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Birmingham International Airport: Ready for take off

Birmingham International Airport has developed and grown throughout its history and celebrates its 70th birthday with the opening of a new £45M International Pier. Margo Cole reports.

Birmingham International Airport has ambitious plans for the future, with a new International Pier just completed and approval under way with the local planning authority for a 400m extension of the runway.

Although the busiest scheduled destinations at the airport are mainly in Europe − including Dublin, Amsterdam, Edinburgh, Frankfurt and Malaga − Dubai is also in the top 10, and regular flights also go to the Indian subcontinent, North America and the Caribbean.

The planned runway extension and the new pier are essential to retaining and increasing this long haul capability, while continuing to service the lucrative short haul, charter and low-cost markets.

Capability to meet demand

To give the airport the capability of meeting the differing demands of all these markets, the new International Pier has been designed to offer as much flexibility as possible.

It will also meet new Department for Transport regulations that require departing and arriving passengers to be fully segregated.

The new pier replaces the old Terminal 1 pier, which was built in 1985 by Laing. Coincidentally it is Laing O’Rourke that has built the new structure and demolished the original.

Construction actually started on 2 June 2008 − just 28 days before the planning consent was due to run out.

Plans for the new pier have been under way since 2000, when planning consent was granted and the stands on the south side of the old pier were moved back to create space for the new building.

During the subsequent six years, time has been spent finalising the new design and raising capital to fund the project. Construction actually started on 2 June 2008 − just 28 days before the planning consent was due to run out.

Mace was appointed as the client’s project manager for the scheme, and was given the task of managing the procurement, design and construction of the new pier. Architect Pascall & Watson, which has worked at Birmingham International Airport since 1999 and has been involved in many UK airport projects, including Heathrow’s Terminal 5, was appointed to design the new building.

Structural, civil and fire safety designer was Buro Happold, whose recent projects include Cork and Glasgow Airports and Pier 6 at Gatwick.

Hulley & Kirkwood, which has worked with Birmingham International Airport since 2005, designed the mechanical and electrical (M&E) services as well as providing energy advice and modelling of the Part L compliance for the pier.


  • Project New International Pier
  • Client Birmingham International Airport
  • Project management Mace
  • Design & Build contractor Laing O’Rourke
  • Architectural design Pascall & Watson
  • Structural/civil/fire safety design Buro Happold
  • Services design Hulley & Kirkwood
  • Commercial management Faithful & Gould
  • Construction period June 2008-November 2009
  • Value £45M

Tender documents were issued in December 2007 on the basis of a Stage D design. This means all the main structural, M&E and cladding elements and fit-out design continued while interested contractors put their Stage 1 bids together. It was not finalised until Laing O’Rourke was appointed, giving the contractor the chance to have as much input as possible into the design, and enable a final cost for the project to be agreed at the end of May 2008.

Flexible design

The design team was novated to Laing O’Rourke, with the project being built under a JCT design and build contract. The new pier is 240m long, 18m high and 24m wide.

Departure gates and lounges are on the top floor, arriving passengers use the middle floor and the ground floor houses plant rooms, offices and facilities for staff who service the planes while they are on the ground.

On each side of the pier are vertical circulation cores (VCCs), which contain the lifts and stairs that link the three floors and connect to the air bridges that take passengers to and from the planes.

There are three new VCCs on the south side and four on the north, each giving access to an aircraft stand with multiple aircraft ramp system (MARS) capabilities. In simple terms, this means that each stand is capable of having two air bridges, and can therefore be used for either a single, wide-bodied aircraft, or two smaller aircraft.

Knock-on effect

Creating this level of flexibility at the stands has a knock-on effect on the design of the internal pier layout, as gate lounges must be capable of holding all the passengers for a single large (Code E) plane or segregated for two smaller (Code D) planes. Added to this are specific requirements for certain flights − for example some airlines insist that passengers must be security screened at the gate, as well as when they go through to the departure lounge, so x-ray machines have to be installed at certain locations where these planes will park.

And there are some flights in and out of the airport where passengers remain in transit, so cannot leave the lounge but must have access to toilet facilities while they are there.

Pascall & Watson and Buro Happold have come up with a fairly minimalist architectural design.

Low-cost airlines try to minimise the amount they pay the airport, so do not wish to use air bridges. Instead, their passengers use the stairs in the VCC to reach ground level and walk across the apron to reach the plane.

Conversely, the airport also hosts major international carriers, which demand the highest possible levels of service, one of which − Emirates − has commissioned its own lounge in the new pier for “CIPs” (commercially important passengers).

To accommodate all of these different requirements, Pascall & Watson and Buro Happold have come up with a fairly minimalist architectural design that is characterised by wide, column-free spaces, natural light and simple, high-quality finishes.

As efficient as possible

The brief was to make the building as efficient as possible in terms of capital and lifecycle costs, so it has been built using standard sections and materials where possible. Designs also had to allow for the later addition of extra facilities if necessary with the minimum of disruption. For example, the support structure for a travelator has been installed beneath the floor of the departure lounge.

