The little terminal on the northeast edge of the San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is on its fourth life. It opened in 1954 as the domestic hub; in the ’80s it became the official international terminal; in 2000 it was decommissioned and provided administrative space. Then, in April 2011, it became the most talked-about airport terminal in the United States.

Designed by Gensler’s Melissa Mizell, Terminal 2 is infused with natural light and softened with warm finishes. Beyond the ticketing area, Kendall Buster’s sculpture draws passengers toward security.


Location San Francisco

Size 640,000 ft2

Completed 2011

Capacity 5.5 million enplaned passengers

Terminal 2, or T2, brags an art collection worthy of any museum, enough locally sourced and organic fare to rival other parts of San Francisco, and a LEED Gold certification—a first for any US terminal. What can be photographed tells only half the story, so gb&d caught up with Gensler’s Melissa Mizell to hear about the invisible features.

Programmatic layout

The lines on the exterior give clues to the spaces passengers will experience inside. From the high-ceilinged lobby to the more intimate sections of the building inhabited by ticket counters for Virgin and American Airlines, each area is distinct from the others. In this way the design parallels San Francisco itself. “You can go to different neighborhoods in the city and feel like you’re in an entirely different microclimate,” Mizell says. “It makes the city fun and diverse, so we used that analogy to think about the different journey moments within the terminal.”


Lead Architect Gensler

Owner San Francisco International Airport

Associate Architects Michael Willis Architects, Hamilton Aitken Architects

General Contractor Turner Construction Company

Lighting Consultant
JS Nolan and Associates

Sustainability Consultant Simon & Associates

Branding & Graphics Gensler


Light and energy

Custom clerestory windows and skylights flood the lobby and recompose areas with natural light, supporting the efficient electric lights and relieving passengers from the trapped-indoors feeling of a day spent traveling by plane. To compensate for challenges posed by a facility in constant operation, a 456-kilowatt photovoltaic system—located on an adjacent SFO building—provides approximately 20 percent of Terminal 2’s power. The photovoltaic system is what gave the terminal—which earned easy LEED points with recycled content, low-emitting materials, and FSC-certified wood but met challenges where energy was concerned—the push from LEED Silver to Gold.

Recompose area

Terminal 2 is designed to thwart the stereotype that air travel is miserable and hectic. The greatest challenge to this is the area immediately after security, where disheveled passengers hurry to jam shoes back on, stuff tiny toiletries back into carry-on bags, and scoop coins into pockets. A large airside space filled with sunlight is Gensler’s fix. Benches span the central space while colorful fiber nets—a sculptural installation by Janet Echelman—droop soothingly overhead. “The Recompose Area is a more gracious area, symbolizing that you’ve made it through,” Mizell says.


Certification LEED Gold

Natural Light Clerestory windows, skylights reduce artificial lighting

Solar 456-kW photovoltaic array provides 20% of energy needs

Materials FSC-certified wood, low-emitting materials, surfaces with high recycled content

Bathrooms Low-flow fixtures and Dyson Airblades reduce energy and water consumption

Displacement Ventilation Passively cools and cleanses indoor air

Displacement ventilation

The air diffusers of the displacement ventilation system are located throughout the building but perhaps most recognizably when incorporated into the design as angled, stainless-steel piers between retail store entrances. The system, manufactured by Price, works like this: cooled air seeps from the walls, drawn to the bodies occupying the space, then rises as it warms, taking air contaminants with it.


The playful, colossal spin on the human figures of typical bathroom signs is not the only noteworthy feature in Terminal 2’s restrooms. The low-flow fixtures use 40 percent less water while energy-efficient Dyson Airblades render obsolete the resource-intensive process of making paper towels. The floor tiles—like the terminal’s ticket counters, terrazzo floor, and carpeting—utilize recycled content, as does roughly 20 percent of the terminal’s materials.

Passenger experience

The eco-friendliness of the Terminal 2 renovation blends in with features that feel, Mizell says, “like a four-star hotel.” It’s true. From spa services and a yoga room to the gourmet market, passengers who find themselves in Terminal 2 not only can brag about it being one of the greenest airports in the United States, but also can enjoy themselves while they’re at it—another true first.