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Originally published Saturday, December 7, 2013 at 6:12 AM

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School’s hobbit huts hide noise from Heathrow Airport

London’s Heathrow Airport will spend about $2.9 million to build domes, designed for earthquake zones in Asia and Africa, to protect children in 21 British schools from the noise of the third-busiest airport in the world.


The New York Times

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

So Heathrow Airport will spend 1.8 million pounds (or about $2.9 million) to build “super adobe” domes, designed for earthquake zones in Asia and Africa, at 21 British schools to protect children from the noise of the third-busiest airport in the world.

Four of the domes, consisting of plaster walls and coiled bags of earth, are already in use at the Hounslow Heath Infant and Nursery School, where airplanes coming in to land pass fewer than 200 yards overhead and in busy times, arrive or leave every 60 seconds, crisscrossing the sky.

The domes look like hobbit homes, but the school’s head teacher, Kathryn Harper-Quinn, said they make it much 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 is able to hold twice as many outdoor classes and is seeing better results from students — 580 in total, ages 3 to 7.

One 6-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 increasing demand and to keep London competitive with other European hubs like Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam — or so says Heathrow Airport Holdings, the owner.

But there is enormous resistance from the suburban boroughs that have been built up since the airport was first established in 1929 in the fields and orchards of the hamlet of Heathrow. It became a fully civilian airport just after the war, in 1946.

The borough of Hounslow, itself, not surprisingly, is opposed to a third runway, citing noise and environmental concerns in a specially produced brochure. Still, with so many residents working at Heathrow, no one here wants the airport to shut down. But doing nothing seems a poor option for a country trying to compete in a global marketplace.

The fight over Heathrow has stymied successive governments. Yet another commission is scheduled to emerge by year’s end with an “interim report” ordered by the current coalition government, which halted Heathrow expansion plans originally approved in 2010. The delays have been enormously frustrating, too, to major commercial players like British Airways, which uses Heathrow as a hub and is critical of the fees it charges; it also sees other airlines like Air France and Emirates expanding.

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

A consortium created by the mayor recently revealed further fancy design plans for a six-runway airport, which would bring aircraft over the estuary, rather than over heavily residential areas, and would be connected to London by new high-speed rail and highway improvements.

At the Hounslow Heath school, Harper-Quinn said that the idea for the hobbit huts followed a chance encounter with Julian Faulkner, a founder of Small Earth, who has built a village of similar huts in Nepal. At the school, even the children’s chickens have their own noise-reduction dome.

One student, Hamze Ali, 6, said the airplanes annoyed him.

“When you’re talking to somebody and an airplane comes, you forget what you were saying and the other person walks away,” he said. “It makes me confused and sad.”

Macgill, the teacher, agreed.

“You start telling this fantastic story to your pupils and then you’ll have to stop for a few seconds for the noise to pass,” she said.

Despite the opposition, it appears likely that a third runway for Heathrow will be built, everyone acknowledges, but it will not do much for the children and chickens of Hounslow Heath.



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