Friday18 August 2017

Taking Terminal 5 to another level

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HOK and Rogers’ lifts from the Tube station to the departures hall have passengers soaring long before their flight is called — if they can find them. Three months after its troubled opening, BD Magazine sees how Heathrow’s Terminal 5 is faring.

The glass-walled lifts linking Terminal 5’s subterranean station to its top floor departures level definitely lift the spirits too. Silently and automatically, doors open and transit commences without a button being pressed. Overhead, an ETFE roof rushes towards you until the lifts break through the surface and it becomes a floor dropping away. Visually, the lifts are a primer in mechanics and structural engineering, with lift cage, counterweights and cables all on show. From the underworld to daylight, engineering to architecture, the lifts are a dramatic introduction to the terminal.

Up to 80% of passengers arriving on the Heathrow Express or London Underground platforms were supposed to experience that introduction, according to HOK International, the firm appointed to develop Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners’ concept for the station under BAA’s framework system. The alternative is a rather tortuous escalator route: passengers take a double bank to “apron” or ground floor level, then cross into the terminal itself before taking two more escalators up to departures.

But that, it seems, is exactly what passengers are doing. “We’re not hitting the 80% target,” says BAA’s design team leader Stevan Brown regretfully. As he explains, passengers used to travelling by Tube look for escalators out of habit, while the lifts’ position on the platforms makes them hard to find. And in these security-conscious days, when passengers arrive three hours early burdened only with hand baggage, then why not enjoy the sequence of spaces from a slow-moving escalator?

Brown’s admission — along with further comments overleaf — is one of those painful moments when design ideas collide with passenger flows. When it opened three months ago, T5’s baggage-handling system went on very public trial. Now, BD Magazine has returned to find out how the architecture is faring. Even if Terminal 5 passengers no longer lose their luggage, their composure might still be at risk if they can’t navigate the departures lounge, find a comfortable seat or grab a coffee.

But it wasn’t just Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners that designed T5. The project was delivered by BAA framework designers including Pascall & Watson, Chapman Taylor, HOK and lighting consultant Speirs & Major. Meanwhile, YRM worked for British Airways on its first class check-in and passenger lounges. This tier of architects, the focus of this article, can share credit for T5’s successes — and responsibility for any glitches.

But let’s go back to the station. Under Rogers’ original concept, six tracks — a pair each for the Heathrow Express, Piccadilly line and future rail link west to Reading — were positioned perpendicular to the axis of the main terminal, with the platforms under the building and circulation areas below the open-air plaza between the terminal and the car park. This arrangement, which forgoes a traditional drop-off forecourt, gave HOK an important opportunity. “Moving the lifts into the plaza freed up space and enabled us to get light down into the platform,” says director Richard Spencer.

The natural light helps in HOK’s overall design intent, which was to blur the transition from underground to overground. “We wanted to make it feel more like an above-ground space,” says Spencer. It therefore moved away from Jubilee line extension-style fair-faced concrete, in favour of more reflective surfaces. Here, it selected members of same product family as used upstairs: Domus marble conglomerate floor tiles and white resin-bonded marble wall panels. The ceiling has Lindner acoustic panels with a special finish to blur the reverberations from passenger announcements.

The station is bathed in the same chilly glow we all now have at home from our compact fluorescent tubes.


However, the lighting at platform level — a sustainable combination of low-energy luminaires bouncing off large reflectors — is a poor imitator of daylight. The station is bathed in the same chilly glow we all now have at home from our compact fluorescent tubes.

It’s also easy to see why passengers might have problems finding the lifts. Although HOK’s bespoke integrated service units — combining lighting poles, sprinklers and CCTV — help keep sightlines along the platform clear, the lifts present their side profile rather than a face-on view. Wayfinding and signage might also need extra tweaks: for departing passengers who miss the ticket sales point in arrivals, there are precious few ticket machines. Worse, during my visit, three passengers asked staff for directions.

Arriving passengers who take the escalators to apron or runway level can then either flow into the terminal itself or detour (through doors that look as if they might be alarmed) onto the outdoor plaza between car park and terminal — one of the most innovative features in Rogers’ competition-winning design.

Sadly, the plaza hasn’t made a full transition from sketch to reality. Implemented by landscape architect Hyland Edgar Driver, the central area has a playful water feature but no shading or seating, and looks exposed in summer and inhospitable in winter. At either end, there are more pleasant areas with trees and raised planters providing seating, but no cafés for an invitation to linger. The original concept called for cafés spilling out from the terminal, but BAA has confirmed that there are no plans to implement this.

The 30m-wide space also feels fairly narrow and is overshadowed by Pascall & Watson’s car park. The latter also presents a facade of rather institutional grilles, a shame when the current crop of car parks (such as Gollifer Langston’s in Leicester and Scott Brownrigg’s in Swansea) have managed to turn mesh cladding into a minor art form. “We looked at every option, but it’s a question of where you direct resources, “ says director Steve West. In this case, the answer is in carrying finishes — such as glazed screens and floor tiles — across the pedestrian bridge from the terminal to the car park.

Part of Pascall & Watson’s role was to co-ordinate the multi-million packages for items such as Domus flooring tiles, Swift Horsman doorsets and the moonscape of Lindner concave disks disguising ceiling services. “We were the conductors of the orchestra, but there were some great soloists,” says West. One simple but striking success is the back-painted laminated glass used on the rear wall of the check-in area and arrivals hall. Slick and practical, it can withstand trolley collisions without the need for the visual clutter of guard rails.

