Design of SFO’s New Terminal 1 Inspired by Bay Area Naturalism

Image Courtesy of Gensler

By Meghan Hall

When San Francisco International Airport’s Harvey B. Milk Terminal (T1) was built back in 1960, nobody could have anticipated the role the City and the greater Bay Area would play as one of the world’s cultural and technological epicenters. One of the oldest terminals to date, the building is no longer able to accommodate the millions of passengers it receives each year, and the terminal’s renovation has become a massive $2.4 billion undertaking requiring the close collaboration of all involved to ensure its success. Designing the project to withstand the rapid evolution of technology in the aviation sector, while embodying the best the Bay Area has to offer, is also a huge challenge, one that has required SFO officials to hire three different design firms just to tackle the Terminal 1 Center (T1C).

“As the cities of Boston, New York and Washington were once important hubs for commerce and culture in the last century, because of their central location between the U.S. and Europe, San Francisco is now at the new center of global exchange as partnerships for trade expand to the Pacific Rim,” said Byron Kuth and Liz Ranieri, principals and founders at Kuth/Ranieri Architects who were hired alongside Gensler as part of a Gensler/Kuth Ranieri Joint Venture. The firms are working in collaboration with Greeley, Colo.-based general contractor Hensel Phelps to tackle the Terminal 1 Center portion of the redevelopment. The contract for the second half of the project, called Boarding Area B — BAB for short — was awarded to design builders Austin Commercial & Webcor Builders Joint Venture, HKS, KYA and Woods Bagot EDG International.

The project, which is slated to be completed sometime between 2022 and 2023, will include the design and construction of a new pre-security concourse for terminal one and a main concourse with an art gallery, food halls and integrated technology. The goal, according to the firms involved, was to create an indubitable impression that when you landed at SFO, you knew you were in the San Francisco Bay Area.

San Francisco International Airport, Bay Area, Boston, New York, Pacific Rim, Gensler, Kuth Ranieri, Hensel Phelps, Austin Commercial & Webcor Builders
Image Courtesy of Gensler

“It’s a business card for the City of San Francisco and the people coming to visit,” said Ryan Fetters, an architect at Gensler. “When you come to visit, it’s almost like that experience in the airport is your initial first impression. Under the guise of wanting to put their best foot forward, SFO wanted to reflect our values as a city and a country and exhibit why we are a special place. We are one of the main touchpoints globally for our technology industry, culture and even natural wonders in the state.”

The overarching theme that was settled on was deemed “Bay Area Naturalism,” which seeks to recreate the romance and ease of travel through an airport terminal that evokes the Bay Area’s organic environment. The use of natural materials such as stone, wood and even light — often materials that Gensler says are more typical of hospitality spaces — are widespread throughout the entire space.

Occuli and skylights will be used along with other, organic sculptural forms to refract light onto the floor and around the space. The design team plans to open up the space even further by using glass walls to separate the ticketing lobby from the terminals behind security, allowing visitors to SFO to see beyond the security line. The openness of the design will allow guests to see out to the tarmac and inbound and outbound flights by allowing for visual sight lines between the nonsecure and secure sides of the security checkpoint.

“It’s fun to work with daylight as an architectural tool,” explained Jeff Henry, interiors design director and principal at Gensler. “Daylight is an important part of this concept. One of the things we strive to do is to rebuild the experience, so the guest can see the experience unfold before they even make their way through the entire building.”

According to Kuth and Ranieri, the layout of the building connecting what the team calls the “land and air” sides will also be built with flexibility in mind to accommodate shifting airport planning and security guidelines.

However, the design team also wanted to create moments of quiet and separation. Portals situated throughout the ticketing lobby will provide quieter spaces for travelers and guests to stop and rest. The black steel portals are wrapped around wood and have dramatic edge lighting. High-end custom designed carpet inserts and enhanced lounge furniture and seating concepts are meant to give a more organic look and feel to Terminal One. Large scale art exhibit cases as part of the SFO Art Museum have also been embedded into the space and mimic the design of the portals with their lighting and steel surrounds.

“We’re looking for that quiet wow, extrapolating Bay Area naturalism into the space using things you don’t expect to see — stones, woods — that typically are more reserved for hospitality clientele,” said Fetters.

Just as important as evoking the character and culture of the Bay Area, however, is making sure that Terminal One will continue to stand the test of time, that the airport will remain relevant and technologically sound in the coming decades.

“It’s really about future-casting and how to make this new experience have a lifespan of forty years,” said Henry. “It’s really important to project ahead and try to predict the built environment. Technology is obviously doing that. SFO is embracing that, and being near Silicon Valley it’s even more important that the technical aspect become part of the guest experience.”

According to Kuth and Ranieri, the technologies incorporated into SFO’s Terminal 1 will facilitate intuitive wayfinding, provide responsive app navigation and customized navigation, feature the first independent baggage system and an “internet ready” campus. Such progressive technologies including biometric tech, artificial intelligence and data tracking are becoming increasingly common in airports around the world, rapidly transforming the way in which people travel.

Henry and Fetters believe that the incorporation of such amenities in airports, along with technology, will play an important role in the future of aviation-based travel and the ability of airports around the world to remain current and successful. “There’s going to be a lot of wonderful tech that drives all of this behind the scenes,” said Henry.

“You definitely need to enhance your offerings so that you can leverage the balance from business propositions,” added Fetters. “It’s a bit similar to a lot of retail or hospitality-driven experiences; there is a lot greater power of choice with passengers. In addition to offering a restaurant, it’s about these other amenities that hit on people’s values.”

Once completed, the design team has no doubt that the terminal will be better able to accommodate and welcome — in true Bay Area fashion — the millions of passengers who travel through the airport each year.

“The City of San Francisco is — and we believe will continue to be — the most prominent point of global entry and at the same time will assert itself as uniquely regional experience for travelers,” said Kuth and Ranieri. “When you arrive in San Francisco, you’ll land in an environment that distinguishes itself from any other airport in the world — one that embodies the natural and urban character of the Bay Area.”