Q&A: Simon Gwynne – director of estates and facilities, Canterbury Christ Church University

Flexing the estate, the sustainability challenge, and why it is better to be in-house

Good estates and facilities teams have achieved great things under the toughest of circumstances. We asked Simon Gwynne, estates and facilities director at Canterbury Christ Church, what challenges he and his team have had to overcome – and what’s on the horizon for the new academic year and beyond.

 

Many believe Covid has changed the physical university estate forever. Would you agree?

Covid has undoubtedly made a significant impact to our thinking in terms of the physical estate. A key step change has been the growing significance of understanding occupancy levels along with air quality. Whilst these two factors have always been important, they are all too easily to overlook when flexing the use of the estate. The need for Covid-safe facilities has helped to focus attention to the importance of air quality through ventilation, which is directly impacted by occupancy levels and activity.

Of the physical changes you had to make at Canterbury Christ Church University during the pandemic, are there any that have, or could, become permanent?

We have been fortunate that our new £65m Verena Holmes Building opened at the start of 2021, which has larger open teaching spaces and very good ventilation.

We are reviewing our older traditional lecture halls and considering how these are best utilised with the changes of Covid, but also changing teaching and learning styles.

We are also working to re-configure some office space and are creating more social study spaces for students around the campus.

We are fortunate to have an excellent housekeeping team that have worked incredibly hard throughout the pandemic to ensure we met and exceeded the government guidance. The housekeeping department is an in-house team with responsibility for cleanliness standards across the estate. At the start of the pandemic we changed our standing operating process to meet the needs of staff and students – this has played a significant role in ensuring there has not been a single outbreak case resulting from the university.

We are working to re-configure some office space and are creating more social study spaces for students around the campus

We have taken a very proactive approach, this was endorsed through an external audit by the NHS Deep Cleaning and Advisory Service, which stated: “A very well maintained university run very well and maintained to an exceptional standard. The protocols here have been explained well and the staff appear to have thought of everything in making the appropriate changes that are required through the outbreak(s).”

We continue to monitor the guidance and alter our approach accordingly, however the main change that has been made is the recognition within the university of the importance of housekeeping – this is the fundamental change that will continue long after Covid.

The University of Gloucestershire is to take over a former Debenhams site. Do you think vacant city centre sites could prove useful to the higher education sector?

Yes, education needs are changing and both the type of space and location is becoming increasingly important. Canterbury Christ Church is a city centre campus, and in 2014 we purchased the neighbouring site, previously owned by the Ministry of Justice as Canterbury Prison, for our growth and development. This has provided an opportunity to develop our estates masterplan and ensure we are completely aligned to the needs of students. It provides us further ability to flex our estate, but we are also able to benefit from the unique nature of the site, enabling us to create interesting and exciting spaces for students.

What are you planning for, in terms of social distancing and other restrictions, in the new academic year?

We are carefully following the government guidance and have been reviewing our measures across all our sites. We are working hard to increase our campus capacity for September 2021 to ensure an excellent student experience and time on campus, but making sure we still remain a Covid-safe campus. We have taken a number of measures to ensure a high standard of air quality is provided and monitored as well as hygiene and cleaning.

You recently opened your new £65m STEM facility the Verena Holmes Building. What were the highlights, for you, of being involved in this project?

We are really pleased and excited with our new STEM building. It has been a great project with a number of challenges, the largest being the impact of Covid, which affected the build programme, meaning time was lost from the project programme. However due to the efforts of the university project team and the main contractor Gilbert Ash, these were overcome, with the scheme delivered within the original budget with only minimal delay.

On a personal level, the key highlight for me was seeing the impact the building made to both staff and students. It has clearly made a very positive impression on all those using the facility, and feedback from students in particular has been fantastic.

The new Verena Holmes building at Canterbury Christ Church

Does CCCU have any other construction projects in the pipeline?

We are in the process of updating our estates masterplan, continuing to consolidate activities to our main campuses, and focus on the student experience. Over the course of the next few years we intend to ensure our existing estate meets the needs of our students, and staff, as well as all statutory requirements. In time we hope to further develop within our Canterbury campus working closely with key city stakeholders

What are the three biggest challenges for your team from a sustainability perspective?

As with the majority of businesses, sustainability is one of the biggest challenges with organisational competing priorities. It’s important that as an organisation we prioritise this work and balance students’ needs with the sustainability agenda. It must not be simply at a strategic level but incorporated into our operational processes. As a university this is something we have taken seriously at an executive level, and we are collectively working to embed change within our normal business operations. However, a combination of time and resources can impact on your ability to deliver.

With the onset of the pandemic, along with business-as-usual activity, resource levels are stretched, but the university has listened to our concern and invested additional funding for further in-house resources to support this important work.

We are often in the background and some of our work may not be seen, but these staff and the work we do make a significant impact on student experience

Why is good estates and facilities management important to student satisfaction?

We need our campuses to be places students want to come to spend time, to study, grow, interact together, and are proud to say is their home. Campus life is important for students to come and work together, learn and make bonds with others, and assist in their career and personal development. It is imperative that we have great teaching and specialist spaces for our students. Estates and facilities are an enabler for the organisation to succeed. We are often in the background and some of our work may not be seen, but equally these staff and the work we do make a significant impact on student experience.

At Canterbury Christ Church, all our estates and facilities team is in-house – this helps to ensure our staff understand the culture of the university and the important part they play in delivering an excellent student experience. Our frontline staff are always on hand to help support students on their journey through the university. We understand a friendly word or a smile can help to make students feel welcome, however we go further. Estates and facilities staff work closely with our student health and wellbeing teams to ensure we work collaboratively in helping students and the challenges they face when at university.

We never underestimate the positive impact we can have.

 


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