Roundtable: Estates of grace

Fire, flood and dodgy wifi signals: just a few of the issues an estates team has to wrangle with. So how do you best manage a large and complex university estate? Anna Britten asks a panel of experts

The Panel

Phil Butters, director of estates and development directorate at the University of Keele

Jerry Woods, director of estates and facilities at the University of Roehampton

Jane White, executive director, Association of University Directors of Estates (AUDE)

Alexi Marmot, professor of facility and environment management, and director of the Global Centre for Learning Environments, at UCL Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment

Neil Hitching, business development director, Toshiba Carrier UK


Q. Which aspects of managing a large, complex university estate take up the largest chunk of time and money?

Jane White: The answer is almost certainly the slightly unglamorous maintenance of what we already have. Keeping a building safe, secure, warm, well-lit, clean – such obvious tasks always fall to estates teams and completing these well means something fundamental: the university can function as it is intended to do. Couple that with work that is more about strategic intent – the design and financing of the new building, or the radical refurbishment that allows a university to reinforce its position as a leader in a given teaching or research area, for instance; or the future-facing work of getting ahead of big issues such as climate change, and the changing expectations from an increasingly international student base – and it is here that AUDE members are spending their time.

Jerry Woods: The maintenance of generally ageing estates means that, aside from capital investment in new and refurbishment projects, this is generally the single biggest area of expenditure. However, more time is taken up in meetings, whether that is project boards, health and safety committees, strategy reviews or staff meetings. The role of director of estates touches many parts of the organisation and means that he or she is often drawn into many areas of university decision-making.

Phil Butters: Our estates team invests significant time in effective stakeholder engagement to ensure they are properly included and engaged in the decision-making and informed of any actions we need to take. Stakeholders include users of the estate as well as those bodies that may be affected or have influence over the Keele estate. The largest cost would be delivering the maintenance needs of an ageing estate whilst accommodating ever-evolving user needs and balancing this with legislation compliance.

Alexi Marmot: Negotiating who gets what space, when, where, and with what infrastructure, uses an inordinate amount of estate and facilities staff time and effort; that, in turn, consumes finance for staff costs. Such negotiations include: room bookings and allocation to different faculties, departments, versus spaces used by all, such as library and learning spaces; balancing new priorities of senior management across the faculties and departments; balancing the offering to students with the demands of staff, eg student social learning spaces with staff work areas; balancing the needs of students at different stages of their studies; balancing use of space at different times of the year – different needs in exam periods versus the rest of the academic year, and almost empty during holidays; and managing parking, deliveries, and temporary storage of recycling and waste prior to collection is fraught with challenges, especially on tight urban campuses.

Q. Biggest challenges when making ancient buildings fit for 21st-century student life
(20% of the overall university estate having been built before 1914)?

JWh: It’s something of a red herring to imagine the oldest buildings cause the biggest problems. Those heritage buildings add character to our estates and there is no call from anyone to be rid of them – they are loved.

That means they tend to get the investment they need, whether to maintain them or fit them out with the newest tech. Of course, older (and listed) buildings do give us great headaches when it comes to space configuration, disability access and technology – for example, wifi doesn’t travel easily through thick stone walls. But it’s the buildings of the immediate postwar period that are now most likely to cause the issues – and where redevelopment is often a much better answer than maintenance.

AM: Older buildings that have already lasted a century or more are likely to be well built, and capable of withstanding further adaptation to extend their useful life – though they may require listed building consent, or special scrutiny by local area planning committees and neighbourhood associations. Younger buildings, like those from the 1950s to 1970s, have different problems. They are typically less well-built, more prone to overheating and overcooling, and may require high maintenance costs due to relatively poor fabric.

Apart from the need to provide ubiquitous power and high-speed internet, common challenges are air quality and temperature comfort, and access for all, ensuring that everyone, regardless of ability, is comfortable, can move around, and hear and see well. This may demand retrofitting lifts and ramps, and paying special attention to materials, furniture and signage.

JWo: At least many ancient buildings don’t contain the same levels of asbestos as many mid-20th century buildings. However, many of them suffer from poor thermal properties, and difficult access issues make many parts of old buildings inaccessible to all but able-bodied people. While these buildings add character to a campus and have many interesting quirks and features, they are often difficult to easily maintain and are not very flexible when it comes to wanting to repurpose them over their lifetime.

PB: Keele was founded in 1949 and is home to Grade II-listed buildings and some constructed in the 19th century, alongside a range of state-of-the-art facilities. However, most were constructed in the 1960s and 1970s. Our biggest challenge is understanding people’s expectations and ensuring that they are appropriately and sensitively applied to the buildings on campus. We must make sure our campus offers a blend of new and older buildings together in a way that’s functional, respectful and attractive.

