First Direct Access, Heathrow Airport, UK

Pic: James Newton

When traveling first class, it is reasonable for one to expect a certain element of luxury – a high-end level of sophistication that sets the experience apart from standard class.

Such an experience is exemplified in the new First Wing at Heathrow’s Terminal 5. Now open for business, it enables esteemed passengers to proceed from landside to the First Class Lounges in under five minutes.

Lighting designer practice StudioFractal was invited to join the design team, working alongside architects Pascall & Watson and contractor MACE to create an atmospheric, luxury security portal, befitting a first class experience.

It’s not the first time that StudioFractal has worked at Heathrow Airport; indeed, Ian Payne, Design Director at StudioFractal and lead designer on the project, boasts of a “long and industrious affiliation” with Heathrow Airports Limited, having brought many of their major undertakings to fruition, including the multi-award winning T2 terminal.

“It has been a real delight collaborating with numerous innovative partners, from architects to artists,” he said. “It’s that long-standing relationship that led us to the appointment by MACE and collaborations with Pascall & Watson.”

Alongside MACE and Pascall & Watson, StudioFractal worked meticulously to develop designs within the challenging project deadlines, with a brief to create a security portal that fit seamlessly within the high quality framework of the existing Terminal 5 concourse, while also creating a high-class, premium experience for the First Class British Airways passengers. The scope for this design included all lighting components, along with the development of a feature wall.

The definitive solution for the feature wall includes sections of slanting perforated metal, with back and front lighting, in this case LED Linear’s VarioLED Flex. Rhythms of timber sit between each panel, illuminated from the edges with warm white light, emphasising the rich tones of the wood. A specification of warm lighting was implemented in pursuance of enhancing the rich and luxuriant materials palette.

StudioFractal took Heathrow’s initial client aspirations and explored materials, texture, pattern, movement, tone and integrated lighting solutions to give the space levels of quality and tone more akin to a luxury hotel lobby than that of an airport.

This aesthetic wasn’t easy to achieve, according to Payne. “Airport security zones are inherently functional spaces where lighting must fulfil security objectives and facilitate the observation of passengers and luggage.

“To move away from a clinical environment and into a sophisticated ambience we developed a strong ‘material and texture palette’ alongside Pascall & Watson, to ensure materials would respond well to a variety of lighting techniques.

“To maintain a premium feel it was important to integrate the lighting within the architectural framework, we developed a number of simple lighting details to allow key materials to be illuminated from concealed lighting sources.”

Elsewhere, low-level illumination achieves a more intimate ambiance, in direct contrast to the high level treatments utilised throughout the rest of the terminal. This was perfected by clever integration of the lighting into the furniture and cladding details, and by developing sculptural wall-mounted elements that express the same material palette used throughout the space. This was partly due to the constraints of working within the terminal building’s existing framework as lighting needed to be coordinated amongst existing structural beams and proposed perimeter balustrades.

However, StudioFractal was able to develop a curved LED luminaire head with lighting from Kemps Architectural Lighting, mounted to the feature wall and to custom-made poles on the perimeter of the security zone. This served to provide the ambient lighting levels that they were looking for.

All luminaires and feature wall components required stringent DFT Aviation Security in Airport Development (ASIAD) compliance, and were specified through the airport’s second tier lighting suppliers. However, as Payne explained: “StudioFractal worked with Heathrow to ensure the challenges of designing within an aviation environment did not encroach on the sophistication of the finished first class portal.”

As such, the lighting designers explored a number of solutions in order to ensure that they achieved the right balance of form over function, safety over client experience – a constant challenge in an environment like this.

However, throughout its portfolio, StudioFractal has an extensive aviation experience, having worked on airports both in the UK and abroad, developing projects for the likes of Gatwick, Stansted, Dublin, Abu Dhabi, Vienna, Gabon, Riyadh and Indira Ghandi International Airport. The firm’s work on Heathrow’s Terminal 2A even saw them claim Public Project of the Year at the Lighting Design Awards in 2015.

This experience and prior knowledge no doubt served StudioFractal well throughout the new project at Heathrow. “Aviation projects naturally lean heavily towards highly engineered solutions, safety, sustainability and longevity, focusing on defining character and wayfinding,” said Payne.

“Whilst those things factored heavily in the First Direct Access, we had the added complexities of designing a luxury environment displaying warmth and elegance amongst the bright, expansive Terminal 5.”

Despite these complexities though, StudioFractal, alongside Pascall & Watson, have created a warm, relaxing, luxurious space for first class passengers.

And Payne believes that the collaboration between the client, Pascall & Watson, and StudioFractal, immensely helped in reaching such a successful outcome. “It’s of upmost importance to develop a clearly defined concept and strategy from the offset, with the client and the design team,” he said. “Though we’re obviously very proud of the project, we always measure our success in terms of feedback and we’ve had exceptional responses from users of the new area, the Heathrow client and the design team.”

Some such feedback came from Nitesh Naidoo, Project Director at Pascall & Watson, who said: “StudioFractal has been a valued, skilful and effective collaborator on the T5 BA First Wing project. Their input during the design phases has helped us realise a groundbreaking addition to the luxury facilities provided at Heathrow Airport.

“The StudioFractal team has been instrumental in the design and realisation of the feature lighting concept for the premium search facility.”

But while there has been plenty of praise for the design of the new facility, Payne believes that for a project to be a true success, it needs to stir emotions in its visitors.

“A successful design is not just about how an environment presents itself but how you feel amongst it,” he said. “The union of light and materials sets a sophisticated tone for the first class route, your focus is drawn to the human level, not to the vast space in which it sits.

“The contrast between cool and warm lighting adds to the experience of moving from a busy light terminal into the serene luxury zone. Through connecting small visual details to the main terminal the First Wing sits comfortably within it, yet it offers its own superlative experience.”