Note: This is an article of an ongoing series of Feature Projects where we highlight the story of some of the most interesting completed projects in our Portfolio. But whereas the Portfolio itself tends to showcase the final results, here additional context adds insights into the Design and Construction phases. The idea is similar to a Behind-the-Scenes look at the production of a movie or television show.
February 2023 Saint-Barthélemy — Some of the most interesting projects come from unexpected places and circumstances. The Airplane Hangar at Aéroport-de-Saint-Barthélemy-Remy-de-Haenen is a perfect example. Tucked into the hillside, it is easy to overlook this simple utilitarian building but although hardly a tourist attraction it does feature likely the largest door on St Barts at 70 feet wide and nearly 18 feet tall (approximately 21.3 meters wide by 5.4 meters tall). Moreover, it is one of only a handful of steel structures on the island as concrete tends to be the favorite material.
The original Airplane Hangar was built in the mid-1990s from a near kit-like set of parts that is fairly common for simple utilitarian structures like barns and sheds.
An obvious advantage was the minimal expense, however, a disadvantage was the bifold door which was potentially vulnerable to a strong hurricane. After more than 20 years, luck ran out and the door was irreparably damaged by Hurricane Irma on September 6, 2017.
On first glance, this simple utilitarian structure might appear to be the least of the problems that follow a life-threatening hurricane. However, closer inspection reveals that the hangar and it’s airplane maintenance operation is a vital piece of a functioning airport necessary to meet international standards of aviation. Without a secure facility to service its aircraft, local airline SBH Commuter is forced to fly to Guadeloupe for routine maintenance and the airport itself risks loss of certification.
The obvious solution was to quickly replace the bi-fold hangar door with another bi-fold hangar door. However, that would have been a mere temporary fix or bandage that failed to address the long term susceptibility of the hangar door to hurricanes. A deeper analysis of the situation revealed the opportunity for a more robust overall upgrade to both the door and the rest of the facility. Not only was a stronger sliding door preferred but there was also a request for additional space for offices, workshops and storage.
With that in mind, a initial design was quickly proposed that consisted of three additional parts to the original hangar: 1- a new steel structure that would house the large sliding door 2- additional office and storage space using a concrete structure and 3- new metal cladding or "skin" to link these separate pieces into a single coherent entity thus radically improving the Airplane Hangar while maintaining its original gestalt.
Moreover, this simple design accomplished some secondary goals. Firstly, the single, seamless finished building would be more aerodynamic and less prone to wind damage from a hurricane and the new steel and concrete structures add protection against projectiles to the most vulnerable side of the hangar. Secondly, the modest profile allows the building to remain quietly in the background of the airport context which—we must remember—is the first contact point for many tourists and also a popular location for tourist photographs given the history of aviation on St Barts and the uniquely picturesque quality of our small airport nestled dramatically between hills and beach. Nearly every visitor to St Barts takes a snapshot of an airplane arriving from the top of the Tourmente hill.
With the basic architectural design now in hand, work quickly proceeded to the details. Foremost among them was the large sliding door. Extensive research pointed to Spec-Dor of Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Québec (near Montréal) who create custom doors of all variety and specialize in airplane hangar doors because of their personal love of aviation.
Several weeks of collaboration with the engineers of Spec-Dor finalized the design of the Airplane Hangar door for St Barts. Aside from the extra care taken to ensure structural integrity in the face of hurricane forces, there was also a decision to hot-dip galvanize the steel components in a zinc bath. The metallurgical result is a structure with an outer layer of abrasion resistant zinc while maintaining the inner core strength of the steel. Additionally, the internal bonding of zinc and steel provides protection against rust and corrosion. Given the humidity-rich milieu of the airport next to the bay of Saint-Jean, galvanization becomes a wise investment in the longevity of the structure.
With all of the design specifications settled, steel pieces were soon being assembled at the Spec-Dor workshop in Québec and the first glimpses of the assembly were beginning to take shape such as the large trusses above the door opening. An often overlooked design factor is the question of transportation. Although it is easy enough in the modern era to make a 70 foot long truss, professional engineers are also savvy to take into account the standards of transportation companies. The various structural elements are therefore also designed to fit into shipping containers in the most efficient of manners. Upon completion—and fully galvanized with the noticeably shinier zinc outer coating—the large pieces of the frame were carefully packed into standard 40 foot long shipping containers and began a long sea journey from Québec to St Barts.
Upon arrival, the reverse operation unfolded as they were carefully unpacked and transported to the site where assembly began. In the meantime, the adjacent concrete structure for the additional offices, workshops and storage had already commenced with the structural concrete shell already completed.
As the hangar door and its galvanized steel structure were assembled, there was, of course a bit of tension in the air as this was the moment of truth: after months of planning, would everything fit exactly as planned?
Thankfully, yes. The months of hard work and careful planning result in a perfect fit. With the structure of the door assembled, the rest of the project became relatively straightforward. The reinforced concrete structure of the expanded offices and warehouse was already in place and only required typical finishing trades. And the final piece of the puzzle was adding the metal cladding skin to tie everything together into a single coherent whole.
The final result is a barely noticeable yet major upgrade to an important piece of St Bart’s modern infrastructure. Successfully completed and in use today, the Airplane Hangar patiently waits for the next hurricane challenge with the hope of redemption after the failures of Hurricane Irma.
For additional images of the completed Airplane Hanger, please visit our Portfolio.