San Francisco's Harvey Milk Terminal Gets Fitwel Certification

Fitwel is all about health and wellness, and you need that at an airport

Outside of the Harvey Milk Terminal
Outside of the Harvey Milk Terminal.


For years on Treehugger, one of the major sins of greenwashing has been what we called "the sin of certifying laughingly inappropriate uses," where we would get things like a LEED-certified parking garage – which I noted would not be green "even if it was made from site-grown bamboo and ventilated by flapping butterfly wings." Another favorite was airports; buildings supporting the most carbon-intensive activities that any individual can do. Many do not believe that any building serving such a destructive purpose should be granted any kind of green certification; in fact, some are questioning whether architects should be designing airports at all, especially when they agree to "evaluate all new projects against the aspiration to contribute positively to mitigating climate breakdown."

Then there is Fitwel, "the world's leading certification system committed to building health for all." It's run by the Center for Active Design, originally set up during the Bloomberg administration to fight obesity through building design. Bloomberg said at the time: "Physical activity and healthy eating are the two most important factors in reducing obesity and these steps are part of our ongoing commitment to fighting this epidemic." Fitwel makes perfect sense for airports, which are usually packed with people trapped for hours. They may get a lot of exercise from walking for miles, but there are many other things about Fitwel besides climbing stairs.

Reena Agarwal, Chief Operating Officer for the Center for Active Design, explained how they worked with Gensler to use Fitwel to improve the airport.

points for Fitwel
point score for Fitwel at SFO. Fitwel

Fitwel is a points-based system, which sometimes leads to counterintuitive or silly results, such as a 100 percent score for location, when airports are by necessity in the middle of nowhere. But what they really mean is that there is a there there.

Increased physical activities and social interactions: Easy access to public transport and nearby amenities such as outdoor seating, food outlets, financial services, fitness center and many more.

Airports are like cities, and they have the amenities that cities have these days, but usually at significant cost to the user. But here, in a building where they make lots of money selling bottled water, they actually provide water bottle refilling stations. Where you can have kids trapped for hours, they have play areas where kids can run around. Where the air can often be dry and smell like jet fuel, they have high indoor air quality. Reena Agarwal was also proud of the fact that where mothers are often looking for a discreet place to feed their babies, they have lactation stations. A lot of work has been done to reduce stress, including wayfinding, better lighting, and even outdoor space.

I scoffed at the points given for bike parking, which years ago was famously criticized in LEED; who is going to bike to an airport? But in fact, as Reena Agarwal pointed out, the fabulous Bay Trail goes right around the airport, bikes are allowed on the BART that goes right into the airport, and their parking, storage facilities, and policies are quite enlightened compared to other airports I have seen.

Interior of Harvey Milk Terminal
Interior of terminal.  Via Fitwell

There are other features baked into the engineering of the building that will make it more comfortable for users. According to Arup,

The mechanical system features extensive use of radiant ceilings for heating and cooling, allowing for a smaller and extremely efficient displacement ventilation system. Electrochromic glazing is used throughout the concourse level to provide high-quality daylight while eliminating glare...By optimizing the cement content of the structural concrete, we were able to reduce the embodied carbon footprint of the entire building by over 10%. The furniture, carpeting, and wall coverings are all free of the toxic flame retardants routinely added to fabrics. And we are protecting occupant health by reviewing all interior materials against strict air emission criteria.

One of the few good things that may come out of COVID-19 is that people in general (and building developers in particular) are going to be a lot more concerned about health, about air quality, and about keeping the population fitter. What Michael Bloomberg said about the obesity epidemic applies to the current pandemic too.

Arup noted that "SFO is incentivising airlines and ground service providers to shift their vehicle fleets from diesel to electric," which seems pretty silly when they are servicing planes that burn millions of gallons of jet fuel. Similarly, all these Fitwel programs promoting exercise and air quality may be silly given that passengers are then getting strapped into an airplane where they can't move and are breathing everyone else's air.

But given the number of hours that people are stuck in airports, going for Fitwel is a great move, helping ensure that passengers are less stressed, breathing better air, and not spending a fortune on bottled water. It's a great start.