A Project of Titanic Proportions

29 Jan 2010

Belfast’s Titanic Quarter regeneration is a significant major phase in the history of Northern Ireland, bringing new opportunities, new hopes, new homes, and new employment to what was once the city’s busiest area.

Much of Belfast’s economy centred around the city’s shipyards for over 100 years, and during the 1940s the industry boomed. At industry peak, the shipyards were Belfast’s biggest employers –with more than 30,000 Belfast citizens employed at the Harland & Wolff shipyard1; The decline began as air travel became more available and popular, and –despite another peak in the 1960s; combined with economic depression and political struggles, the decline continued more sharply from the mid-1970s forward. Since then, a number of regions in the city, and significantly, its shipbuilding hub: the Titanic Quarter, have suffered a long-term industrial decline. However, it is indicative of the solidarity and strength of the city’s heritage that Belfast still has a well recognised marine industry.

The entire regeneration scheme for the Titanic Quarter is on a grand scale, covering 75ha of development land on Queen’s Island at the edge of the city centre, and will deliver a comprehensive mixed-use development providing a realistic estimate of 25,000 new jobs over the next fifteen years. With a £5bn development value, it is acknowledged as one of Europe’s largest ever urban waterfront regeneration projects: delivering 900,000m² of retail, leisure, and office space, together with more than 7,500 homes framing a celebration of Belfast’s industrial heritage, with the Titanic Signature Project at its heart – heading the listed Titanic and Olympic shipways.

RPS is playing a hugely influential role in the scheme for clients Titanic Quarter Ltd (a consortium of Belfast Harbour Commissioners, Department of Enterprise, Trade & Investment, Northern Ireland Tourist Board, Belfast City Council, and East Belfast Partnership) and Port of Belfast, providing civil, structural and fire engineering design and substantiation services (for the Titanic Signature Project, Gateway offices and Arc Apartments), highways infrastructure assessment and advice, transport advice, and contaminated land assessment and remediation advice.

The whole scheme is overlooked by the twin emblems of the area’s continuing progress and evolution: two listed gantry cranes Samson and Goliath – the treasured giants of Belfast’s skyline. Entering service in 1974 and 1969 respectively, the cranes began work during the shipbuilder’s last peak of real success –a stubborn achievement in a period of low inward investment, and during some of the worst political troubles Northern Ireland has known.

Placed on the world’s largest dry dock,2 the two cranes symbolise much more than just construction: they epitomise the city’s endurance to weather the tides of politics and economy –continually reminding of, and building on Northern Ireland’s rich and complex heritage.

In more depth:

The Big Pour – Titanic Signature Project

The Group’s engineering services have focussed on the central Titanic Signature Project, the Gateway Offices and the Arc Apartments. It was an historic moment this month as the foundations were prepared for the £97m Titanic Signature Project with Ireland’s biggest ever single concrete pour in preparation for construction of the building which is expected to attract around 400,000 visitors each year.

The event was attended by retired RPS Ireland: Northern Region Chairman Jonathan Hegan (who is devoting his leisure days to the Titanic Quarter project), as more than 100 workers from Harcourt Construction, and 50 trucks, worked through the night to lay 4200m³ of concrete3: 8m below ground level and across a 3,800m² area. Low-carbon concrete was used for the foundations to minimise environmental impact.

Due to open in 2012, the Titanic Signature Project forms a feature link for the key heritage points of Queen’s Island: which include the historic Harland & Wolff offices (built between 1900 and 1919) and the Thompson Graving Dock (built 1903) which was built exclusively for the White Star Liners, and later expanded to accommodate the Titanic and the Olympic. It will house the super-technology Titanic Experience Museum featuring a 50m (164ft) centrepiece model of the Titanic during construction, with an arts centre, theatre and restaurants, and lead to the Titanic slipway which remained in use until the 1960s.


Gateway Offices

At the busy intersection of Sydenham and Queen’s Roads, three glossy blocks –covering nearly 14,000m² (150,000 ft²), rise from a once vacant site, and join to form a right-angled triangle. These are the new Gateway Offices: the entrance to the Titanic Quarter, which are already open for business:  international financial group Citi have moved into two of the blocks, and Microsoft and Queen’s University Belfast have also taken office space in the development.

