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Right on time: delivering HE infrastructure projects

When infrastructure projects go wrong, a university can be left with financial deficit, unhappy students and reputational damage. Charley Rogers investigates how disasters can be avoided and how universities and suppliers deal with the fallout

A university’s infrastructure is a key building block of its services. From reliable internet connections to working showers, students expect to have both functional and comfortable living quarters during their time at university.

In 2019, there were a number of media stories covering disastrous consequences of delayed projects, including temporary outdoor bathrooms at Nottingham Trent, pods “not fit for humans” at UWE, and over 250 students unable to move in to their accommodation at Portsmouth University because of delays to a £30m development.

In fact, a BBC report from October 2019 revealed that there were 22 private student blocks across the UK that had been delayed during that term alone.

Needless to say, these kinds of project delays cause uproar among students and parents, but why do they happen, and how can they be avoided?

Unforeseen circumstances

There are various reasons why a project can be delayed, says Ben Sandham, sales area manager at TechnoGym, which provides made-to-order gym equipment. He cites “the time of year, the weather, budget constraints, or other things out of the university’s control such as construction organisations folding”.

There can also be more dramatic reasons, adds Sandham, such as archaeological artefacts being uncovered that could delay the build by several months – or even years in some cases.

These circumstances apply largely to new building projects, but refurbishments can also come under fire from hold-ups. Adrian Barber, marketing manager at controls supplier Prefect Controls, says factors such as “poor project management, over-ambitious schedules, contractors that are under-resourced or not familiar with some of the equipment they are installing and client changes [can all] steer a project off-schedule”.

Many factors can delay projects, from bad weather to archaeological finds

Preparation

Making sure projects are thoroughly outlined and deadlines made clear well in advance are key elements to ensuring that builds or refurbishments get off on the right foot, says Sandham. This includes being clear on equipment lead-times and delivery dates.

“We will be honest with our customer [and say] ‘we need an order by X date if you want the equipment by X date’. We have a lead time which is generally six to eight weeks because we’re an Italian-based company, so everything ships from Italy and is made to order,” he says.

Close communication with other contractors also plays into a smooth process, adds Barber, explaining: “As one of the final parts of the jigsaw, we can only start our work when previous work has been completed. Our project manager is in ongoing communication with the electrical contractor from the start of any project, so that we are always aware of how it is progressing.”

Liquidated and ascertained damages clauses (LADs) are vital at setting out the real cost to the university of a delay

Similarly, Richard James, senior sector manager – higher education at contractor Willmott Dixon, is a keen proponent of early contractor involvement (ECI). He says: “We work with customers from as early in the process as possible, so we’re involved in any design issues, buildability issues, and can help the university find the right solution.”

Clive Read, partner at law firm VWV, suggests choosing “reputable and experienced players”, being “realistic as to the time the development needs”, and including “an adequate contingency to build in time if things were to go wrong and be delayed” when planning a project, in order to be fully prepared.

Read also emphasises the importance of having a clear contractual agreement. He says: “Underpinning all of this is having a contract which spells out what happens if things go wrong. Liquidated and ascertained damages clauses (LADs) are vital at setting out the real cost to the university of a delay and the contractor should be aware of the financial and reputational cost of hitting a target.

“The clearer the contractual wording, the better – this is not the time to be debating whether an LAD clause is to be invoked or not.”

Impact on wellbeing

Speaking to the Guardian in October 2019, the then universities minister Chris Skidmore articulated the importance of quality housing for students’ wellbeing, saying: “The quality of accommodation can affect student welfare, which is why providers who fail to complete projects on time and provide adequate alternative provision need to be held accountable.”

But are standards worse now than they were 10 years ago? James suggests not, noting: “From what I’ve seen out there, the quality of student accommodation has improved dramatically over the past 10 years, and certainly from when I was in university about 15 years ago.”

However, students today are paying far more in living costs than they have in the past and, as such, have higher expectations, says James.

According to HEPI’s Somewhere to Live report, published in November 2019, “Overall, the average weekly rent has increased by 31.3% since 2011. The general levelling up of standards has also meant a substantial decline in the availability of low-cost accommodation provided by institutions and their private partners.”

Quality housing is key to student wellbeing

Contingency plans

Suitable contingencies are essential for any delayed project. Sandham points out that sports facilities are often a vital part of the infrastructure. He says: “We work with a lot of universities that have a lot of elite athletes who are students but also training for the Olympics, or for world cups, and so forth, and so it wouldn’t work for them to just not have gym facilities.” In this instance, temporary solutions need to be accounted for. Sandham says: “We’ll work with the university to arrange temporary facilities, and move equipment around so it can go in a sports hall or something.”

Good communication is particularly integral during any delays. Sandham adds: “We’ve got a dedicated marketing team for the university sector, so we’ll do 3D drawings and video walk-throughs to show what’s coming, so students are aware that, yes, there’s a bit of pain short-term, but long-term [the university can say] ‘look what you’re getting’.”

As well as angry students and parents if infrastructure projects are delayed, there can be legal ramifications

Legal ramifications

As well as angry students and parents if infrastructure projects are delayed, there can be legal ramifications if offer contracts are not clear, says Read. This is particularly true of housing projects, rather than for additional facilities such as gyms. He says: “Depending on the wording of the offer to students, universities are technically looking at a breach of contract claim. The devil will be in the detail.” This is a rare circumstance, however, Read says, and it is more likely that universities will have made backup plans. He says, “In practice, universities bend over backwards to make intermediary facilities available.” He also notes that consistent and transparent communication is essential: “The key is communication alongside being on top of the project brief. Talking to students as soon as possible in this situation can help defuse what is an extremely stressful time for everyone.”

Bad PR

The unfortunate and often long-lasting fallout of a delayed infrastructure project is the reputational damage and potential bad PR that can come with it. Though it isn’t always possible to avoid delayed projects, it is the way you respond to them that’s more important, says Barber, “Any bad PR leaves a smear, but honesty is always the best policy. People are generally more concerned with how a problem is solved or dealt with than the issue itself.”

James also notes that although it’s often the negative stories that reach the press, it is important to remember that “universities are also involved in countless projects that are delivered on time”, and that despite the problems at UWE, Portsmouth University and Nottingham Trent cited at the beginning of this article, “the universities involved did provide temporary solutions and will have been working very hard”.

The central takeaway here? Problems can’t always be avoided, but a clear plan and reputable contractors are a good place to start. And at the end of the day, transparency is key.

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