Marrying functional lighting with a unique staircase aesthetic for SFO office

Dec. 20, 2023
Lighting creates visual allure at the central staircase of the San Francisco Airport administration building.

Challenge: Many office stairwells are hidden away, solely for function and void of form, and their staid, industrial lighting often reflects that role. That wasn’t the case at the San Francisco Airport Consolidated Administration Campus—Phase 1, where, despite its utilitarian name, light and modernity abound. The central stairway is open and sculptural, providing a visual allure as much as a means for getting from place to place. Its unique vibe required an equally unique lighting approach, one that would emulate the overall aesthetic without sacrificing safety and functionality.

Influence: When you think about an office building for an airport, elegance and art may not be the first things that come to mind. But that is exactly the feeling the interior exudes, inspired in part by the fact that the airport’s accredited SFO Museum has its offices in the building. Lighting designer Janet Nolan, president of JSN+ALD in San Francisco, kept this in mind as she designed lighting throughout the project, focusing on a range of functional needs while respecting or enhancing the desired aesthetic.

“I think SFO as an employer wanted to have state-of-the-art office spaces and conference spaces that would compete with any other office building,” says Nolan. “They care about the quality of the light in the spaces for the people who are working there … We specified lighting and controls that are commensurate with that.”

One area that presented a particular challenge was a three-level stairway. Modern, angular, and airy, the space beckoned for something more than typical sconces or recessed downlights.

“The stair was very unique because it wasn’t your typical interconnecting stair, where the runs and landing were at right angles to each other; it was very much a puzzle,” Nolan recalls, noting that each level goes up, then turns at an angle. “It was really like a piece of sculpture.”

Solution: To maintain the space’s sophisticated aesthetic while navigating the stairway’s unique shapes, Nolan used linear lighting on the underside of the stair. She chose the A-Light Accolade D5, a 3.5-in.-wide linear fixture with high-performance direct lighting and HE Tech lens.

Making it seamless, however, wasn’t easy due to the obscure angles and because the fixtures only ship in sizes up to 12 ft. A-Light used 3D modeling and five to six iterations of factory drawings for each floor. Each fixture was cut to precise custom lengths, with joiner hardware and aligner pins at each intersection. The final drawings showed each connection precisely, and each part was labeled for exact end-to-end matching.

“It is a very standard linear light, but it is the way we manufacture it,” explains Monica Sanchez Diaz, manager of regional applications support for the Design Assist Team at A-Light. “We create those corners and those welds to achieve things like you see in this project. There are very few limits to what you can do with it.”

The result looks like one continuous, unbroken light fixture from the ground level to the top. “It enhanced the stairs’ unique shape and illuminated the stairs below,” without having to put in a lot of ceiling fixtures, Nolan says.

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About the Author

Katy Tomasulo

Katy Tomasulo was a contributing writer at Architectural SSL.