The importance of healthy and resilient buildings for airports

Posted: 9 October 2023 | | 1 comment

Anthony Bernheim, Healthy and Resilient Buildings Programme Manager at San Francisco International Airport talks to International Airport Review’s Editor, Holly Miles, in Issue 2 about his role; the airport’s approach in protecting the health and wellbeing of its passengers, and what is on his priority list for SFO.


Anthony Bernheim, talks about the airport’s approach in protecting the health and wellbeing of its passengers, and what is on his priority list for SFO.

What is meant by healthy and resilient buildings and why are they important to airports?

When I joined the airport, my work focused initially on integrating innovative sustainability building practices into new buildings such as terminal buildings, office buildings and parking garages. But over the years and specifically with the pandemic, the airport began to look at health and wellbeing in a new light – as did the world!

In the last five years, there’s been a huge uptick in understanding of sustainability, not just in airports, but in buildings as a whole. The industry has changed, and with climate change and the disruption we’re now facing, there’s been an awakening on the issues of resilience. So, the fact that SFO chose my job title of Healthy and Resilient Buildings Programme Manager six years ago,

In the last five years, there’s been a huge uptick in understanding of sustainability, not just in airports, but in buildings as a whole was fortuitous because we were looking ahead at what’s coming.

In the last five years, there’s been a huge uptick in understanding of sustainability, not just in airports, but in buildings as a whole

During the pandemic, San Francisco International Airport re-did its five-year strategic plan, an Interim Strategic Plan, which looked at major things to do with health and wellbeing. One was the health of passengers, second the health of employees, and third was the health and wellbeing of those underrepresented communities that work on the apron level, loading baggage, moving planes and food around etc.

Click here to listen to the podcast with Anthony Bernheim!


There are two types of health concerns, and I classify them as short-term and long-term. We must understand that both the public and our employees can be exposed to chemicals in a building short- and long-term.

Sick building syndrome symptoms, abbreviated SBSS, is short-term. It means that somebody walks into a building and for a short while they feel ill. They can feel like they have a cold, and their nose and eyes might run.

If they are there longer or they come back again, they might develop further symptoms – essentially they don’t feel right. But then when they leave the building, they start to feel healthy again. It takes just an hour or so and they get better. These are sick building syndrome symptoms and while generally they are not serious, they cause the person to not ‘feel good’. In an airport, you don’t want passengers to walk in, feel ill and then leave thinking they don’t want to return.

Last year, SFO saw around 46 million people pass through our doors. If you consider that around 20% of the population can be impacted by SBSS, this is a large group who could potentially have a negative reaction to an airport building.

BRI – Building Related Illnesses – are clinically verifiable diseases that can be related to chemicals in a building, such as cancer and Legionnaires’ disease. If you work in a building for 10 plus years, and you’re exposed to formaldehyde for X number of years, you will potentially be exposed to some kind of cancer.

There are about 80 chemicals in the airport building. We know what they are, and we know what the short-term and long-term exposure to these chemicals may cause. This is primarily for building occupants, meaning the people that work in a building.

MCS is Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. These are people that have been exposed to a chemical like formaldehyde, maybe in their own home. In this scenario, perhaps they bought a brand new house, where the kitchen cabinets, bathroom cabinets have formaldehyde. They live there for many years without become unwell. But the next time they walk into a building that has a chemical like formaldehyde in the air, they have a very serious reaction requiring hospital treatment. So very early on in the industry, we had to get such chemicals out of carpeting for instance, to avoid such reactions.

With an airport, you’re dealing with large public populations, and we have to understand that in order to design an airport you have to consider these health implications.


Resilience is the second issue. The ability of an airport to function either partially or fully after an event is something we must consider. In our case, San Francisco Airport sits between three major earthquake fault lines and we expect to have major earthquakes. What happens when the building moves? What do we do? Would the building usable afterwards? Would the utilities usable afterwards?

If there was a big earthquake in San Francisco, other agencies would want to bring in supplies, and bring in medical workers for aid and technical engineers to help rebuild. How would they get here? It would be either by helicopter or plane.

First, we deal with safety of life, getting people out of the building or the road structure safety. Then, we ask ourselves how do we support the community?

We also look at business continuity because if an airport shuts down, a huge amount of money is not being made by both the city, the airport, the concessions and peoples’ livelihoods are at stake.

An airport has major impact on the local economy. We want to figure out how we make an airport more resilient or how we harden the infrastructure in the buildings as appropriate for the location for the hazards we’re dealing with.

We can start to see the effects of climate disruption here. The airport has to be somewhat functional if the sea level rises, if the climate changes, and these are all factors we need to consider in making our buildings resilient.

How would you describe SFO’s pre‑existing airport from your perspective?

