The prospect of earning £55,000 a year at Heathrow Terminal 5 should prompt a stampede of skilled labourers to west London. But are they ready to live in a community of 4500 men, under constant surveillance, with the same security checks used in the Occupied Territories?
Imagine you've just landed a job working for Laing O'Rourke on the £3.7bn Heathrow Terminal 5 project in west London. It looks like a great little number. The site conditions are the best in the business, you and your 4500 fellow workers will be given subsidised housing complete with bars and cybercafes, and you will be helping to build a national landmark. If this wasn't enough, you're being paid the unheard-of sum of £55,000-a-year to do it.

So what's the catch? Well for starters "west London" in this context means "the back of beyond". And if you choose to take up the offer of on-site accommodation in one of the purpose-built homes or in a caravan, you will be spending your days and many of your nights in a camp where your every movement is monitored by security personnel, and getting onto the site will be about as straightforward as boarding a plane.

When it planned T5, BAA was faced with the task of finding long-term accommodation for thousands of workers. The problem was that those workers had to be kept separate from the travellers and the freight flowing through the airport, and they would have to be continually monitored to make sure that none presented a terrorist threat.

The solution was the pharaonic one of putting up an army of workers in a purpose-built village. As John Stent, managing director of Terminal 5, puts it: "A planning application has been submitted for a temporary facility to provide accommodation for workers. The proposed development is to be located on a BAA-owned site in Bedfont Court [see map overleaf], and will have 600 bedrooms and space for 100 caravans."

This workers' compound will be, as far as possible, self-sufficient. According to BAA, it will include a restaurant, bar, games room, cybercafe and lounge. And the reason that it will be self-sufficient is that "this accommodation will be isolated from local communities". In fact, it is in a huge traffic island, surrounded by motorways. The workers' only way out will be to the main T5 site over a footbridge. This village is in addition to a 200-caravan site on the island, between the M25 and the A3044, that is already in use.

The obvious problem with this arrangement is a sociological one. The two other social settings in which this number of men are confined together for a long period – army camps and prisons – require an intensely regulated environment. But the inhabitants of those institutions have lost or given away some of their freedoms. Construction workers have not.

UCATT general secretary Brumwell says that discipline will be based on the carrot rather than the stick. "The lure of big money should stop workers from causing any big problems because they know that if they mess around they will get booted off the job and lose the money," he says. He adds, however, that that is likely that a specialist management-cum-security firm will police the workers' accommodation to reinforce discipline. "There will also obviously be a union presence on the project and in the accommodation centre areas."

In order to get to their place of work, the operatives will have to negotiate strict security control posts. There, a facial recognition system will be used to monitor them as they go on and off site. This uses software from US-based developer Visionics, and it is already in use elsewhere in the world, helping Israeli border guards to check Palestinian workers crossing into and out of the Occupied Territories. Closer to home, Newham council is using the system in conjunction with surveillance cameras to check the borough's streets for known criminals.

As well as determining that workers are who they claim to be, the facial recognition software will record their time and attendance to make sure that they earn every penny of that £55,000. Data from the system will be used to produce timesheets for site workers under a system developed by software producer Aurora with O'Rouke Group called TimeKeeper.

A Laing O'Rourke spokesperson confirmed: "Innovation is playing a major role with a number of new systems already in operation. This includes a facial recognition system for recording time on site and automatic payroll from output data."

This software will be installed over the next few months once a site entrance plaza has been completed. Other security measures include automatic vehicle identification and swipe cards to control the movement of personnel within E E the site. Card readers will also be installed on the buses carrying workers to and from the site.

Tight security is already in evidence. Airport police have begun mounting patrols and two of their cars are stationed outside the main site entrance. At a recent press conference, journalists were not allowed to walk around the site; instead they were driven in minibuses escorted by BAA officials, despite having visitor passes.

It is not just in security that Terminal 5 is being careful – workers are also required to detail their full medical history before beginning work. BAA says: "Those employed in safety-critical jobs are screened to ensure they are fit to do their job."

With so much of the terminal's budget going to the workforce, even more emphasis than usual is being put on the control of construction costs. Working with its framework contractors, BAA is attempting to drive down costs using value engineering and prefabrication. This concern for cost-effective construction is evident on some of the civil engineering works on the site. Steel reinforcement for some of the concrete works are being assembled off-site and slotted into place just before the concrete is poured.

A similar value engineering process is also under way on the terminal's roof. Rowen Structures has constructed a trail section of the steel roof support in its works. This will allow both the design and construction team to review the component's design and any construction issues arising from its assembly, to ensure the roof can be constructed as quickly and easily as possible.

