Titanic Belfast

An iconic story deserves an iconic setting and the dramatic story of the RMS Titanic is fabulously told within Belfast’s new Titanic Signature Building. 

At the time of her construction, RMS Titanic was the engineering wonder of the Edwardian era, the largest moving man-made object ever built. Her interior provided unsurpassed levels of luxury and elegance and – oh, the hubris – at the time of her ill-fated collision, she was on schedule for a record-breaking crossing of the Atlantic.

Similarly, the Titanic Signature Building is a superlative structure, of unique form and appearance, which needed ground-breaking construction techniques to achieve its realisation. By serendipitous coincidence, it took three years to construct both the ill-fated ship and the interactive museum that tells her story.

The building’s six interior levels occupy a height equivalent to a normally-proportioned 10-storey building.  Its exterior walls taper outwards, in places at 25˚ to the vertical, so that each of the building’s four corners echo the 90ft-high prows of Olympic-class liners. Looking at the building in relief, from almost anywhere in Belfast, you appear to be seeing three ship’s hulls , each hull a reminder of the White Star liners: Titanic, Olympic and Britannic.  The reminder is made all the stronger by the glimmering effect created by the 3,000 silver-anodised aluminium plates that adorn the building’s facade, two-thirds of which are of a unique design individually.   Combined, these plates create a shimmering effect, reminiscent of burnished steel, of ocean waves and of glittering icebergs.

In ‘Titanic Belfast’, over nine galleries visitors are told the history of the world’s most famous vessel from her construction on the banks of the Lagan to her final resting place at the bottom of the Atlantic. The facility’s proprietor is the Titanic Foundation, an independent charitable trust that aims to educate the world about Belfast’s maritime and industrial heritage and to inspire new generations of Lagansiders to believe ‘anything is possible’ if they can become ‘truly titanic thinkers’. The foundation’s supporters include Belfast City Council, Belfast Harbour Commissioners and the development company Titanic Quarter Ltd, as well as the  Northern Ireland Tourist Board and the Department of Trade and Investment, who together have funded the £97m cost of the building.


The Titanic Signature Building is described as ‘the nucleus’ of the Titanic Signature Project , which is yet to be completed and which involves the development of several key maritime landmarks including: the Titanic and Olympic slipways where the ships were built; the Thompson Dry Dock, where Titanic was fitted out; the ‘Titanic’ Pump House; Harland & Wolff’s former headquarters and drawing offices; SS Nomadic, a tender that serviced RMS Titanic at Cherbourg and the Hamilton Graving Dock.

The project in turn sits within the Titanic Quarter, Europe’s largest waterfront regeneration project. Occupying a 75ha (185-acre) site in an area known until recently as ‘Queen’s Island’, the regeneration scheme is scheduled to take 20 years to complete at a cost of £7bn and which will eventually provide 7,500 new homes and places of employment to some 20,000 people, many of whom will work in either the Science Park, which already counts Microsoft and GE as tenants, or the Financial Service Centre, which is already partly developed.

Phase 1 and 2 of the Titanic Quarter are now more or less complete, and in addition to the Titanic Signature Project, developments completed so far include: The Arc residential complex, a Premier Inn hotel, the Northern Ireland Public Records Office, the Belfast Metropolitan College, the Paint Hall Film Studios (where HBO’s Game of Thrones is currently being filmed), the Northern Ireland Science Park and the first phase of the Financial Services Centre.  Already, there are more than 3,000 people employed in the district that previously was a scene of dereliction.

The Titanic Quarter is being developed by, eponymously named, Titanic Quarter Ltd, a joint venture between International Investment & Underwriting (IIU), owned by Dermot Desmond, and Harcourt Developments, the company responsible for Citywest, a business park, golf resort and residential district in south County Dublin. Under the development master plan devised by American architect Eric Kuhne, the Titanic Quarter is made up of a series of ‘intimate districts’ none of which will be more than 250m from a garden/park area or a waterfront boulevard.

Most newsworthy for his work on the Burj Mubarak al Kabir skyscraper in Kuwait, which will be the world’s tallest building when completed in 2016, Kuhne is also the concept architect for the Titanic Signature Building, which he claims ‘will transform Queen’s Island into a dynamic leisure destination of international significance’.  He said: “Historic precedents have driven the design process, the final form reflecting the industrial legacy of Harland & Wolf and the wider impact of shipbuilding and the sea on Belfast’s development. The prow of the building’s glass-walled atrium plots a course down the centre of the listed Titanic and Olympic slipways towards the lapping waters of the River Lagan. The project’s close proximity to the very site where these two famous leviathans were forged lends it unparalleled levels of authenticity and immediacy that will help make its contents the definitive telling of those liners’ stories.