SFO has made major advances when it comes to health. We’re going electric and getting away from diesel and gas-burning equipment around the airport. We have electric vehicles for the staff running around the airport, meaning fewer emissions, which is of benefit to both health and energy. We have electric buses, and a rail system that moves passengers between terminals. We have EV charging for staff and passengers and ground service equipment charging. 30% of the ground service equipment at SFO is now electric, and we’re working to get to 100%.

As soon as an aircraft stops its engine must be switched off, therefore we provide power and ventilation through the building to power the aircraft so they’re not running their engines while parked there. We are also now bringing sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) to our airport. It burns cleaner than the traditional jet fuel and therefore helps ensure cleaner outdoor air. Afterall, the air outside is the air we bring into our buildings.

In 2016, we brought in Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, a major arm of UC Berkeley funded by the Department of Energy in the U.S., as an independent group to do outdoor air testing for us. We picked the worst spot in the airport where the aircraft with the biggest engines run and start their take-off, right next to the freeway and to a fire station where people are living 24/7. (The air from there moves across the airport to all the terminals and office buildings.) The lab tested to determine the ambient outdoor air quality at SFO so we could understand what was going on outside and know what to filter for when air is brought into our buildings.

The situation is different at every airport because of their different climates. We know that the air quality is worst in San Francisco in February and October when there’s high pressure over the Bay Area and the air doesn’t move. The rest of the year, we have prevailing wind.

We spent about six months working with our contractors, with a little bit of support from Lawrence Berkeley National Lab as an independent. As a result of this, we now filter the air for those chemicals that are outdoors, as well as odour, because we do not want passengers smelling jet fuel in the building.

The beauty of all this was that in 2020, right after the pandemic started, Airports Council International – North America, put a group of us together to come up with how to filter the air to deal with aerosolised COVID-19 particles that might get into a mechanical system.

The advice that our group came up with is exactly what we put in our new buildings. So, we had actually solved the problem before the pandemic! I was able to go to our airport staff, to present to them what we were doing to protect their health during COVID and say “We’ve already done it. We did it before COVID started.”

Now, buildings are really systems, like our body.

Now, when a contractor finishes a building, they must do air quality testing before handing it over to the airport to occupy, testing that has to meet the California standard, the LEED standard and the WELL standard.

But how do we really know that the air in these buildings is clean?

That is the big question. Last year, we started what’s called an air quality framework programme. During phase one, we took five indoor air quality sensors and put them up in our new terminal and we took three and put them outside of that same terminal. We ran a test for six weeks, not to test the air, but to test the air quality sensors for accuracy and their ability to detect air in a terminal building.

Once finished, we issued the report in December 2022. We are now in phase two and we are developing a business plan to introduce the idea of measuring and monitoring air quality and then using that data to manage the air handling systems.

Traditionally, the air handling systems in most of our buildings manage air quality on temperature, humidity, time of day. They switch on when you come into your office in the morning, switch off at 14:00 because it gets too hot, perhaps it comes on again in the afternoon before being switched off at night.

We want to introduce artificial intelligence (AI). We therefore need to think about how we get the AI to tell a mechanical system to make a change in the air quality. We are in the midst of this work right now. Once achieved, we need to start thinking about how we bring this new technology into either individual buildings or the airport as a whole. Because if you can’t measure, you can’t manage.

What are your next steps in terms of resilience?

We are now trying to think of the next step from a resilience perspective. I did a study of seismic design for all the buildings in the airport to figure out which ones are designed purely to allow people to get out of the building. The firehouse is an essential facility, which means it has to withstand and be functional after an earthquake. While other facilities may allow people to get out, they may withstand serious damage.

The Director of Sustainability led an effort that I was part of to develop what we call a resilience framework. This is an understanding of what the airport has, where we are now, what is the resilience, what is the planning for business continuity, what is the business continuity? Which airport buildings and facilities do we need if there was an emergency of any kind? We are putting all this together and we’re bringing a team to help us understand where to go with resilience on the infrastructure, meaning underground, utilities, buildings, vertical, etc. That study is about to start and is certainly going to take a little bit of work over the next few years.

Do you agree that America’s airports aren’t ready for climate change?

During 2022, other airports joined us online through Zoom, once a month, to talk to our resilience team on what they were doing about resilience, in order to develop their plans. Some of the cities and transportation organisations are developing plans, but a lot of them have not yet done so. I would say there’s a lot more work to be done.

I think the American public has been divided politically on the issue of climate change and resilience. However, in the last couple of years I think a lot of the country has seen the impact of resilience or lack thereof in their communities. It’s becoming more real, which means that more and more airports are beginning to understand they need to focus on it, but the big issue is funding. It takes a lot of money to make airports more resilient. And it’s also about supporting the community. It’s not just about making the airport as a business institution functional, it’s about supporting the airport with resources when something happens in their community.