At Terminal 5, to go “airside” is to be delivered into an impressively legible space. Chapman Taylor’s retail offer is spread on upper and lower level malls on either side of you, seating and entrances to the departure gates lie below, and all the drama of a five-storey glass wall and airport panorama is in front of you. Finally, there’s the free-spanning arched roof, slotted with glazing strips for natural daylight. Compared to most departure areas, it’s almost enough to make a delayed flight bearable.

BA’s brief for the lounges was to evoke boutique hotel intimacy on the scale of a multinational chain.


The final airside element is British Airways’ six passenger lounges, stacked into two wings at either end of the concourse. BA’s brief was to evoke boutique hotel intimacy on the scale of a multinational chain, five-star decadence on a four-star budget.

To help achieve this, YRM and interior designer Davies & Baron came up with some innovative ideas for wall surfaces, the screens that divide the space into more intimate “rooms”, and bar tops and servery counters. These use variations on laminated glass interlayered with a variety of surfaces then back-illuminated. “We chose a thin slip of onyx, a metal mesh or a photograph of a veneer rather than the real thing,” says YRM’s project director Ivan Margolius. The team also commissioned dramatic bespoke chandeliers by Windfall at Cameron Peters for each of the six bars.

All these light-reflective surfaces add to the feeling of space, but needed to be balanced. Bespoke Concorde fabric commissioned from Osborne & Little — incorporating a rose, shamrock, thistle and daffodil and a stylised Concorde — is used for upholstery, and fabric-covered acoustic ceiling tiles are a welcome alternative to the metal ceiling grid. “They give a more homely, residential feel,” says Margolius.

BA’s collection of original art — including works by Bridget Riley — help to raise the tone, while Moooi horse lamps raise a smile. But the real drama comes when you step onto terraces open to the arched roof high above, where you can enjoy stunning views outside and raise a glass to the hoi polloi in the departures lounge.

On the whole, Terminal 5 doesn’t disappoint. Stacking the facilities, then filtering passengers downwards creates a tight yet legible form, while daylight and clear orientation defuse stress. Arrivals is also more colourful in real life than in the photographs, thanks to Rogers Stirk Harbour’s colour-coding — in green, yellow, raspberry and lilac — of the major structural beams and columns. And there is much to admire in the integrated team working and supply chain management that brought T5 in on its £4.6 billion budget.

And yet… there are doubts. Operating at 50% capacity during BD Magazine’s visit, the airside departures and ground floor arrivals hall already felt busy, so Terminal 5 still has to prove itself in terms of passenger-handling. As the 80% anecdote shows, people and computer models don’t always behave in the same way. And even if cost control was a driver, couldn’t more budget have been directed to the public-facing plaza and car park facade? If there is a lesson here for Crossrail, it’s that no amount of modelling and supply chain management can replace good old common sense.

In the client’s own words: Stevan Brown, BAA’s design team leader, on getting right in complex travel environments

We’re very proud of T5 — notwithstanding the birth pains. The systems and the infrastructure we designed were the right systems and infrastructure, and are flexible enough to cope with a huge amount of change.

For instance, we’ve gone away from the traditional ceiling standard, the 600mm x 600mm lay-in grid. It looks perfect on the day of hand-over, but the first time some-one wants to move a retail unit, they’d be dropped, damaged, then put up again the wrong way round. We had to design an infrastructure to survive future change.

The brief from the building was being informed up to the day of handover, and it’s gone on changing ever since. One thing that is difficult for us to control is the security regime. With every new security threat, the demands on the building change. When the scare about liquids came in, it was clear it would take longer to clear people through security, so we had to double the number of security search points and redesign huge areas of the building.

We’ll change wayfinding and signage. It gets designed last and is subject to the most change. The fixed element such as the beacons denoting check-in areas probably won’t change. But the programmable screens will, and the illuminated sign boxes and icons might. People might need information where we don’t currently have signs. But we do have a vocabulary of products [by Priestman Goode] to work with.

Seating standards

If you go to Zurich airport, you’ll find the seating is beautifully laid out, and next year it will be in the same positions and the cleaner will work around it. At T5, the seating changes position every night! They have to be rearranged because the cleaners have been doing their job and moved them. Other nations are more disciplined.

We knew that seating directly affects the public [during the baggage handling crisis there were inaccurate reports that T5 had only 700 seats]. We have over 9,000, and we’ve carefully modelled the ratio to passengers and seating. The problem was that people were in baggage reclaim, which is not supposed to be a dwell area. But we have a changing demographic and a larger proportion of elderly people doing more travelling, so that may lead us to change the standards on seating.

The walls and flooring systems were the subject of lots of research, but at the moment, they seem to be performing as planned.

But planning facilities relative to human behaviour is something we need to understand better. We allocated toilets according to where we thought passengers would need them, for example, off the immigration hall. But psychologically, passengers don’t want to waste time, they’re focused on getting into the country. Then they head for a small batch of toilets on the way down to the baggage reclaim hall, which were primarily intended for staff use. So we’re learning all the time.

Studying circulation

We’re studying the way people use the circulation, the lifts and escalators.

[At the station] we’re not hitting the 80% target — there are psychological factors. People who use the Tube are conditioned to use escalators, and less than
5% of stations have lifts.

We may need extra signage.

A good architectural team and a good client design team shouldn’t finish a building and walk away, but regard it as a piece of infrastructure with a 60-year lifespan. Someone has to love this building, so that passengers love it too.


Readers' comments (1)

  • I can't be the only one who definitely wouldn't use the glass-walled lifts and, looking at the photo, would be very hesitant to use the escalators. Don't designers ever think about people who suffer from vertigo and/or a fear of heights? I'm sure both lifts and escalators are aesthetically delightful - but totally terrifying!

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