In this experimental work, the aim is to understand how turbulent thermal flows are enhanced by the destabilization of the boundary layers. Square-stud roughness elements have been added on the bottom plate of a rectangular Rayleigh–Bénard cell in air, to trigger instabilities in the boundary layers. The top plate is kept smooth. The cell proportions are identical to those of the water cell previously operated and described by Salort et al. (Phys. Fluids, vol. 26, 2014, 015112), but six times larger. The very large size of the Barrel of Ilmenau allows detailed velocity fields to be obtained using particle image velocimetry very close to the roughness elements. We found that the flow is quite different at low Rayleigh numbers, where there is no heat-transfer enhancement, and at high Rayleigh numbers where there is a heat-transfer enhancement due to the roughness. Below the transition, the fluid inside the notch, i.e. between the studs, is essentially at rest, though it is slowly recirculating. The velocity profiles on the top of obstacles and in grooves are fairly compatible with those obtained in the smooth case. Above the transition, on the other hand, we observe large incursions of the bulk inside the notch, and the velocity profiles on the top of obstacles are closer to the logarithmic profiles expected in the case of turbulent boundary layers.