When we commute and travel, do we think about the long-term sustainability of the facilities we use? Does it matter that these buildings are efficient and provide healthy environments? Up until now, we have considered multi-modal transit facilities as positive infrastructure since they facilitate public mass transit, reducing private vehicular use and greenhouse gas production. And we have known that while air travel was necessary, it is probably not sustainable from a greenhouse gas perspective.

Now think ahead. What might transportation facilities look like in the next 10 or more years? This is the question a significant number of public agencies and their architects and contractors are asking as they create buildings that will be used for the next 50 to 60 years. A quick Google search for Sustainable Multi-Modal Facilities, Sustainable Airports, and Sustainable Airport Facilities produced 2.3m, 15.4m and 19.1m web pages respectively, suggesting there is a strong push to build sustainable infrastructure.

The idea that public buildings should be designed, built, and operated for the long term can be justified as an appropriate use of public money. However, the reasons public agencies and their stakeholders look to sustainable infrastructure are more complicated. At the heart of their thinking is a triple bottom line approach with a focus on social sustainability, financial performance, and environmental responsibility. Simply stated, transportation facilities that provide a positive passenger experience will improve the developer’s financial performance, while reducing the facilities’ global and local ecological footprint. In other words, traveler comfort and convenience is good for business. Happy customers will frequent the local stores and businesses located in transit and airport buildings. In addition to improved customer service and satisfaction, added benefits include improved work environments and employee productivity, reduced capital asset life-cycle and operating costs, improved relationship with the community, and compliance with local codes.

A few examples will illustrate this trend. Many U.S. airports have developed sustainability guidelines for future development. San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is no exception. In fact SFO was recognized for its Sustainable Planning, Design and Construction Guidelines with an “Airports Going Green” award in 2013. This airport is in the planning stage of redeveloping its 1.1 million square foot Terminal 1 with a 10-year, $2.1b program, and is also planning to upgrade other terminals and facilities with an additional $2b in construction.

Following the success of the LEED® Gold certification for Terminal 2, the airport has developed guiding sustainability principles to encourage its architects and contractors to deliver facilities to help the airport achieve its sustainability goals. SFO encourages creativity and innovation in facility design and construction with the aim of developing highly sustainable, long-term buildings focused on passenger experience, comfort, and health. The guidelines describe both sustainable mandatory requirements and voluntary expanded requirements for these categories – energy and atmosphere, comfort and health, water and wastewater, site and habitat, materials and resources, and equity and aesthetics.

More importantly, the guidelines require design decisions for building systems and products in these categories to be informed through output information from life-cycle assessments, life-cycle cost, and return on investment analyses. Thus the selection of facility design, building systems, technology, and product options will be made with an improved understanding of their social and environmental impacts and benefits, translated into capital investment costs and long-term cost savings.

The $4.5b Transbay Transit Center now under construction in San Francisco is another example. Its design is intended to create value through inclusion of sustainability strategies. Publicly released information suggests that the building will be energy efficient (33% improvement on code standards – ASHRAE 90.1.2007s) and water efficient. Proposed energy efficiency and occupant comfort strategies include daylight harvesting, hybrid geothermal cooling, natural ventilation, and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) sensors for improved indoor air quality. Water efficient strategies include the capture of rainwater from the rooftop garden and graywater from sinks and showers to be used to flush toilets. Resource-efficient strategies include the use of environmentally preferable building products. When completed in 2017, the building is targeted to achieve LEED Gold certification.

Anthony Bernheim, FAIA, LEED Follow is Principal and Director of Sustainability at Bernheim + Dean Inc., and Program Sustainability Manager for the Terminal 1 redevelopment program at San Francisco Airport.
San Francisco Airport Building Plan