Above: architect's sketch of the new terminal

Lesley Paine has been a member of the Institution for 21 years, ten as a Fellow. She has been a practising structural engineer for 40 years. Here she discusses her career and her work on the new airport in Medina, Saudi Arabia, which has been shortlisted in The Structural Awards 2016 “Infrastructure or Transportation Structures” category.

I was born to be a structural engineer! I love making things and I enjoy being creative and am a good mathematician. So making beautiful buildings using maths and art is my ideal career. I started in the industry studying architecture – at a university where the subject was taught jointly with engineering. Structural engineering was an obvious transition for me and then a very rewarding career.

I’m exceptionally proud of Medina Airport because it is the culmination of years of collaboration with the architect, teamwork with international colleagues, and a chance to build a major new landmark.
It is not my first airport - I have also worked on the original Stansted Airport project many years ago and then on Gatwick Pier 6, where we had to move a 173m long bridge into position over a live taxiway. 

The main considerations for this project was maintaining the practical movement of people through a space which needed to be as column free as possible - while also creating an interesting location. People spend a lot of time there waiting, so it needs to be pleasant. Collaboration and listening are the most important things when working as part of a design team. All aspects are important, and each discipline must understand the others to make it work well.

I knew the architect for many years and whoever has the pen to draw has control, but now that we have more modern technologies – BIM (Building Information Modelling) for example - we work together even more closely. Trust and understanding are fundamental to this.

The airport had to be designed to resist events like earthquakes. There are limited ways in which structures can resist the lateral loads experienced during seismic events – in the case of the airport the “tree columns” bend, much like a tree does. It’s a portal frame – so in effect it “shrugs its structural shoulders” to redistribute the loads around the frame.

Buildings also expand and contract in the heat and cool – big steel buildings move a lot… so they have to be cut up into smaller buildings, each acting independently and allowed to move a small amount each rather than a large amount overall. Within the structure, therefore, there is a part that slides and, if done in a clever architectural way, it’s not obvious. 

(Above: sketch of palm tree column 'crown')

Since this structure is in Saudi Arabia, the need for protection against heat gain is also important for human comfort. The architectural form of this structure, using the idea of palm leaves, suited the shading methodology and so the architect used this form to give the required effect.

We’re delighted to see Medina Airport nominated for a Structural Award – its recognition of the way that designers from various countries and backgrounds collaborated to produce something spectacular - that is the future of design and the way forward we all need to adopt.

Discover more about The Structural Awards.

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