domestic travel.

The Perks

It’s just like being in Golden Gate Park: Cool air is injected at waist level to displace heat upwards, maintaining a temperate 70 degree environment that is probably still warmer than foggy downtown. The glass façade of the check-in area and large windows and skylights in the rest of the terminal allow loads of fresh sunlight into the building, creating a natural glow that’s easy on the eyes and the electricity bill. A bubbling brook of “hydration stations” is located centrally in the terminal, making the simple act of filling a water bottle a public display. Appropriately, SFO expects vendors to sell only compostable bio-resin or paper bottles of water.

It’s just like your weekly CSA box: Not only are many of the restaurants’ ingredients locally sourced, they’re treated to a Bay Area culinary flourish as well. Or that’s what SFO claims; the only place I actually recognize from SF proper is Burger Joint. What my sleep-deprived brain and jelly legs can appreciate, however, is noshing on organic produce and meats, sustainably harvested seafood, cage-free eggs, and fair trade coffee, all free of artificial additives and cooked in dishware washed with low-phosphate detergents. To-go containers are recyclable or biodegradable in keeping with the goal of recycling 90 percent of the airport’s waste by 2020.

It’s just like the SOMA loft you can’t afford: The spacious “recompose” area just beyond security allows people to tie shoes, buckle belts, re-stuff laptops into bags, and attend to general disarray with plenty of space for arm-flailing. The ubiquitous segmented chair-benches still exist, but at least they’re augmented by free-standing armchairs and outlet-equipped desks. Airy sculptures float overhead. Two childrens’ play areas are a godsend for bedraggled parents and a nightmare for the rest of us trying to maneuver past running kiddies while keeping our eardrums intact. And wooden marimba benches by Walter Kitundu, which are beautiful and, I’m sure, produce lovely ringing tones, have little chance of withstanding overeager poundings day after day.

It’s just like re-gifting that ugly Christmas sweater: Terrazzo flooring is made with recycled glass chips; 90 percent of the construction debris was recycled, in addition to the savings from using the existing terminal shell; half-flush toilets and urinals use reclaimed wash water; and the air and electricity provided to planes at the gates will reduce fuel consumption by 1.4 million gallons per year, sparing about 15 thousand tons of carbon dioxide. Seeing as U.S. airlines pumped out 418 billion pounds of the stuff in 2007 [Air Transport Assoc.], that’s a drop in the bucket but heading in the right direction.

The Potholes

It still looks and feels like an airport. Maybe this is unrealistic, wanting it to be something other than what it is, but it seems like the sustainable focus would lend itself well to untraditional architectural and interior design choices; to provide an excuse, in other words, for making the place uniquely innovative and exhilarating. Instead, T2’s interior, with its monochromatic whitewash and generic layout of stubby columns and ceiling tiles and right angles, is sterile and nonthreatening in the dullest way. Such artistic negligence cannot be chalked up to lack of inspiration when its predecessors include such varied and beautiful structures as this:

[Many thanks to dalbera for the fantastic original photos]

That is the award-winning Madrid-Barajas, a steel and glass industrial space that sprouts rainbow tree limbs to support an undulating wooden roof pockmarked with skylights. It looks like a futuristic factory, with travelers being hurried through the assembly line, speedy and efficient. Ben Gurion in Israel is topped with a bottomless bowl that allows rainwater to pour directly onto the floor below in a natural indoor waterfall [how do you keep kids – or me – from frolicking in it and tracking slippery trails through the terminal?]. Denver’s circus tent-like fiberglass canopy mimics the surrounding snowy peaks, glowing especially pearly white against the dark evening sky. Stimulation for the eyes is stimulation for the mind – I don’t need Zen while traveling [I feel sluggish enough after 14 hours in a plane seat], I need energy and refreshment, and environments like these provide the zing to keep me peppy. No, it wasn’t inspiration that the T2’s designers lacked; it was the ambition to create something truly breathtaking.

How about the planes? Other than providing hookups to the building’s electricity and ventilation for gated planes so that they’re not running off auxiliary power, there are no moves to improve the actual aircrafts. Off the top of my head, I don’t know the difference in efficiency between burning fuel into electricity on board and streaming electricity from a distant coal-eating power plant, but the roots of each are in non-renewable resources just the same. I realize this is not SFO’s direct responsibility; they can still express expectations for their airborne partners. Although Virgin made the first foray into biodiesel in 2008, in a test flight with one the 747’s four fuel tanks containing a 20% coconut and babassu oil mixture, and other companies have followed suite – KLM just announced it will use recycled cooking oil for flights to and from France – until airlines care more about designing an eco-friendly Boeing “Albatross” than the next Airbus A380 there will be little progress in this area.

Tangent rant about carbon offsets: A beef I have with airlines is the “carbon offset” programs that allow you to feel ecologically ethical by turning cash – proportional to your flight’s environmental damage – into a “save the trees” campaign. Rather take responsibility for their product and invest a little into sustainable R&D, they simply pawn money off onto other organizations who promise that everything will be ok. It’s like paying indulgences to absolve your sins back in the old Catholic church. Tossing money into a basket doesn’t make you a better person. Neither does paying a sum to a non-profit to prevent a logging company from cutting down a handful of trees. That’s right, Climate Passport, which SFO uses, doesn’t go so far as to actually plant trees, it just puts fences around the few we haven’t managed to kill yet. For the low, low price of $13.50 you can offset a whole ton of carbon! That’s approximately the amount of exhaust emitted during a one-way trip across the U.S. I’ll point out that this doesn’t take into account obtaining and refining the fuel that made the emissions in the first place, nor the waste produced in-flight, or the manufacturing and maintenance of the aircraft. In other words, in no way does this address the long-term consequences of fuel-powered travel. I’ll save my money and ride a bike.

Speaking of power plants, where are T2’s sustainable energy sources? An airport runs at full speed nearly 24 hours a day, every day of the year. A little re-used grey water in the toilets is nice, but why not larger steps? Solar cells on the roof or in the grassy medians between runways? Energy-efficient luggage trucks? Bay wave power hookups?

I suppose I’ll refrain from further criticism until I have a chance to inspect T2 in person . . .

As you might have noticed, my initial enthusiasm waned steadily the more I researched the terminal. With a little data comparison, the environmental stats no longer seemed so impressive, and trying to compete against much more aesthetically innovative architecture was simply embarrassing. I give SFO credit for the attempt. But with such a supportive community here in the Bay Area, where composting is a legal mandate and bicycle-powered music festivals a regular event, I would have expected much, much better.

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