An integrated approach to maximising HE estates

Robert Grayson, Managing Director of AHR Building Consultancy, reflects on how universities can get the most from their estate

HE is increasingly a buyer’s market and potential students, paying hefty fees, are highly discerning ‘consumers’. The Chancellor’s Autumn Statement last year removed caps on student numbers, so that already fierce competition to attract students will intensify ever further. Universities are under pressure, on the one hand, to make efficiency gains and provide value for money, yet on the other hand to make their offer as appealing as possible: to attract – and then accommodate – ever-increasing numbers of students.

Teaching quality is of course crucial, yet sources such as the Diamond review, (which considered the issue of efficiency savings in HE) suggests that potential students’ decisions are swayed by the perceived quality of facilities – and given that students may only spend a few hours on a campus visit, it is clear that much of this perception will be based on visual impact. No wonder then that, despite austerity, spend on University Estates is high. According to AUDE’s ‘Higher Education Estates Statistics Report’ capital expenditure – which includes the refurbishment and upgrading of existing accommodation – was over £2.5 billion in 2015 – the highest annual spend recorded to date. This is understandable given the need to build ever-more impressive ‘flagship’ projects: high-quality buildings that not only function well but also make an immediate, striking impression.

Yet clearly there must be limits: to budgets, to high-profile new build projects and, on a purely practical level, to campus expansion itself. Not least, most universities are constrained in terms of land and continual expansion is simply not possible. How then to accommodate ever increasing student numbers whilst simultaneously making space efficiencies? How to ensure that new-build projects do not unwittingly show up failings in tired or dated facilities? Just as Estate Managers must juggle the often conflicting priorities of multiple stakeholders, so the long-term planning of estate development needs a multi-pronged and fully integrated approach, running maximisation of current assets and the development of new-build projects side-by-side.

Existing assets – Make do and mend? Or jewels in the campus crown?

New-build projects can make an undeniable impact – but they can also unwittingly highlight failings in existing facilities. On average, around two thirds of non-residential HE estate was built before 1980 and, when tired or no longer fit for purpose, the prospect of starting from scratch can be appealing. Of course this is sometimes the wise solution: there are certainly cases where rebuilding can, overall, be more costly and time-consuming than starting afresh. On the whole, however, it is often more cost effective to improve and extend the life of existing assets through clever tweaks and refurbishments. In addition, demolition – inherently wasteful and therefore unsustainable – is also intrusive, putting a site out of use for long stretches of time. Well-planned and scheduled refurbishment and remodelling work by contrast can be undertaken in stages, minimising disruption to daily campus life.

Of existing buildings, heritage assets can be both the most problematic and yet also the most potentially valuable. According to the Diamond review, 16% of HE’s floor area on average are listed buildings. Yet the layout of historic buildings tends to be at odds with today’s impetus to build spaces that are flexible, adaptable to future needs and open to multi-purpose working. This can be in direct contrast to conservation thinking, which looks unfavourably on radical changes to layout and favours uses similar to the original. Furthermore heritage assets can be a burden in terms of energy efficiency and require often costly, tailored solutions to fix the problem. Nonetheless, the appeal (and ultimately therefore financial value) of such assets – perhaps especially to overseas students who often value the UK’s architectural heritage – cannot be overlooked and, alongside quality new-build, these can become jewels in the campus crown. It is therefore very often worth the investment in working with an adept conservation team to bring them back into use.

Setting literal limits: Space reclaim

Of course the ultimate aim in all this is to attract students. Yet we then have to accommodate them, at the very same time that universities may be trying to rationalise their estate, and all within campus limits. Especially for urban estates, these limits can be very literal indeed. It then becomes a case of ‘space reclamation’ and solutions can be more or less obvious, ranging from building up or over (for example, covering underused courtyards, as with AHR’s work at UWE Bristol) to carefully using infill to reclaim multiple pockets of space. Often solutions are subtle: perhaps an existing underutilised space, such as an oversized through-route, can be transformed into a double-use or flexible-use space. Decisions can also require consideration of future use patterns: are banks of desk-bound computers still essential when students increasingly choose to hot-desk with personal laptops? The key is of course to think strategically as much as physically, and it is worth working trying to build long-term relationships with consultants who have a vested interest in the best rather than most overt solution.

Consistency, integrated vision and BIM

Estate planning and development is clearly a complex process of balancing conflicting agendas, considering long-term and short-term goals in tandem, and pleasing multiple stakeholders, which means that no one decision can ever be truly taken in isolation. Rather the Estate is an organic entity with ever-changing and interrelated aspects. This means that maximising long-term consistency is crucial, strategically and, where possible, with both internal and external teams, who are then able see the full picture over time. Drafting in several different teams can unwittingly produce disconnected decision-making, whereby one project is conceived in isolation, often leading to wasteful or less than optimal long-term solutions.

Technology is now also beginning to support this integrated, long-term way of thinking. BIM is now compulsory for new-build projects and the main benefits are well-known. Nonetheless there is still limited awareness of BIM’s ability to be adopted in small stages, step-by-step, and to be used equally effectively with existing buildings, through laser-scanning, and on smaller-scale projects. What’s more each BIM model can be linked into any other so that over time a comprehensive model can be built up of the entire estate. Whilst at present FM software is not always BIM-compatible, this is changing rapidly and it will not be long before these data-rich models take on an essential role in Facilities Management too, effectively acting as the campus in miniature and radically reducing time wasted chasing supplier data or literally running from building to building. They key point, however, is that the responsiveness and connectivity of BIM will increasingly support this way of thinking about campus estates: as a series of interrelated ’moving parts’ rather than as isolated one-off projects.

Whether extending the life of one asset in order to resource a new facility elsewhere, or choosing to spend the extra time and money on refurbishing a listed building because of the longer-term economic value of that asset, no one decision or project can be conceived in isolation. As pressure mounts to compete in the new cut-and-thrust HE ‘marketplace’, this dynamic, integrated vision of estate development, which carefully offsets both decisions and resources as parts of a complex whole, will increasingly be key to value-driven success.

Robert Grayson is Managing Director of AHR Building Consultancy


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