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Flight of fancy takes off at Farnborough


Farnborough airport regularly sees A-list celebrities and business bigwigs flitting from limo to private jet.With the high level of clientele, TAG Aviation wanted the lines of its terminal building to be as sleek and stylish as the cut of its frequent flyers'Versace suits. Joanna Booth reports

'YOU GET to see a few famous faces in this job, ' says the guard at Farnborough airport's discreet main security gate.'Robbie Williams, Cher, Abramovich - they all fly out of here.'

At the moment passengers flow through a terminal building made up of cabins, although these huts are not quite what the construction industry is used to. Sprawling black leather sofas flank banks of orchids, the shining acreage of the entertainment system's vast TV screen reflects the weave of immaculate, plush carpets and the only sound is the muted hum of the minibar fridge.

On the other side of the airport a different collection of cabins presents a more familiar sight.Not that TAG's construction management team is slumming it - there is a carpet, but all the screens are computer monitors.

When TAG took over the Farnborough site in 1998 it had a lot to do to bring the airport up to the licensing standards required by the Civil Aviation Authority. Initial infrastructure works worth £25 million were undertaken by Bovis Lend Lease.During the extending and resurfacing of the runway, the contractor found many relics of the airport's days as a military base - bombs, landing bays, rocket tracks and testing paraphernalia.As well as developing access routes, Bovis diverted a brook and dug balancing ponds to control drainage.

TAG wanted a suite of buildings that looked modern, clean and unusual and set a competition to design the control tower, hangars and terminal building.

Michael Dempsey, project architect from the winner, Reid Architecture, says the competition brief was to achieve something avant-garde.

He says: 'They wanted a brand carrier. Because of the way private airports work, 90 per cent of passengers won't go into the terminal, so it needs to look good from outside - it's a marketing tool as much as a building.'

Bovis Lend Lease was again called in to project manage the construction of the control tower and the hangar, which took place between 2000 and 2002.

'The terminal building was less critical, in that the airport could function without it, ' says Anne Bartaby, director of operations and development at TAG.'The challenge for me was persuading the board to release the money to build it.'

When funds were available, TAG decided to change its procurement structure for delivery of this last building.

'With the experience we gained on the first two buildings we felt confident enough to construction manage the terminal ourselves, 'Ms Bartaby says.

TAG retained the same subcontractor and consultant team from previous works, and former Bovis employee Simon Horsley joined TAG to head up the construction management team.

Farnborough's design is a far cry from the boxy practicality of many commercial airports.The slender wine glass of the control tower is mirrored in the undulating 300 m-long triple wave of the hangar roof.The terminal design, a curve of glass and snakeskin-like cladding, promises an equally slick appearance.Two jutting wings branch out from a central core, where the reception desk sits on a raised plinth, giving an unrivalled view of the apron.

Nine vast steel hoops form the main curves of the terminal building, creating a complex geometrical problem not only for the supporting steelwork, but also for the cladding and glazing systems used.The form and dimensions change on every plane. Each end of the building flares out, so that the structural steel at the flying edge protrudes 15 m from the base.

CAD modelling has been indispensable in the design process, as Brian Johnson, of structural engineer Buro Happold, explains: 'Two-dimensional drawings, even though they fulfil contractual obligations, just don't express what you need to say. It's one thing for our engineers - they've been staring at the building plans for months - but fabricators and subbies need a 3D view to understand how the geometrical issues work.'

Even with computers to help, the structure's strange angles can cause consternation on site. Simon Horsley, TAG project manager, has overheard many confused steel erectors trying to work out what should go where.

'You can hear them up the cherry picker, arguing if something's right or not.A cleat half a metre up is attaching to one half a metre below, and it does look odd, 'he says.

The cladding system is the same as the one used on the control tower, and comprises four separate layers.The first three layers - a polyethylene sheet system, mineral-based insulation and a 1.5 mm rolled galvanised aluminium sheet - are installed from the inside, and then the final shingle screen is applied from the outside.

'The form of the building won't allow even a semi-unitised cladding system, ' says Mr Dempsey.'The aluminium shingle is folded and interlocked on site.'

A cladding system with a polished effect and flush-headed rivets was considered, but did not suit the complex shape.'There's a lot more take-up in the shingle than in solid cladding, 'Mr Dempsey explains.

Interspersed with the cladding along the two wings of the terminal building are vast expanses of glass.The changes of angle along the length of the building require a linear product to fit a curved structure.The standing seam roof faces similar challenges, as it too must lock seamlessly into the two-plane curve of the clad wall.

Careful liaison between Buro Happold, steel fabricator Rowecord, cladding contractor Mero, roofer Lakesmere and glazer Compass Glass was necessary to find a way of fitting together the three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.The compatibility of software packages is something Mr Johnson says he would consider earlier if he was to work on a similar project in the future.

'Each trade has its own package, which can complicate things when so many parties are involved, ' he says.'Although having so many people checking things before signing them off has worked really well for picking up even small errors immediately.'

The shape of the terminal has not only caused headaches at design stage, gaining access to the structure has been a challenge too.

'Because of the way the structure balloons out and then curves in again, we've needed a pretty complex scaffold, 'Mr Horsley says.'Traditional scaffolding was the best plan, for cost and safety reasons.We've got a crash deck either side of the building.'

Local scaffolder Apex was brought in early on in the design stages to ensure the plans would work practically out on site.Mr Horsley chose to keep the end of each wing open to allow easy access for materials.

The cladding process is under way and the building is on target for completion in November this year.Although this is the last building of the three designed in the 1999 competition, it is by no means the final chapter in TAG's development of the site.As well as a hotel for crew members, the firm has plans for work to start on a further hangar building in 2008.As the owner of the whole site, for TAG the sky really is the limit.

Aviation at Farnborough - a brief history

FARNBOROUGH'S connections to the world of aviation started over 100 years ago, when the Ministry of Defence built a balloon factory on the site.With the introduction of powered flight it became the base for all the UK's military aviation research and development, and was the army aircraft factory during World War I.

During the 1920s and 1930s Radar was pioneered at Farnborough, and prototypes of aircraft such as the Hurricane, the Spitfire, and the Lancaster were put through trials.

In the 1950s testing concentrated on weapons, avionics and other electronic aspects of flight. Concorde was developed at Farnborough in the 1960s.More recently the site saw work on night vision systems and laser-guided bombs.

In 1948 the Society of British Aerospace Companies held its first airshow at Farnborough, and it is still held there today.

In the late 1980s Farnborough became surplus to MoD requirements, but the Department of Trade and Industry didn't want the airfield to close, as it was keen for the airshow to continue. Business jets were being squeezed out of the large London airports and the Department for Transport was looking for a dedicated business airport in the south-east. Farnborough was ideally placed.

TAG was initially chosen to take over the airfield in 1998. It has a 99-year lease from the MoD and is the landlord for the biennial airshow.TAG owns the entire site and is landlord to a number of business aviation charter companies, a flight simulation training centre and even 24 firemen.


Project: £10 million construction of a terminal building at Farnborough airport, part of £65 million development

Client: TAG Aviation

Construction Manager: TAG construction management

Cost planner: Cyril Sweett

Architect: Reid Architecture

Structural and M&E engineers: Buro Happold

Structural steelwork and fire protection: Rowecord Engineering

Roofing: Lakesmere

Cladding: Mero UK

Glazing: Compass Glass

Scaffolding: Apex CSL