The trio of five storey blocks were planned to fit the irregular shape of the site, and frame a central, triangular courtyard. White limestone cladding frames the entrance and approach stairways (echoing the City Hall’s Portland stone), and the courtyard elevations are clad in traditional red brick. The most striking visual effect is perhaps the pure modernism of the vertical window strips and Bauhaus inspired balconies – reflecting 1930s architecture and paving another step in the project’s timeline of design influence.

Inside, the granite floor glides from the entrances into the oak-clad lifts, and shiny steel stairways with stone threads sweep through the layered levels – evocative of a grand liner’s decks. The 25m high triangular entrance spaces feature steel booms and glulam columns to resemble the masts and rigging of tall ships.

Energy sustainability and promotion of green practices were a key consideration from the inception of the Titanic Quarter development. The building achieved a Gold Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design accreditation for its employment of grey-water recycling, geo-thermal water heating, and solar panels. Shallow floor plates are incorporated to attract natural light and ventilation. A semi-basement below provides changing and showering facilities for cyclists alongside the 100 parking spaces.


Arc Apartments

The Arc buildings echo the smooth curves of a watercourse, with a wave skyline graduating from 6 to 10/12 storeys height, concluding in the landmark tower. They are set on piled foundations, with bi-level basement parking beneath, supporting the pure white reinforced concrete slab structure and podium gardens above.

The opulence of the Gateway buildings undulate to the Arc- with glistening limestone floors, walnut panelling, and recessed entrances to the apartments, with subtle brushed steel fittings.

There are 475 apartments, including the penthouses –some on corner suites, and some with balconies. All share the private podium gardens, and all use an inbuilt heat recovery and full ventilation system for energy sustainability. 

Corner apartments are fully glazed and all the homes have high ceilings and fully fitted kitchen suites incorporating glossy high-tech features. Waste recycling is encouraged through the provision of three-part recycling bins built in beneath the sinks. The lifts are specifically designed to smoothly accommodate a wheelchair with good turning space, and the layout groups homes in small ‘friendly’ units around landing spaces, mixing size (one, two or three bedrooms) for greater versatility.


Land Remediation

Early in Phase 1 of the project, RPS environmental and laboratory assessments found an elevated lead content and small pockets of arsenic in the soil. Trace elements of diesel and lubricating oil hydrocarbons were found in shallow ground, and traces of chromium, copper and oil hydrocarbons were also identified in the underlying groundwater.

The chemicals found are all indicative of the site’s shipbuilding heritage – with toxins arising from original ground-made clinker ash, and from deoxidising and anti-corrosive processes carried out on the steel plates used in hulls. Recommendations from RPS guided the course of the remediation to stabilise the compounds in the soil by adding binding agents to lock in contaminants. The soil can then be examined and reclassified – with much of it expected to be suitable for recycling and re-using on site after treatment.


Titanic Transport

The scale of the Titanic Quarter regeneration is colossal, and the plans for leisure and tourism development are impressive. With the creation of so many new homes, and the development of such a large number of new jobs being created in the Quarter, the existing road infrastructure at Phase 1 of the project could only be insufficient to support the inevitable increases in traffic density around Queen’s Island.

RPS prepared and presented a detailed Transport Master Plan in conjunction with the Development Framework for the Titanic Quarter. The Master Plan identified significant deficiencies in the site’s road network, and in the public transport provision serving the Quarter when weighed against the proposed development.

It was acknowledged that development is scheduled to complete at different stages, presenting a case for the phased introduction of extra bus services, as the demand for them is expected to increase. Bus travel will be promoted through a subsidised travel scheme for people living or working in Titanic Quarter, and frequency and capacity of services will increase with the growth of development – with a Rapid Transit Service to be specially introduced to serve the Quarter by the start of Phase 3 of development.

An extensive new network of road access and pedestrian and cycle routes has been planned, which will link with existing infrastructure, and keep traffic impact related to the Quarter at a minimum within it, and around the city. Car parking terms will match those in force for the city fringes, and a new interchange will be constructed at the Sydenham bypass to optimise traffic flow entering and leaving Queen’s Island.



1 Harland & Wolff employed over 50,000 people from the UK at its peak.

2 The dry dock housing Samson and Goliath measures 556m x 93m.

3 At an average rate of 250m³ of concrete per hour (or one full load every two minutes).

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