The university buildings fit for the future

As we make tentative steps into the post-pandemic era, the UK’s university campuses need to be more versatile than ever

Prior to the pandemic, most people took it for granted that campuses embodied universities.

Physically and figuratively, they were the heart and soul of a university – bustling hubs of learning, living, research and socialising. Not only were they an integral part of the university ‘experience’, but they were also the ‘shop window’ for attracting new students and academics, boosting civic pride and investment opportunities.

And then Covid-19. Readers probably do not need reminding of the subsequent and dispiriting scenes of eerily empty estates across the sector.

More than two years later and a hangover has kicked in. The shutters are up but campuses are, according to a report by the Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE), a little out of sorts.

“A lot of our universities are struggling to create a sense of place for staff and students because of how sparsely populated our campuses remain,” says AUDE’s space management group chair, Dave Beavis, whose day job is space manager at the University of Exeter. “That bustling vibrancy has not entirely returned. And we all miss it.”

Nothing emphasises a ‘hot topic’ more than a new buzz phrase, and AUDE does not disappoint: ‘spatial resilience’, and it comes with its own, very comprehensive, report-cum-roadmap that delivers a post-Covid way of thinking about our university campuses.

Jane White, AUDE’s executive director, explains.

“The concept of ‘spatial resilience’ is the idea that not only do our campuses need to be more flexible than they have ever been before, in the ways that our built spaces can be configured and used; not only do they need to be adaptable over time as changing technologies affect teaching and learning behaviours; not only do they need to be ‘hackable’ in the moment so that users can adapt the space as they see fit at the time; not only do they need to be built with health and wellbeing in mind, aware of light and fresh air, green spaces and views; but they also need to be of high quality that endures over the long term.”

These sorts of ambitions were once the stuff of 10-year plans and leisurely brainstorms at conferences. Has Covid been a call to wake up and get a move on? “Yes, most definitely,” says Jane, concluding: “The collective experience of working off-campus through the pandemic has changed attitudes, perceptions and habits in higher education across the world.”

Kingston University’s Town House won the RIBA Stirling Award, designating it Britain’s best new building. It also clinched the 2022 EU Prize for Contemporary Architecture Mies van der Rohe Award

From vision to mission

AUDE argue that higher education institutions (HEIs) were gifted a glimpse of an exciting new approach to what a campus is and means through the pandemic fog. Now it’s time to give substance to that vision.

Says Beavis: “Covid-19 has made us all realise: work is what you do, not where you do it. With that comes an opportunity to reiterate the purpose of the campus – to bring people and ideas together and to reimagine how the estates may operate in terms of size, shape and model in the future. The question is how might HEIs translate these concepts into a blended workplace that is a practical and actionable vision that is fit for purpose?”

He says that the “number one driver of change” is the desire to see space used more efficiently within the existing footprint. But, he says, other reasons have also become clear.

Such as? “The push towards greater environmental sustainability, for one,” he begins. “Staff and student health and wellbeing, for another. And, of course, our financial efficiency. A change of policy on the scale that is envisaged involves a real shift in corporate understanding and that can’t happen instantly. There are many studies on how workplaces will change after the upheaval of the pandemic, but few are specific to higher education. Academic workplaces are different to commercial offices, and academic activity varies hugely between faculties and across the academic year”.

A 2021 survey from AUDE, however, highlights the uncertainty. Just short of nine in 10 universities surveyed said they envisage that agile working will be implemented by the end of 2022: how many will for certain, we do not exactly know yet. The survey highlighted that infrastructure does not yet support flexibility: at the start of the 2021 academic year, 59% were not confident in their room-booking systems and 74% did not have tools in place to monitor space utilisation effectively.

Kingston University’s Town House uses polished concrete, natural light and wood to good effect

Climate change is the defining global issue of our time. If we are to achieve the aim of limiting the rise of global temperatures to less than 1.5°C, then net zero carbon emissions need to be met by 2050 at the very latest.

