Domes to shield students from aircraft noise near Heathrow airport

'Hobbit homes' designed for quake zones to be built at 21 schools under Heathrow's flight paths

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 December, 2013, 10:51pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 December, 2013, 10:51pm


Pity the poor schoolchildren, at least when the jets scream overhead, which they do about once a minute.

So London's Heathrow Airport will spend £1.8 million (HK$22.8 million) to build "super adobe" domes, designed for earthquake zones in Asia and Africa, at 21 schools to protect children from the noise of the world's third busiest airport.

Four of the domes, which look like hobbit homes and consist of plaster walls and coiled bags of earth, are already in use at the Hounslow Heath Infant and Nursery School, where landing aircraft pass fewer than 200 metres overhead and in busy times, arrive or leave every 60 seconds.

Head teacher Kathryn Harper-Quinn said the domes made it easier for students to concentrate, especially for those whose first language is not English. "You need to listen to the teacher, but as you need to refocus each time after a plane flies over, you start losing energy," she said.

With the domes, said Caroline Macgill, another teacher, the school was able to hold twice as many outdoor classes and was seeing better results from the 580 students, aged three to seven.

One six-year-old, Rinal Kaur Gaba, said that the noise was sometimes so bad that "in the playground, when I want to speak to my friends, I can only talk to them in the adobe huts".

The domes, which cut the noise by 19 decibels, are just the latest example of the absurdities and complexities surrounding the long debate about the expansion of Heathrow, which desperately needs a third runway to meet rising demand and to keep competitive with other European hubs - or so says Heathrow Airport Holdings, the owner.

But there is enormous resistance from the suburban boroughs created since the airport was established in 1929. The argument is over noise, to be sure, but also over safety, environmental damage, carbon footprints and the right of the government to seize the necessary land.

The borough of Hounslow, itself, not surprisingly, is opposed to a third runway, citing noise and environmental concerns in a specially produced brochure.

Alternatives have been proposed, most recently by London mayor Boris Johnson, who has suggested closing Heathrow, turning it into another suburb for up to 300,000 houses and building a large new airport on recovered land in the Thames estuary.

The suggested location is about 80 kilometres east of central London, where more aircraft could land 24 hours a day. Its designers say such an airport could handle 172 million passengers annually. Heathrow this year will handle about 71.6 million passengers.

The problem is, as ever, money. The estimated cost of this proposal is £47.4 billion, and may in reality cost much more. A third Heathrow airport is estimated to cost between £14 billion and £18 billion.

Despite the opposition, it appears likely that the third runway will be built, but it will not do much for the children of Hounslow Heath.