“We applied value engineering processes on both Stage 1 and 2 tender prices to ensure a feasible budget was maintained, saving £3M overall.”

Matthew Randall, project manager

The pier has a lightweight steel frame supported by pad foundations, which bear onto the underlying Mercia Mudstone. Intermediate floors are of composite steel and concrete construction, and the structure is clad in a “stick build” cladding system from Schüco, with a “clip-on” roof system.

The steel frame is set out in a grid that allows for a 20m-wide column-free space throughout the departures and arrivals floors. Internal finishes include stone floor tiles throughout the circulation areas, installed by Laing O’Rourke subsidiary Vetter, and timber floors in the gate lounges.

Despite the efficiency of the design, two value engineering (VE) exercises were undertaken before construction started. “We applied VE processes on both Stage 1 and 2 tender prices to ensure a feasible budget was maintained, saving £3M overall,” explains project manager Matthew Randall, who has spent eight of his nine years at Mace on aviation projects at Heathrow and Gatwick airports.

Major cost saving

One major cost saving came by taking out the bussing lounge. Although provision has been made for this on the ground floor of the new pier it has not yet been fitted out.

A second significant cost reduction came through revisiting the specification of the VCCs, as Colin Potts, Laing O’Rourke’s project manager, explains: “We succeeded in convincing the client that the VCCs could be classed as transient spaces rather than conditioned spaces, which saved about £600,000. They are now effectively lobbies, or clad staircases, with natural ventilation and limited finishes.”

Randall says the team had initially hoped the VCCs could be designed, manufactured and assembled off site and transported into position. However, any potential savings from prefabrication were more than offset by the cost of hiring vehicles to move the structures, making it cheaper to build them insitu.


1. Before construction: Stands 40-42 are moved away from the old terminal (shown in red)

2. Quarter of the way through: The new pier structure goes up alongside the existing structure

3. Two thirds finished: New VCCs come into operation for stands 40 and 41

4. Nearing completion: Five new VCCs are operational

Before Laing O’Rourke was appointed, Mace designed a phasing programme for the project that has been followed almost to the day. There are three phases: building the new pier structure and the three new VCCs on the southern side while the old pier was fully operational; decanting passengers into the new pier and demolishing the old structure; and building the final four VCCs on the northern side. Birmingham International Airport’s initial prerequisite was that four Code E (wide-bodied) aircraft stands had to remain open throughout the works, although rescheduling by one airline during the course of the project reduced this to three.

Before Laing O’Rourke was appointed, Mace designed a phasing programme for the project that has been followed almost to the day.

This was achieved during the first phase by installing a temporary walkway that took passengers between planes parked on stands on the south side and the existing terminal by foot at ground level, bypassing the old pier altogether.

Meanwhile, the old pier was still being used to access stands on the north side, ensuring that three Code E stands were always available.

Once the new pier was complete and the three new stands on the south side could be opened, passengers were decanted into the new pier, and demolition started on the old one. This happened in July, just 56 weeks after construction began.

The required Code E stand provision was achieved by using the new southern stands and one attached to the main terminal building on the north side.

As soon as demolition was complete, Laing O’Rourke was able to build the four remaining VCCs and replace the one on the terminal building, ready for the full opening in November.

Getting the logistics right

A key to the success of the project has been getting the logistics right. Laing O’Rourke had a site footprint only 3m wider than the floorplan of the building, so there was no space for storing materials. Added to this were the complications of constructing the building entirely airside, which meant every person and piece of plant, equipment or material had to pass through security.

All the project’s offices and welfare facilities were airside, with the only landside facility being the logistics centre − a “staging post”, where materials were stored and unpacked before going onto the site.

Laing O’Rourke had permits for regular drivers to bring materials through security, but any oversize elements, such as the structural steelwork, had to be escorted by airport personnel across the aprons and taxiways.

All staff and operatives had to go through normal airport security procedures − x-ray and search − every time they went to work.

In addition, all staff and operatives had to go through normal airport security procedures − x-ray and search − every time they went to work. So there was no popping back to the car if you left your sandwiches behind.

Potts, a veteran of T5 and Dublin Airport, says there is no way to prepare people for working airside at an airport − “they just have to learn for themselves that everything has to be planned well in advance”.

He says the completion of the new pier on time and within budget is mainly down to planning and involving everyone − including the client − at all stages. Before the contract was signed, Mace brought Laing O’Rourke and Birmingham International Airport together for logistics and operations meetings that continued on a weekly basis throughout the project. At these meetings Laing O’Rourke flagged up the materials movements for the next week, so escorts could be arranged if necessary, as well as highlighting construction activities for the weeks ahead.

“We would say that ‘in three or four weeks we intend doing this; what are the issues for you, the airport?’” explains Potts. “Then we came back to the next meeting with 90% of the detail in place and asked if this met their requirements.”