“Universities have long been leaders in climate research, providing us with both a clear picture of the challenge as well as technological solutions to mitigate climate change”, says Beavis, but there are still big questions in search of bigger, long-term, answers. “What further steps can we take? How can universities decarbonise their campuses in the short-term while building credible and ambitious plans to tackle Scope 3 emissions in the long term? How can government effectively ensure that the sector gets the support it needs to achieve this?”

Construction of Kingston University’s Town House took three years. The front facade is composed of concrete loggias, creating outdoor covered corridors open to the elements

We are, at least, moving in the right direction, he says. “Our sector has shown some truly amazing and award-winning design and build projects. Just this week I had the pleasure of a tour of the Stirling Prize-winning Town House at Kingston University. The brief required an energy-efficient building, so concrete slabs were used to create a thermos-active system which uses building mass to passively heat and cool the interior. Solar panels lurk discreetly on the roof providing electricity. The building is very air-tight with high levels of insulation and built-in heat recovery systems. We are making great steps towards our net zero carbon ambitions, but it is not easy. And it is not cheap.”

Things looking up at the West Downs

Like everywhere, the effect of Covid on space usage had been very challenging at the University of Winchester. “To some extent,” says John Mann, director of estates at Winchester, “it’s accelerated new pedagogical methods.”

Winchester’s new buildings, such as the West Downs Centre, already had an advantage over older stock in that there were larger rooms to enable social distancing and more controlled ventilation methods.

But the need to provide additional ventilation meant that teaching rooms and spaces in older buildings were potentially going to be harder to manage.

“However,” explains John, “this period coincided with a renewed interest in sustainability and, together with reduced access to capital for new HE buildings, has shifted the focus.”

Winchester’s West Down centre blends outdoor and indoor spaces together

Winchester’s evolving estates strategy has been updated to allow for more investment in the existing building stock.

“This aims to ensure that the quality of older stock continues to improve and to manage carbon reduction strategies. Retrofitting existing buildings as an effective way of reducing carbon emissions has been held up as a significant way forward for the built environment.

Covid-19 has generated a new focus on health and wellbeing, including in the design and use of buildings. The West Downs Centre is leading the way, says John, as one of the very first UK university buildings to register on the WELL-Certified accreditation scheme, identifying and strengthening all manner of health and wellbeing benefits for building users. Winchester has also seen the development of the range of degree programmes offered, impacting the future needs of the university estate.

Winchester’s West Down centre includes a 250-seat auditorium, art gallery, café, food hall, shop, library, social learning areas and teaching spaces

“One area of significant programme expansion has been in the Faculty of Health and Wellbeing, as the university responds to the challenge to train health professionals to meet the NHS’s requirement for more nurses and allied health professionals.”

The rapid expansion of these programmes led to a conversion of one floor of the West Downs Centre to create clinical skills facilities, complete with “simulation wards where student nurses can practise essential nursing skills in a safe environment. As the original building design was generous in terms of room size, we were able to create two, five-bed wards with minimal cost and time. This was carried out over the summer recess of 2021.”

Home to computer, digital, business and management degree programmes, Winchester University’s West Down centre features combined heat and power plant, heat recovery systems, rainwater harvesting, a green roof and solar photovoltaic panels

This, says John, has given Winchester’s estate two strategic directions: retrofitting existing buildings and creating new, more adaptable, and future-ready (‘spatially resilient’, if you will) buildings.

“Based on our experience of the West Downs Centre and its ability to be transformed into simulation wards, we will be adopting a key new-build strategic brief of adaptability and flexibility of use,” says John. “This will allow us to use any new buildings more efficiently and reduce the future impact of change. Retrofitting existing buildings will remain a key strategy; the embodied carbon used in building them can be used to offset some of the carbon otherwise used in new-build and operations. It also helps maintain the buildings and can be less costly.”
Winchester’s focus is, he says, to build as sustainably as possible, “subject to cost and complexity”.

That, though, in a nutshell, is the circle that universities – which face handling fixed or slow-growing budgets against a backdrop of inflation and increasing student demand – must square. Can the university estate provide the answers, or will online resources increasingly pick up the slack?

You might also like: The sustainable campus: are you hitting your carbon reduction targets?

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