Known as the “gateway to the Pacific,” San Francisco International Airport (SFO) serves 55.8 million domestic and international passengers annually. One of the busiest airports in North America, SFO air traffic controllers guide more than 1,000 aircrafts daily on four runways. New technologies and a seismically vulnerable existing tower – located four miles from the San Andreas Fault – necessitated the need for a new tower and base building that complement the architectural features of SFO’s International Terminal and provide a safe, world-class workspace for air traffic controllers. Given its high visibility and prominent location between Terminals 1 and 2, the soaring 221-foot-tall Replacement Air Traffic Control Tower is the first site arriving passenger see, whether by land or air.
Fentress Architects’ design is a striking, iconic image for SFO. The result is a tower designed to withstand a magnitude 8.0 earthquake, offer maximum sightlines, accommodate innovative technology, and create a dynamic airport symbol. The tower serves as a visual landmark reflective of the character and sophistication of the City of San Francisco.
Integrated facilities include a three-story Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) office building and a secure and non-secure connector between the two terminals. A geometrically complex design features a twisting façade informed by the color, massing, and materials of the airport’s passenger terminal. Resembling a torch, the tower’s form hearkens to a time in the city’s history when torches were used to guide ships into dock. To achieve this series of intricate panel shapes, the designers implemented parametric modeling software and three-dimensional printed models.
The west face of the tower is opened vertically with a backlit glass façade that rises 147 feet high to act as a beacon – guiding both airplanes and passengers to the airport. Its multiple glass-fronted panels, illuminated by color-changing and programmable light-emitting diodes (LEDs), transform the tower in recognition of holidays and special events. Situated above the three-story FAA office building, the open-core design allows passengers to gaze directly up into the tower through corridor skylights to view the cascading waterfall lighting.
To achieve maximum stability, the design team integrated a cast-in-place, reinforced concrete core cylinder, wrapped by a metal-panel cladding system. A vertical post-tension system overturns resistance, prevents the tower from swaying with high wind loads, and stimulates a “self-centering” capability in the event of an earthquake. Following an earthquake, the tower’s design allows for immediate operation. The tower stands as the tallest vertical self-centering post tension concrete structure in the United States. The tower is topped with an offset, circular observation cab that features clear, laminated, and butt-glazed glass to provide FAA air traffic controllers with an unobstructed 270-degree view of airport runways and taxiways.
The three-story office building presents a radical departure for the FAA toward an open office environment that encourages collaboration. Air traffic supervisors and technical operators now interact in an open workspace complemented by light-filled offices. A courtyard and green roof provide much-needed outdoor space where air traffic controllers can rest between shifts.
For passengers using the non-secure connector, the glass atrium design provides a unique opportunity for direct visual interaction with the tower. Soaring ceiling heights, a beautiful art glass wall and natural light enhance the space. The secure connector features expansive views to the airfield, a museum space for artwork, and a yoga room for passengers. Secure corridors allow passengers to transit between terminals.
Certified LEED Gold by the U.S. Green Building Council, the project embraces SFO’s commitment to sustainability with the use of solar panels, efficient mechanical systems, efficient daylighting, a high-performance building envelope, and sustainable interior materials. An icon in the sky, the Replacement Air Traffic Control Tower serves as a memorable symbol for the airport for generations to come.
Fentress Architects is an international design firm with studios in Denver, Colorado; Los Angeles, California; San Francisco, California; Washington, DC; and Houston, Texas. Founded by Curtis Fentress in 1980, the firm passionately pursues the creation of sustainable and iconic architecture. Fentress Architects is a dynamic learning organization, driven to grow its ability to design, innovate and exceed client expectations. The firm has designed $42 billion of architectural projects worldwide, visited by more than 550 million people each year. Fentress’ global portfolio is renowned for innovative, award-winning design of airports, museums, convention center, laboratories, higher education, civic and government buildings, offices, mixed-use, religious and residential buildings. As a testament to the firm’s solution-driven and creative design approach, projects have been honored with over 550 awards for innovation and excellence.