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Stansted Airport, Main Terminal
Stansted Mountfitchet, Essex, UK
Stansted Airport, Main Terminal
associated engineer
Ove Arup & Partners
Martin Manning
Peter Rice
date  April 1986 - 15th March 1991
UK era  Modern  |  category  Building  |  reference  TL556238
photo  courtesy Arup
A fresh approach to the design of airport passenger facilities resulted in a groundbreaking building for the 1991 main terminal at Stansted Airport. The energy-efficient building, lightweight roof and one-level passenger experience has become a model for new terminals wordwide. Stansted is the UK's fourth-largest airport, with more than 20 million passengers passing through it annually.
Stansted Airport first began operating in 1942, as a USAAF base during World War II (1939-45). Aircraft from Stansted were among many from Britain that took part in the Normandy Landings in France on 6th June 1944. In 1954, the runway was lengthened to accommodate Boeing B-52 Stratofortress aircraft. In 1966, the then-new British Airports Authority took control of the airport, developing (1969) and extending (1970 and 1972) its terminal.
Design of the present terminal building began in 1981, as a collaborative effort between architect Foster and Partners and Ove Arup & Partners. This phase of development was part of long term plans by the British Airports Authority to make it London's 'third airport', after Heathrow and Gatwick.
In the midst of the public enquiry into the expansion of Stansted, the US space shuttle Enterprise landed at the airport on 5th June 1983, piggy-backing on a specially modified Boeing 747 during a promotional tour of Europe.
In 1985, the government approved development of Stansted for up to 15 million passengers per year, with a review once numbers reached eight million per year. Construction began in April 1986, by which time British Airports Authority was known as BAA, as it is today.
The design of the new terminal moved away from the standard patterns of internal planning in use at the time, and has none of the level and direction changes that characterise many other airport buildings. Baggage handling facilities and related services are locatad in an undercroft beneath the concourse floor, which also accommodates a mainline railway station. Car parks are adjacent to the terminal.
The single storey terminal measures 198m x 198m (39,000 sq m). To keep it the same height as existing trees outside the airport perimeter, the building has been cut into the slight hill on the site.
The building’s most notable public feature is its lightweight roof. This stands 15m above the concourse and consists of shallow 18m square tubular steel grid shells supported by service trees laid out on a 36m grid. Each square trunk consists of four cross-braced tubes, topped by four branching tubes forming an inverted pyramid supporting the roof. All the main steel tubes are 457mm in diameter.
Less obvious to the general public is the adoption of a flexible structure: the steel trunks are 'rooted' at ground level but can flex as they climb up through the building. This avoids the need for movement joints in the roof.
Inside, a white membrane of perforated steel trays and insulated PVC on the underside of the roof both filters and reflects light into the building. The use of natural daylighting through the roof has resulted in large energy savings. Stansted’s running costs are half of those for any other British terminal.
The trunk structure contains the air-conditioning ducts, smoke filtering and other services. The design pioneered the use of syphonic drainage, on the perimeter of the roof. The interior of the terminal is remarkably streamlined and free from pipes and ducts. The walls are largely glazed, with the ambition of providing a clear view from concourse through to runways, though this was subsequently compromised by security concerns and retail concessions.
The engineering was led by Martin Manning of Ove Arup & Partners, with Peter Rice playing a small but significant part in the development of the grid shell structure.
Queen Elizabeth II opened Stansted’s new terminal on 15th March 1991, four days before the first passenger flight. The scheme also included new aprons and taxiways to the existing single runway, and the total cost was £400m.
Expansion has continued — in January 2003, Uttlesford District Council granted BAA permission to increase annual passenger numbers to 25 million. Between April 2007 and December 2008, the terminal was extended at a cost of £50m. In October 2008, BAA was given permission to increase passenger numbers further, to 35 million per year. In May 2009, a £1m upgrade was completed to the airport’s fire station.
Architect: Foster and Partners
Co-architect: Stansted Airport Ltd
Research: ECPK
"The Engineer's Contribution to Contemporary Architecture: Peter Rice" by Andre Brown, Thomas Telford Publishing, London, 2001

Stansted Airport, Main Terminal