Judging a book by its cover

The world has come a long way since George Eliot had a character in The Mill on the Floss slating the judgement of a book by its cover

By Gloria Moss

As Dr Alex Lickerman points out (https://tinyurl.com/kc86mbb) humans are predominantly visual creatures, with the visual area at the back of our brains comprising 30% of our cortex. As he points out, the wrappers in which things come not only powerfully affect what interests us but also how we react to the contents. The same holds true, in his view, for companies who can convince the public of the professionalism of their work through the quality of their marketing materials, websites, and offices.

The world of universities is no different. Every university has a unique offering and the quality of the building’ infrastructure has a vital role to play in conveying the richness of what it has to offer. That message is then conveyed to numerous stakeholders, whether it be the local public, academics and administrative staff, and of course students. According to recent research the quality of a university’s estate ranks very high in determining choice of university and is considered to be part of the brand. This is regularly reported by HEFCE and AUDE, the Association of University Directors of Estates. Ancient universities naturally boast fine architectural wonders – one thinks of Matthew Arnold’s ‘dreaming spires of Oxford’ – and those that have emerged more recently likewise convey their learning credentials but in different ways.

Ian Hunter is Director of Estates at Buckinghamshire New University and he has been extensively responsible for the sea-change in the fabric of the University’s buildings. Looming large now in the attractive market-town of High Wycombe is The Gateway, a gleaming building that houses the University’s library and state-of-the-art recording and drama studios. The obvious quality of this building has been recognised by a Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) award. It was completed in 2009 and the renovations at that time extended to a wide walkway by the building, providing a thoroughfare between town and the large nearby hospital, which firmly anchors the University in the heart of the town.

At High Wycombe, the most recent transformative change was in the South Wing of the site and Ian Hunter explains the drivers for these changes and the innovative processes involved. “The University needed to expand its teaching space and envisaged tutorial-style teaching and mock-up skills rooms for health-related training,” said Mr Hunter.

“In order to ensure the right atmosphere for the classrooms, the Students’ Union was asked to suggest colours for accent walls and the Pro Vice Chancellor for Learning & Teaching, Professor Shân Wareing,selected rounded white tables and chairs that can easily be moved and configured into different room layout shapes with ease.”

Ian Hunter has a background as a civil engineer, where his roles involved working in building hospitals, reservoirs, and motorways. Having seen things from a building contractor perspective, he is well placed to manage budgets. In fact, this self-declared poacher turned gamekeeper oversaw the completion of the works to the South Wing within timescale and within budget, in fact generating a surplus that can be used for new spaces elsewhere.

Judicious use of spending is a frequent theme. Light grey has been used extensively on the walls in South Wing because, in Hunter’s words ‘it is more cost-effective since brighter colours demand more coats of paint’.

Solar panels have also been installed and generate sufficient power to heat one substantial building for a year. Through these energy savings, the panels pay for themselves over a period of seven years and after that will yield savings to the University of £20,000 per year and reduce the university’s CO2 emissions by approximately 50 tonnes annually.

A further tool in driving efficiencies is a high-tech Business Management System (BMS) which constantly monitors heating and ventilation systems and advises of breakdown and fuel usage in real time and has led to substantial reductions in annual maintenance and fuel costs. This BMS system was the subject of a national award and Hunter estimates that the investment in the University estates over the past seven years, reported annually to HEFCE, puts the University in the top third of UK universities in terms of estate performance indicators.

Other transformative changes have occurred away from the public light, inside the buildings. At the University’s other campus, in Uxbridge, Middlesex, a strategic choice given the volume of work with the London Health Trusts and the need to be within the M25, a building previously used as an office block was converted to teaching facilities, delivering both pre and post registration health training

So, Estates is a vital and thriving part of the University and the range and scope of its activities, vast. When asked whether he manages to sleep at night, Ian Hunter pauses for thought and replies ‘most nights’.

Gloria Moss is Professor of Management and Marketing at Buckinghamshire New University.  Her latest book, ‘Why men like straight lines and women like polka dots’, is available now (see https://tinyurl.com/na3haed)

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