“The building’s form conjures up a mass of maritime metaphors: its four projecting segments are instantly evocative of ships prows ploughing their way through the North Atlantic swell. Almost the entire facade will be clad in faceted, three-dimensional plates in a pattern recalling of the construction methods of the great ocean liners. Developed with the help of specialist facade contractor Metallbau Früh and manufactured by Spanwall, the 3,000 anodised aluminium plates are arranged into a complex asymmetrical design, fracturing the reflected light into a series of abstracted waves and breakers.

“A powerful engine of regeneration, the project combines valuable amenities and rich experiences to fulfill the needs and expectations of guests and residents alike. The careful balance of cultural and commercial functions has produced a financially sustainable centre capable of raising income directly through tourism and corporate hospitality. With its cantilevered floor plates expanding outwards from a modest footprint, the project delivers these multiple attractions without encroaching upon the historic remnants of the shipyards that are being preserved wherever possible. Most tangible of these are the Slipway Gardens where the outlines of the Olympic and Titanic will be traced into the paving to allow visitors to walk the length of their decks once more.

“Internally, the project provides over 12,000 sqm of floor space across 5 levels whose combined height is equivalent to a 10-storey building. These generous ceiling heights allow for suitably large-scale exhibits, the lower levels being controlled environments in which to create atmospheric installations evocative of heavy industry or the depths of a ship’s hull.  Infused with an inherent sense of place, the Titanic Signature Building presents a constant reminder of Belfast’s progressive engineering prowess, its graphic silhouette will come to symbolise Belfast’s metamorphosis from 19th century engineering powerhouse to 21st century metropolis.”

The Build

Belfast-based TODD Architects, who also have offices in London and Dublin, were lead consultants and project architects on the titanic signature building, which the practice’s MD Paul Crowe described as ‘one of the most ambitious and challenging construction programmes in the UK and Ireland’.  The developers were set a very tight deadline because of the desire to have the project completed, at the Titanic Belfast exhibition open to the public, in time for the centenary of the ship’s sinking on April 16th. The lead contractor on the project was Harcourt Construction and its commercial manager Martin Conway said work preparing the site began before final contracts were signed, such was the need to make timely progress!

Crowe said: “Titanic Belfast has a complicated geometry, providing a challenging build programme which required ground–breaking construction techniques. The resolution of the geometries involved required the use of sophisticated 3D–modelling, completed by Todds in–house, in a process of ‘virtual prototyping’, which we developed specifically for the project.

“Our roles in Titanic Belfast were wide ranging, from chairing design team meetings liaising with independent technical advisor teams to co–ordinating specialist lighting designers, fire engineers and acousticians. The project required some 900 individual production information drawings from Todd Architects, excluding sketches, some of which were issued with more than 30 revisions. Todd Architects invested almost four years of work into this truly global project, delivering a building that has changed Belfast’s skyline and will help transform international perceptions of the city itself. Developing a building that reflected the ingenuity, ambition and scale of Titanic has been an immense professional challenge – one we are delighted to have met.”

Conway points out that the challenges involved were numerous. For example, to form the basement area, which measures more than 1 hectare,  more than 80,000m3 of soil had to be excavated, involving 10,000 truckloads of material being removed from the site and working at 8m below sea level. The material being removed is known as ‘Belfast sleech’ and is a mixture of sand, gravel and boulder clay that is notoriously difficult to work with. Because of the ground conditions, and the size of the building, more than 1,000 secant piles were used to cover a 500m perimeter; piles 600mm in diameter were buried to a depth of 18m and restrained by ground anchors. Additionally, more than 1,000 load-bearing piles, 600mm diameter buried to a depth of 23m, were used.

“The basement concrete slab was 1.1m deep and used over 2,500 tons of reinforcement steel,” said Conway. “The first concrete pour covered almost 0.5-ha to a volume of 4,200m3, which was the largest ever concrete pour on the island of Ireland. It required eight concrete pumps and involved more than 700 concrete truck deliveries, with a truck load arriving every two minutes for 24 hours, requiring eight concrete pumps. We used 10,000m3 of low-carbon concrete, which amounts to a CO2 saving of 1,296 tonnes, equivalent to taking 416 cars off the road for a year. There were some additional headaches with this though, because low-carbon concrete cures more slowly than ordinary concrete, we had to take special steps to protect it during the curing process, which was taking place in the middle of winter.

“After that it was on to the steel erection and that was more complicated than normal, because of the form of the building. There are very few right angles in the framework.  Everything had to be put together very precisely with very little toleration for error.”