It remains to be seen whether workers will fit together just as easily. How bearable this strange life is for them depends on their capacity for going without the pleasures of modern living, in return for a more-than-generous salary. Rather than an army camp or a prison, their situation is analagous to working on the world's largest oil rig.

Works on a grand scale

The scale of the construction works at Terminal 5 is staggering. The site is squeezed between the airport’s two main runways. Work appears to be under way on almost every square metre of the 260 ha site (equivalent to about 100 football pitches). The project extends beyond the construction of a new terminal building; it will also include the construction of 41 aircraft stands, two satellite terminals, a 4000-space multistorey car park, a new control tower, a new spur road from the M25 as well as more than 13 km of bored tunnels – not to mention diverting two rivers. The Laing spokesperson says that due to the limited capacity for materials storage on site coupled with surrounding traffic congestion at peak times, the firm has had to use precision logistical planning. Movement in and out is restricted to two specified periods of the day and night, during which the contractor is achieving a delivery rate of one every 37 seconds. “Daily material supplies include 5000 tonnes of aggregate, 650 tonnes of Portland cement and 200 tonnes of prefabricated reinforcement,” he says. The spokesperson adds that, at its peak, about 500 construction crews will work on the site, simultaneously working 250,000 man-hours a week. Laing O’Rourke expects to have 3500 directly and indirectly employed staff on the project. Site clearance and preparation work began last summer and already much of the excavation is well under way in readiness for the terminal’s basement structures. Thames Water’s Perry Oaks sludge works originally occupied the site, but already most of the settlement lagoons have disappeared. The only evidence of the works’ existence is a strong aroma of sewage that, even now, lingers over much of the site. Excavation and earth-moving are the key activities at the moment. Convoys of 40-tonne dumper trucks pass in a seemingly endless line transporting earth to and from stockpiles. Deep in the excavations themselves, numerous piling rigs, each accompanied by its own crane, are busy installing the first of the foundations. Work is also under way beneath the site to install a complex of tunnels that will service the terminal. The eastbound bore of the new airside road tunnel to allow vehicles access from the central terminal area to the aircraft stands at the western edge of the airfield has already been completed, with work on the westbound bore expected to finish June 2003. Work is also under way on the construction of two 6 m diameter tunnels to connect the Heathrow Express to T5, and on the two 4.5 m diameter tunnels that will extend the Piccadilly Line to the terminal. A 3 m diameter drainage tunnel to carry rainwater from the terminal to the western edge of the site will also be constructed, as will twin tunnels to allow the site’s 33 kV electricity cable and water supply to pass beneath the A3044. To the west, a sloping bank of earth gives a clue as to the location of the new M25 spur road that will feed traffic to the terminal entrance. The embankments are founded on stone columns installed through the underlying landfill site. Clay from excavations elsewhere is being used to form these embankments, which will be handed over to the Highways Agency in May 2004 as part of the M25 widening scheme. On the site’s western perimeter, work on the two culverts that will divert the Duke of Northumberland River and the Longford River have started. Diversion of these rivers was an essential part of getting planning permission for the terminal. The rivers will be contained within two 3 km long concrete channels constructed using concrete wall units. As for the terminal building itself, it is still at basic design stage. The exterior remains largely true to architect Richard Rogers Partnership’s original scheme. However, BAA has yet to commit to an interior layout. At the moment it is keeping its options open so that the final layout will reflect requirements for 2008.

Terminal targets: the 2003-2008 schedule

Stage 1
July 2002-July 2003
Site preparation and enabling works: including removal of existing sewage treatment lagoons and other facilities, archaeological and environmental works and initial site clearance and levelling, digging of boreholes to assess ground conditions and the construction of site facilities including a multistorey car park for workers and logistics centres for materials delivery. Stage 2
November 2002-February 2005
Groundworks: The excavation and construction of the basements for the new terminal, the satellite terminal and the car park. Construction includes the subterranean station boxes for the shuttle train linking the satellite with the main terminal and boring the tunnel extensions to the Piccadilly Line and Heathrow Express. Also, a new spur to the M25 will be built along with the airside roads and pavements, and the two rivers flowing across the site will be diverted. Stage 3
November 2003-September 2006
Major structures constructed, including superstructure, roof, facade and interior and primary building services to the main terminal and the satellite terminal, an energy centre and the Heathrow Air Traffic Control Centre. Stage 4
February 2005-September 2007
Fit-out: The installation of baggage handling systems, secondary building services, finishes, fixtures and fittings and commissioning of systems. Fit-out of the rail tunnels. Landscaping landside areas. Completion of aircraft stands and apron services. Stage 5
January 2007-spring 2008
Operational readiness: Transition from a construction project to handover as an operational terminal for spring 2008 opening.

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