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Heathrow T5 – Worth the Wait?

22 February 2008




It took 20 years to plan and design, and 20,000 people to build – but was Heathrow's T5 worth waiting for? Damian Arnold paid a visit to the recently completed building to find out.


The first thing you notice upon entering terminal five (T5) is the space and light. It's a crisp winter afternoon and shafts of light are beaming in through the fully glazed elevations and animating the 400m-long departure hall.

Remarkably, as you look straight ahead across the steel and glass edifice to other end of the terminal 160m away or down the full 400m length of the check-in hall, it's delightful that you can actually see to the other sides. This terminal has none of the typical compartmentalisation so typical of many other airports. Consequently it's easy to orientate yourself in this huge space.

The open, 'loose-fitting' interior is achieved because the inside of the building is totally independent from the elevations and the roof.

The loads on the elevations are up to 700t but enormous steel tension members on the inside of the building are propping the 40m-high walls up. Meanwhile, the 156.6m-span roof structure is the longest entirely free-standing roof in the UK and therefore no trusses or columns encumber the interior space.

The glazed elevations allow natural light to flow in and there are also glazed slats in the roof which help to create the light and airy effect mastered by Norman Foster at Stansted Airport but improved on here. Altogether there is 30,000m² of glazing in this building.

To the naked eye, the walls appear as clear glazing but the double-skinned panels are in fact heavily louvred to reduce solar glare. The louvres have been cleverly positioned so that they vanish to the eye.

TURNING IT UPSIDE DOWN

The usual airport terminal model of departures on the bottom floor and arrivals on the upper floor has been flipped and here departing passengers actually enter T5 at the top of the building and the approach road to the check-in hall actually rises up to an elevated entrance.

Departing passengers are treated to a splendid vista of English countryside, which includes Windsor Castle. The painstaking process that ends with getting on the plane is a simple forward progression to the other side of the terminal and the wave in the roof structure is designed so that passengers intuitively know where they are going.

The only break in the generous space at all before the check in desks are three towers known as 'information beacons' for zones A, B and C where all the information on departing flights is displayed in one place, so as to avoid clutter. The beacons also include speakers, cameras and other technical equipment.

The departures lounge has the same clinical feel with grey marble floors and white glazed walls but the retail outlets designed by architect Chapman Taylor add some vibrancy and colour.

T5 INTERIOR OUTFITTING

As always in UK airports, there is a lot of retail, 144 outlets in all. But unlike other UK terminals, the retail outlets do not confront passenger as they strive to make their flight. Straight lines to the departure gates are preserved.

Above your head, there are no false ceilings to add to the claustrophobia and make it difficult to repair the services underneath. Instead, ceiling discs visually hide the technical services underneath very effectively but enable them to be accessed very easily.

"Gaining access to services behind false ceilings is a problem BAA have been grappling with for years and years," said Steve West, director at Pascall + Watson, which worked alongside RSH as design team leader for production design and construction.

"The planning application for Heathrow T5
led to the longest public inquiry in UK history from 1995 to 1999."

The team including RSH, P+W and design consultant Priestman Goode worked very closely at every stage to ensure that all the interiors and fittings minimised clutter and were consistent in style. World-renowned lighting specialists Speirs & Major have added their expertise to ensure that all the lighting is of a very high level and often incorporated into other fittings such as the ceiling discs to adhere to the minimalist scheme.

"Careful attention has been paid to minimising clutter and creating uniformity in the fixtures and fittings such as check-in desks and chairs for waiting passengers," adds West.

For example, all the flooring is marble conglomerate set in resin. The light grey tiles go a darker shade to 'subliminally indicate' to a passenger that they have entered a zone where they have to do something such as go through check in and pick up baggage.

Baggage reclaimed, arriving passengers leave the terminal and walk out in a 30m-wide pleasantly landscaped 'interchange space' from where they will pick up trains, cars or coaches – departing passengers enter the terminal above the interchange from one of four glazed bridges.

On the far side of the interchange space is the entrance to the underground rail terminal designed by HOK International with platforms for the Piccadilly Line, Heathrow Express and a future national rail link. Daylight streams down onto the platforms through a cavernous hole in the ground under an ETFE roof. The partition walls underneath are glazed and the white floor tiles maximise reflection to increase the light.

THE T5 PLAN

Initial planning for terminal five began in 1985 and Richard Rogers Partnership won a design competition in 1989. The planning application led to the longest public inquiry in UK history from 1995 to 1999. Planning permission was finally granted in 2001 and construction started in summer 2002.

T5 was conceived as an enormous ground-scraping single-concourse-level building topped off by a roof that featured six waves. The footprint of the site was then dramatically reduced.

The design that was subject to the public inquiry that began in 1995 was a building split into three parts that were compartmentalised and vertically separated. However, the growing realisation that flexibility of space would become a key requirement saw the third and final redesign of a more extensive and unbroken floor space under a longer-span roof.

All in all 20,000 construction workers under a project that made good use of offsite pre-fabrication to minimise costly construction in a highly restricted airside environment. The T5 roof consisted of 3,000 pre-assembled cassettes that were lifted into place and bolted together – a process described by RSH as like 'building a giant Meccano set'.

"Departing passengers enter T5 above the interchange from one of four glazed bridges."

THE FUTURE FOR T5

When fully complete in 2010, the T5 campus will stretch over a 260ha site including the main terminal building and two satellite buildings; rail interchange; track transit system between the terminal and the satellite buildings; a new spur road to the M25; a traffic control tower that was built offsite, wheeled along the runway and jacked up and a 3,800-space multi-storey car park.

Two water courses, which were previously culverted underground, have been diverted and can now be seen flowing past the terminal building.

The first satellite building T5b is actually bigger than terminal four. At 442m, T5b is actually longer than T5a albeit much narrower at 52m and shorter at 19m high. Its 'architectural language' and structure are exactly the same as T5a and the same will apply for the second satellite building T5c that will be ready in 2010.

The usual airport terminal model of departures on the bottom floor and arrivals on the upper floor has been flipped and here departing passengers actually enter T5 at the top of the building.
Heathrow T5 has none of the typical compartmentalisation so typical of many other airports. Consequently it's easy to orientate yourself in the huge space.
To the naked eye, the walls of terminal five appear as clear glazing but the double-skinned panels are in fact heavily louvred to reduce solar glare.
Careful attention has been paid to minimising clutter in T5 and creating uniformity in the fixtures and fittings such as check-in desks and chairs for waiting passengers.
T5 was conceived as an enormous ground-scraping single-concourse-level building topped off by a roof that featured six waves. The footprint of the site was then dramatically reduced.