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Cleared for take-off

BAA’s Andrew Wolstenholme says T5 will be a ‘blueprint’ for the airports of the future. For indepth coverage of the T5 project click here

One of England’s most controversial building projects comes of age at precisely 4 am today when the first passengers pass through the shiny doors of Heathrow’s Terminal 5.

Terminal 5 is a world-class development; it is an impressive collection of buildings that are spacious, light and straightforward to navigate.

Creating an outstanding passenger experience has been at the heart of its design and is something reflected in every element, from the dedicated rail station through to the choice of check-in desk.
But how did this icon of 21st century engineering come about?

The building has been 17 years in the making, since Rogers, Stirk Harbour + Partners won a design competition for the job in 1989.

One of the most protracted planning inquiries in British planning history finally concluded on 20 November 2001 when the secretary of state for transport gave planning consent.

BAA’s capital projects director Andrew Wolstenholme came on board just after this and nine months before construction was due to begin.

“What we were going to be building was well defined,” he says. “We knew exactly what we wanted. But what we needed to do was decide how we were going to build it.”

Terminal 5 has been an epic development; 16 major inter-connecting projects and 147 sub-projects sandwiched between the world’s most heavily utilised runways required a new approach to almost every aspect of construction if the £4.3 billion project was to be bought in on time and on budget.
The risk factor was huge; it was the biggest challenge BAA had taken on in recent years.

“Before construction began we looked at why major problems go wrong,” explains Mr Wolstenholme.
“We found that the principal reason for them running over budget or running late was a lack of ability to manage risk. But we were very confident from day one that the launch would happen when we said it would because we were able to manage that risk.”

This confidence was founded in the T5 Agreement; a bespoke contractual that redefined risk management and created a new culture based on full integration and collaborative working.

Mr Wolstenholme says: “It was all about allocating the right suppliers with the right abilities to manage the risk. We got it right at the start, when we chose the first tier one suppliers back in 1998. A further key in sharing the risk management was that no one contractor took on the principal role.”

And what a task the team had cut out. In addition to the main terminal building, T5 also consists of two satellite buildings, 60 aircraft stands, a new air traffic control tower, a 3,800 space multi-storey car park, a new spur road from the M25, the diversion of two rivers and over 13 km of bored tunnel - including extensions to the Heathrow Express and Piccadilly Line services.

Adding to the challenge of constructing under the shadow of the world’s busiest airport was the fact that Terminal 5 was competing for workers against other large projects such as Wembley. BAA worked hard to make Terminal 5 a preferential project for its workforce, which at the height of construction peaked at around 8,500.

Mr Wolstenholme says: “Recruiting and training local people was important. We wanted Terminal 5 to be a whole package that they could work on for a length of time, gaining worthwhile and transferable qualifications.

“That way we gained their trust and we were able to deal with creating an enthusiastic culture. We wanted them to feel that Terminal 5 was history in the making.”

In total two-thirds of the workforce were local and the rest were mostly from the North-east and Scotland.

Since the success of the job depended largely on the welfare of the workers, everything was done to create a stable environment, which included maintaining good relationships with industrial bodies.

Mr Wolstenholme says: “We inducted about 80,000 people over the course of five years that put in 100 million man hours of work. One of the main things we looked at was health and safety.”

‘Safest site worked on’

T5 had a dedicated on-site occupational health and medical centre that provided free medical checks and regular health awareness campaigns.

Despite Terminal 5’s rigorous approach to safety, there were two fatal accidents on site, however regular surveys showed that three-quarters of the workforce considered T5 the safest site they’d worked on.

BAA also worked closely with the local community - one of the aspects of the project it considered the most important.

The airport builder set up local liaison groups that met with nearby residents at least once a quarter.
Looking back over five years of construction, which elements were the high points, and where were the major challenges?

Mr Wolstenholme lists the lifting of the 26,000 tonne roof and the erection of the 87 m control tower as some of the biggest achievements.

He says: “We lifted the first section of the roof precisely on the day we planned two years earlier.
“And even though we had problems with the control tower - the form of manufacturing of the cones couldn’t deliver the tolerances required by the designers - we still handed it over six weeks early.”

Once all the hard physical work was completed the terminal was finally handed over to begin operational readiness testing in September last year.

Mr Wolstenholme explains that most airports end up opening late because baggage and IT systems fail to work to a satisfactory level.

“These systems need to integrate at the highest level,” he says. “That’s why we built a mock baggage system in Holland that we trialled for over two years. The IT, communications and networks systems were also tested off-site before going into the terminal.”

The systems have also been tested rigorously in-situ, with thousands of volunteers “using” the terminal over the last six months.

Mr Wolstenholme is proud of BAA’s achievements: “There are three levels above ground and three below ground, it’s all very compact. I suspect this will be the blueprint of airports for the future.”

He hopes that people will enjoy their first Terminal 5 experience so much that they will arrive earlier next time they travel. And there are lures - a number of luxury retailers have set up shop in the departure lounge and Gordon Ramsay has a restaurant there.

But T5 is not only providing a thoroughfare for 30 million new passengers a year. Its presence is also paving the way to create another new terminal; Heathrow East is set to replace Terminals 1 and 2, and forms part of a £6.2 billion investment programme that will see all of Heathrow’s terminals completely redeveloped or refurbished.

A joint venture of Laing O’Rourke and Ferrovial is working on the preliminary works for Heathrow East and the first phase of the job will be finished in time for the 2012 Olympics.

There have been reports of delays but Mr Wolstenholme says it’s all go: “Some elements of the job have been put back and some have been put forward. We’re on schedule and it is our ambition that Heathrow East will play a part in the Olympics.”

For more indepth coverage of Terminal 5 constrcution see:

Setting a high standard

A fresh approach to construction on a grand scale

Test runs that kept work on schedule

Tunnels for rail, tube, road and drainage

Big winners in the T5 bonanza