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Terminal 5 - a construction epic

For airport operator BAA, the £4bn T5 project could be its biggest triumph but, while under construction, it is the company's greatest challenge. Jackie Whitelaw reports.

T5 managing director Tony Douglas is overflowing with enthusiasm for T5. His excitement is easy to understand. A £4bn investment is a massive undertaking for a private company, and a sizeable chunk of that spending is, at the moment, laid out for all to see. On a grey day in February, there are 3,500 people clad in yellow safety jackets toiling away on, below and above the 260ha site - a space equivalent in size to London's Hyde Park.

And they are working from the foundations up, on basements, tunnels, station boxes, concreting, steel erecting, roadworks and car parks. Most obvious of all is the ongoing assembly of the first three bays of the distinctive roof to T5's Concourse A, the larger of the two major buildings on the site.

Next month the 2,500t centre section of these bays, complete with services and ceilings, will be lifted 30m into the air and connected to a series of spectacular 'angel' abutment trusses, creating a new landmark visible from the nearby M25.

For anyone wanting to see what construction is about, this is as exciting as it gets. 'Everyone who comes here can't stop smiling, ' says Douglas.

First impression is of one of the giant engineering undertakings of early last century. What makes you realise that this is a far more modern epic is the roar of the planes taking off and landing right beside you.

'We are building in the middle of the world's busiest international airport and to the left and right of us we have the world's busiest runways, ' says Douglas. 'At either end, there are the existing airport terminals and the busiest section of the M25 motorway.'

But the planes above, the cars around and just about every other toy you had as a child brought to life in front of you, while thrilling for layman and professional alike, bring with them a whole host of challenges.

'The constraints of the site force you to do things differently, ' says Douglas.

'There is nowhere to store materials so we have had to put enormous effort into logistics and off-site prefabrication.' The company has built temporary roads and a railhead to bring materials into Heathrow airport to create minimum disruption to local transport patterns.

At peak there will be 4,500 people working on the project and they all need to get into Heathrow, ideally not by car, so BAA has provided a bus network for site workers and a high standard of facilities to care for them all day, supplying food and everyday needs from newspapers to headache pills.

There is also an occupational health centre complete with on-site nurses and a project ambulance.

But perhaps the biggest bullet the company has had to bite has been to do with risk.

BAA's current market capitalisation is £5bn. The £4bn it is spending on T5 is critical for business. 'If anything goes wrong, there is no avoiding the fact that it is our project, our risk, ' says Douglas.

'We couldn't offload something of that scale onto suppliers. We also wanted to work with partners, not suppliers.'

Those realisations digested, the T5 agreement - a totally new form of contract agreement - was born.

The basis of it is that on T5 BAA carries all the risk and is insured for all that risk. If any problems arise the answer is not to find someone to carry the can, but to work together to find a solution.

'It's the most important enabling strategy we have, ' says Douglas.

'It is far more than a common contract. It gets you over a number of emotional hurdles at higher levels.'

BAA has spent the last decade rethinking the way it carries out its construction work - building strong links with a regular team of framework partners who work together with their client from project to project to drive down cost and increase the quality and efficiency of their work. The T5 agreement encapsulates those attitudes.

'All the intellectual capability is now being put to best endeavours in managing and mitigating risk rather than wasting it in negative and unconstructive behaviour, ' says Douglas.

A three- month delay on construction of the station boxes due to bad weather last year would have had a similar impact on the following roof construction programme. Rather than slapping in claims, under the T5 agreement, the teams on the stations and roof worked together to claw back all the time.

Two years into the project and with £1.1bn spent, all the key milestones have been hit. Douglas has another £863M to spend this year and is hoping things will go as smoothly in 2004.

Surprisingly perhaps, the critical measure on this project is not really money, or even time. They are important, obviously. But Douglas and his entire management team will be measuring their success against their safety record.

'The maths say six people could be killed on a project of this size, ' says Douglas.

'I want to open T5 in 2008 without any one having died in order to build it. Because if one person is killed none of our work will have been worth it.'

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