Process mapping exercises

Randall and Potts use the analogy of a train to describe the process of constructing the 240m-long pier. All trades started at the east end, where it links to the existing terminal building. They worked continuously until they reached the west end. Like a train, any delay or burst of speed in one section could cause the whole thing to come off the rails. “It’s no good one person pushing ahead, because they’re going to bump into the person in front and the whole thing starts to derail,” says Potts.

To avoid this, the contractor invited the major subcontractors to take part in process mapping exercises − all identifying where they would be in the building at every stage of the programme.

“The process mapping enabled us to identify any scope gaps.”

Colin Potts, Laing O’Rourke

“Once you start moving on a building like this, you can’t go back,” explains Potts. “The process mapping helped the contractors work out how they wanted to do it, and enabled us to identify any scope gaps.”

Laing O’Rourke adopted a “right-first-time” approach to the job − something Potts says has “a lot more meaning” on an airport project. “It’s almost impossible to do snagging in a live airport, so we’ve had to instil that attitude from day one,” he says.

He also decided to make a lot of samples and benchmarks for the client prior to construction of key elements so that there would be no surprises once construction started. The client was also invited to inspect all the work as it was under way, rather than waiting until it was finished. The result is a completed − and now operational − building that has the client’s seal of approval.

A history of Birmingham International Airport

From field airport to international hub

Birmingham International Airport

Birmingham International Airport in 1939

The beginning

  • 1928 Birmingham City Council decides the city needs an airport. The Depression cuts plans short.
  • 1933 Plans are revived and Elmdon, 12km south east of the city, is identified as the best site.
  • 1939 Services to Croydon (with connections to the continent), Glasgow, Liverpool, Ryde, Shoreham, Manchester and Southampton begin. Birmingham International Airport (BIA) is officially opened by HRH the Duchess of Kent in July. Two months later the Second World War breaks out, the Air Ministry requisitions the airport and all civil flying ends.

The War years

  • 1939-1945 Elmdon is used as a flying school for RAF and Fleet Air Arm pilots, for flight testing and as a delivery base for Stirling and Lancaster bombers. The Air Ministry builds two hard surface runways to replace the original grass strip.

The post-War years

  • 1946 BIA opens for civil flying exactly seven years after the official opening.
  • 1949 Scheduled passenger services start with a British European Airways flight to Paris.
  • 1955-1960 Flights to the continent grow, including services to Zürich, Düsseldorf, Palma, Amsterdam and Barcelona.
  • 1961 The International Building terminal extension opens.
  • 1967-1970 The main runway is extended, allowing turboprops and jets to use the airport. VC10 services begin to New York. By the early 1970s more than a million passengers a year are passing through the terminal.
  • 1974 Control of the airport passes to West Midlands County Council, which undertakes studies into its expansion, coinciding with the rapid growth of passengers and the development of the nearby National Exhibition Centre and Birmingham International railway station.
  • 1978 The government publishes a White Paper on airport policy, defining BIA as a second tier regional airport (Category B).
  • 1979 The government grants approval for a new passenger terminal building and associated facilities.

The modern era

  • 1980 The first supersonic airliner − Air France’s Concorde F-BTSC − touches down.
  • 1981 Construction of the new passenger terminal begins.
  • 1984 HM the Queen opens the new facilities and operations are transferred to the new terminal. Record numbers of passengers use the airport in the first year of operation.
  • 1986 West Midlands County Council is abolished and ownership of the airport passes to West Midlands District Joint Airport Committee, comprising seven local district councils.
  • 1987 The airport’s status changes to a PLC, wholly owned by the seven district councils.
  • 1991 The £60M Eurohub is opened by the Duchess of York.
  • 1997 A deal is signed that paves the way for the airport’s £260M development plans over the next 10 years.
  • 1999 BIA celebrates its 60th anniversary and a record 7M passengers pass through its two terminals.
  • 2000 HM the Queen opens the new Millennium Link block.
  • 2003 BIA’s £11M Air-Rail Link people mover system and £7M public transport interchange open.
  • 2006 Completion of £30M of works to improve passenger facilities, including new immigration hall, extra check-in desks and more retail and catering outlets.
  • 2007 New T1 departure lounge opens and Airport Group Investments acquires a 48.25% stake in the airport.
  • 2009 New £45M International Pier at Terminal 1 is completed in November and an extension to multi-storey Car Park 3 provides an extra 1,600 spaces.

The future

Birmingham International Airport

Birmingham International Airport in 2009

In 2003, the government published a White Paper setting out a strategic framework for the development of airport capacity in the UK over the next 30 years. Birmingham was identified as the preferred location for a new runway in the Midlands.

In 2006 Birmingham International Airport released its masterplan, Towards 2030: Planning a Sustainable Future for Air Transport in the Midlands, outlining how the airport would cope with the forecast growth in air travel up to 2030. The new plan predicts that passenger numbers will increase to 27.2M a year.

In 2008 the airport company submitted a planning application to Solihull Metropolitan Borough Council to extend the main runway by 405m, to accommodate a full range of long-haul destinations. The application was approved on 31 March.

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