Conway says that Harcourt Construction is delighted to have delivered the project on time and on budget with very few reportable accidents. Given the unusual design features of the building and the number of designers involved in the project, there was a potential for a higher risk of accident in the project, so Newtownards based Hasco Europe was appointed as CDM co-ordinators early in the design process.  Hasco was founded in 1995 in the wake of the Construction (Design & Management) Regulations being enacted in the UK, which are equivalent to the Republic’s Safety, Health & Welfare at Work Regulations. Company director Paul Cheyne said: “There were numerous design workshops and hazop [hazard and operability] studies that addressed the safety aspects within buildability, future maintenance and use. From the outset, a Master Hazard Register was maintained to detail all envisaged hazards and risks in one central document and the format and content of the Health & Safety File and Building Manual was established early on. We lodged all statutory notifications to the HSENI, gathered pre-construction information for the designers and presented a pre-construction information document for the principal contractor. Once on site we worked with the principal contractor throughout the project and when health or safety issues arose we attended site to assist or give guidance. “

Looking back at the construction process, Conway said: “We are especially pleased to have been awarded a Considerate Constructors Gold Award, which recognised the efforts we put into good neighbourliness, cleanliness, environmental care and staff welfare. We really tried to engage with the local community, we tried to create apprenticeships targeted at people who had been long-term unemployed and where possible we used local contractors.

“It makes sense to employ someone like local, like Spanwall for the facade, because it makes repairs and maintenance easier to manage. We were delighted to have local companies like Specialist Joinery Group, Marcon Fit-Out, Harvey Group and Joseph Hughes Painting.”

Specialist Joinery had worked with clients across the world and is considered one of the leading manufacturers of bespoke furniture in Ireland and the UK. The company employs 70 people in Northern Ireland. MD Seán O’Hagan described it as a privilege to work on the Titanic Belfast project. “The first internal feature that greets visitors is the Ticketing Desk, standing over 20m long, 7.5m wide and 3m, it’s a giant structure that took nearly 2,000 man hours to fabricate and construct.”

Elsewhere, Specialist Joinery did the full fit out of the banqueting suites, including bars and restroom facilities, and the feature wall panelling in the function room and VIP areas. O’Hagan said: “The scale of our involvement in the project allowed us to provide training opportunities for local apprentices, meaning the project will leave a lasting social legacy.”

A second joinery company, Marcon Fit-Out, was responsible for the exhibition structures and displays used throughout the nine Titanic Belfast galleries, as well as the fit out of The Bistro, The Galley Cafe and The Titanic Store within the building. In addition to manufacture and installation, Marcon was involved in design development of the building’s interior.  Based in Antrim with offices in Dublin and London, the company employs 26 people and is proud of its ability to combine expert craftsmanship with state-of-the-art CNC machining. Recent investment in its manufacturing capability means the company can produce high-gloss paint and lacquer finishes in-house and some of this can be seen on its work at Titanic Belfast.

The impact Spanwall’s contribution made to the building’s exterior has been mentioned earlier. Less spectacular, but with a marked influence on the Titanic Belfast experience is the company’s work on the interior where custom-rusted Cor-Ten steel panels were used for walls and ceilings, with the undulating system of steel panels having a patina in keeping with the site’s ship-building heritage.

Spanwall’s RF50 Rainscreen concealed-fix products have been used on used on landmark buildings across the UK and Ireland, but perhaps nowhere do its panels have such a high visual impact as on the Titanic Signature Building. The myriad of geometrically-complex panels needed posed a huge technical challenge, said Spanwall MD Keith Toner. “We worked closely with the project architects TODD at the early concept design stage and were able to simplify the panel design and layout to create 10 standard geometrical shaped J57S anodised aluminium panels and one, very special one-off, panel for all the elevations. We were also able to incorporate our own RF50 Rainscreen carrier system into the design for the installation. We achieved the original concept and vision for the irregular panel façade while keeping the costs for the geometrically complex shapes and their installation within the project budget.”

One reason why the project was delivered on programme and to budget is that the Sweett Group was project, cost and programme managers, assisting Harcourt Construction in pre-contract negotiations and providing project management, cost planning and programming services ‘at risk’ before funding had been fully agreed and a procurement contract signed. “Our experience of large value projects, and particularly our significant museum and exhibition works, were critical in advising the contractor in the successful delivery on time and on budget,” says Sweett’s Director of Cost Consultancy Geoff Warke.

“Our role was to support Harcourt Construction, in all aspects of the design, procurement and construction delivery. This involved the management and co-ordination of the project and the creative exhibition teams, the construction programme, project reporting and cost management, including managing consultant appointments, tender documents, tender analysis and reporting.  We also acted as project manager on subcontractor agreements and we closely managed a number of critical work streams including exhibition delivery, BREEAM and disability design compliance.”


All parties involved in the Titanic Signature Building and Project are delighted with its high level of success. The building is proving to be a destination attraction from tourists from around the world. Conway is delighted to report that cruise liners are now stopping off in Belfast to give their passengers the opportunity to visit the museum. To break even, Titanic Belfast needs 360,000 visitors a year – although the annual target is 450,000 visits.  Earlier this year, Northern Ireland Enterprise Minister Arlene Foster reported that the building had hosted 200,000 visitors in its first two months. She said: “It is a visitor experience of international quality and one of the most exciting and dramatic tourism projects to open in 2012 anywhere in the world.”

It is also a fitting legacy to those who built RMS Titanic and to those who lost their lives on that fateful maiden voyage a hundred years ago, as well as an inspiration to everyone who visits it today.