Heathrow – a terminal diagnosis

The Competition Commission’s verdict on BAA’s profit margins means some design groups could be left out in the cold, says Emily Pacey

Reformed scoundrels often find they receive more flak after they’ve mended their ways than they did when in the midst of their crimes. BAA must be feeling something similar about Heathrow Airport. This summer, during the construction of the new Richard Rogers-designed Terminal 5 and the planning of a Foster & Partners replacement for Terminal 2, the media united in a mass drubbing of Heathrow’s systematic and aesthetic failings.

Injury was added to insult earlier this month, when the Competition Commission recommended that BAA reduce its intended returns for the next five years.

Bad news for a company whose new parent, Ferrovial, is struggling with debt after its purchase of the airport group.

If this proposal is confirmed in the commission’s final report, due for publication next year, the airport’s programme of renovation and reconstruction could be cancelled, leaving design groups working on the £4bn Transforming Heathrow project out in the cold.

The current investment budget for Transforming Heathrow could be cut by three-quarters to £500m if the recommended measures are confirmed in the commission’s final report.

‘We see little in the commission’s report which delivers the incentives to transform the airport,’ warns BAA chief executive Stephen Nelson. ‘As we prepare to hand over T5 on time and on budget, we are being rewarded with a regulatory settlement of unprecedented severity,’ he adds with feeling.

Until the commission’s final report is published, BAA and its design partners insist that work will proceed as scheduled, but it is hard to imagine that morale can remain undented. ‘We are going to continue advancing plans for Heathrow East. The project is not on hold, although it is at risk,’ says a BAA spokesman. Priestman Goode director Paul Priestman, who is principal product consultant for BAA, echoes, ‘We are full steam ahead on this long-term comprehensive programme for Heathrow.’

Plans for Heathrow East, the replacement facility for T2, are fairly advanced, making their possible cancellation even more dismaying. Demolition work on T2 is due to begin in March, immediately following resident airline BA’s removal to T5.

Foster’s have produced plans and visuals for the new terminal, while BAA has engaged Priestman Goode to oversee the design of all customer-facing elements of the interior. BAA is planning on recruiting more design groups. For those consultancies interested in pitching to work on the project, investing in a tender is a riskier business than it was last month.

A principal objective of Heathrow’s revamp is to create an overarching design scheme to endow the airport with what BAA design director David Bartlett calls ‘a much-needed sense of continuity’.

Just prior to the publication of the commission’s recommendations, Bartlett said, ‘We have a once-in-a- lifetime opportunity to transform the whole of Heathrow. We can consolidate the whole thing. Let’s get some concept guardianship across Heathrow, so that there is coherency in the airport.’

Priestman outlines what Heathrow would miss out on if it fails to persuade the commission and BAA’s governing body, the Civil Aviation Authority, to allow it to raise more capital.

‘We have designed a kit of parts for T5 that should soon stretch across all Heathrow terminals,’ he says. ‘Our approach was to design a consistently good, but almost blank canvas. As such, there could be great harmony in, and between, the terminals. For instance, the bollards in the car park are the same as those in the terminal. Another trick is to streamline design in the terminal to put as many functions on to one piece of furniture as possible. The best word to describe this kit of parts is “integrated”.’

Almost complete but for the shops, for which retailers have engaged their own design consultancies, T5 is safe from budget cuts. Last month, the designers and fitters were putting the final touches to its check-in desks.

‘We have created 30 different types of desks including information, security, gate, baggage search and passport control,’ explains Priestman, ‘but really we were trying to get away from desks. As such, staff will generally not stand behind desks, but next to you instead. Computer screens will all be able to swivel, for use by passengers. We are working on really basic principles to allow sightlines, so that wayfinding is intuitive and simple, with a hierarchy of information.

‘The design principle is built into everything. The bits that people touch are very tactile. Finishes are very durable. The desks are not long, flat surfaces. With all the information that shouts at you in an airport, you really want some tranquillity in your surroundings.’

Losing this opportunity to revamp the UK’s biggest gateway – particularly in light of the London 2012 Olympics – would be a shame for designers, the British public and international visitors alike.

What might be left undone at Heathrow?

Safe – Richard Rogers-designed Terminal 5 building is now complete and undergoing testing. BAA is looking for volunteers to test it, if you would like a sneak preview of the terminal before it opens in March next year

Safe – The redevelopment of Terminal 3’s forecourt and building exterior is almost complete

Endangered – Heathrow East, the replacement for Terminal 2. Foster & Partners has designed the building. T2 is due for demolition in March

Endangered – The demolition of the Queen’s Building, which dates back to 1955 and is currently used as offices

Endangered – Terminal 1 is due for a revamp in which check-in is reorganised and the forecourt and exterior renovated. Eventually, T1 is supposed to be mothballed, and possibly demolished

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