What is the biggest threat to airports?

Apart from climate change and disruption, seismic, human hazards, and people doing things in airports that they shouldn’t, the biggest threat to airports is understanding the impact of indoor and outdoor environments on people and the impact of climate change on outdoor air quality.

We focus on carbon dioxide as the main problem in greenhouse gases. But there are a number of other greenhouse gases that, when exposed to sunlight, transform into ozone. Ozone reacts with other chemicals because it’s a chain agent to form formaldehyde, acid aldehyde, and very fine particulate matter, which is now known as ultra fines.

Formaldehyde is a carcinogen, acid aldehyde is a respiratory irritant. So, as you can see, there are some health impacts that we haven’t focused on, we ignore them because we’re focused on carbon, which is the right thing to do. But, we also have to focus on human beings because while we might make our buildings stronger, if we don’t keep people healthy, we haven’t done our job.

We are in a period of very rapid technology change. We’ve especially seen this happening in the last five years in the U.S. At SFO, We sit close to Silicon Valley and we’re close to Massachusetts. It’s fair to say the technology industry has come to the building industry.

The building industry used to be concrete, steel, bricks, mortar, etc. Now for example, it’s coming to market with glazing that has sensor technology in it. We must acknowledge that in our building systems and technology, each one of those technologies has sensors or artificial intelligence or software that is used to run it. Now, buildings are really systems, like our body. You can’t just deal with one system without dealing with the other. Unfortunately, the technology to integrate all of this and make it work as a whole system isn’t there yet.

In addition, technology on the aircraft side is changing. We are looking at better engine technology, sustainable aviation fuel, electric‑and hydrogen-powered aircraft in the long-term. What’s that going to mean for an airport design? How do we provide the utilities that they need? Traditionally, a truck drove up to the aircraft and pumped fuel in. Today, we pump it underground from a central source. Tomorrow are we going to plug it in? And if so, where’s that energy coming from? And how do we make that energy efficient? These are things we must think about in terms of rapid technology change.

The las is a very interesting one that we’ve begun to talk about – the long-term building maintenance and ongoing commissioning. We are designing very high-performance buildings for LEED in the U.S., for BREEAM in England, and for other green building rating systems around the world, and we’re all using new technology. Historically you had big mechanical systems, whereas now you have big pieces of equipment that run software. 

Well, who maintains this over the life of the building? It’s not the old engineer with the wrench – now it’s somebody who understands the software technology and knows how to reprogramme it when things don’t work.

Despite currently delivering these high-tech buildings, we currently don’t have the skills to operate and repair them. These are huge challenges in my world.

What’s on your personal agenda for this year in terms of your role?

Number one is decarbonisation by electrification and decarbonisation of building materials and products because while buildings become more energy efficient and their carbon emissions are reduced, the percentage of carbon used to make the buildings goes up.

We are looking at better engine technology, sustainable aviation fuel, electric- and hydrogen-powered aircraft in the long‑term. What’s that going to mean for an airport design?”

Number two is supporting health in built environments. We’ve got to identify strategies and figure out how to measure and manage.

Number three is smart building technology integration to achieve energy efficiency at the same time as improved human health. Those are things I’m working on with long-term adaptation and resilience.

To summarise, we’ve understood sustainability. We’ve been working on that for years, and we’re seeing improvement. Now we’ve got to focus on adaptation and resilience, on making our facilities and infrastructure more resilient to climate change.

At the end of the day, the other big R is regeneration. We must think about how we do this better. Can we generate more energy than we need? Can we make buildings healthier in the long run? We need to look at the whole system to make it better. This is what I’m focused on for this year and next. 

Anthony Bernheim Anthony Bernheim is currently the Healthy and Resilient Buildings Programme Manager at San Francisco International Airport, and is currently responsible for the management of the Net Zero Energy programme (sustainability, adaptation, resilience, regeneration) which focuses on planetary and human health.

Previously, he focused on the Activation Planning Services programme (commissioning, activation, simulation) within Project Management, Design and Construction at San Francisco International Airport.

On the forefront of sustainability, and on reimagining the built environment and its impact on human health, Anthony Bernheim is a visionary and respected leader in energy efficient, decarbonised, and high-performance building.

Beginning as early as the 1980s he has devoted his career to pioneering the impact of buildings on global health, indoor environmental quality, and human health. He has a record of designing and implementing a holistic approach to sustainability and resilience; contributing to improving global health and human health, including comfort, and wellness in the built environment.

One response to “The importance of healthy and resilient buildings for airports”

  1. Taha Aawn says:

    The seismic resistance of Pre-engineered buildings is a crucial factor, especially in regions prone to earthquakes. It’s reassuring to know they can withstand such forces.

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