Neil Hitching: Older buildings were obviously built without the benefit of today’s stringent building regulations. They tend to have high air leakage rates and poor levels of insulation, which can have a big impact on energy efficiency. We overcome this through careful system design and equipment selection, to ensure the best possible levels of comfort for students and staff while delivering predicted energy savings. Improving air quality is a key issue. This requires delivering large volumes of fresh air into spaces – often with tall ceilings and large open areas – and providing sufficient diffusers to remove stale air to create a healthy, productive indoor environment. Getting equipment to fit in buildings not designed for HVAC plant can be another challenge.

Q. Maintenance and repairs account for 32.6% of total property costs – how do you try to keep this expense down?

PB: Our estates team maintains a coherent and transparent three- to five-year rolling programme of maintenance work that is supported by the university as a whole. This looks to balance the needs of legislation, planned preventative and backlog maintenance, as well as future-proofing supporting infrastructure. The estates team is responsible for balancing the delivery of maintenance between in-house resources and the externally procured, and is prioritised considering the key maintenance needs for campus users and compliance with prevailing legislation.

JWh: It’s important to spend what needs to be spent. Neglect can lead to compliance issues which can be very costly. Of course, good design, soft landings and an understanding of the whole lifecycle are important processes. The need for input from colleagues with expertise in facility management, IT and pedagogy are also essential.

JWo: Often, a make-do-and-mend patch repair process is required. While not the most cost-effective in the long run, and invariably leading to further problems down the line, due to limited budgets for repairs it is often the only option. Many universities – like many organisations with large, complex estates – will have a backlog of maintenance work that continues to build up as a result.

AM: It’s always delicate to balance one-off capital costs with recurrent expenditure on maintenance and repairs. When new building and refurbishments are carried out, selecting high-quality finishes that age well and need relatively little maintenance may be justified, despite high initial capital investment.

Floors of stone, hardwood or high-quality tiles might provide better long-run value than cheaper materials.

So, too, external walls of stone, or brick requiring virtually no external maintenance, and window frames of metal or hardwood. If you are responsible for buildings needing extensive maintenance and repair, think about shaping a long-term strategy for their replacement, while seeking competitive tenders for maintenance and repairs.

Most useful tech? Handheld devices to allow staff to be provided with information on the move – Jerry Woods, University of Roehampton

Q. How involved should an HE provider get in transport between campuses/departments that are too far apart to walk?

AM: Transport schemes need to carefully balance carbon targets and staff health issues with user convenience, cost, and comfort. Bicycles, scooters, and loans for them may be useful. The need for face-to-face communications and spatial proximity versus technology – through MOOCs, video-links, video-conferencing, and related apps – can be debated to reduce travel.

PB: Keele proactively engages with local transport providers to drive improved services, for our students and staff and also the local community. Keele considers that universities have an important role in leading strategic discussions with local planning authorities and service providers. Keele’s fleet is mainly electric. These are maintained by 100% renewable electricity and we have immediate plans for our own on-site renewable generation, helping preserve air quality and reduce the university’s carbon footprint. Keele also offers a Cycle2work and car share schemes.

JWh: Under the banner of creating good study and work experiences for our students and staff, most universities involve themselves in this kind of issue, working with local authorities, local transport providers and other relevant services. These things aren’t peripheral to students and staff – they are fundamental to the perception of whether an education is of good quality or not.

JWo: With more and more focus being brought to bear on carbon reduction and sustainability, universities – like any large-scale organisation – should do what they can to incentivise staff and students to find the most environmentally friendly way to travel to and from campus. Working with public and private bus providers is often required and many universities have developed sophisticated travel policies to incentivise staff and students to ditch the car and find other ways to get to work.

Q. How do you ensure you hit your carbon reduction targets?

JWh: There’s a growing sense that, although the UK has the legally defined target of being net zero by 2050, as universities we have to be at the forefront of UK efforts to do more and better and quicker. That’s through research, but it’s also through taking responsibility, including as estates directors and teams. AUDE members are looking at the mix – energy efficiency, materials use, procurement, responsible divestment from fossil fuels and more – using the Sustainability Leadership Scorecard (which we co-developed with EAUC, the alliance for sustainable leadership in education) to guide them.

JWo: Constant monitoring and continuous awareness are key. As the pressure mounts on all of us to do more to become carbon neutral, the pressure to find ways to use less and be creative in how universities use and generate electricity, reduce waste, etc, will only intensify.

PB: Last year, Keele was one of the first universities to declare a climate change emergency and has pledged to become carbon neutral by 2030. To support this, the estates team has led a renewable technology initiative called Smart Energy Network Demonstrator

(SEND) in collaboration with Siemens, and have transformed the campus into Europe’s first smart energy test site, becoming a platform for delivery of renewable technologies and carbon reduction.

The estates team also led on a successful planning permission application for 26,000 solar photovoltaic panels and two wind turbines on campus to generate 80% of its own electricity through solar and wind power.

NH: Carbon reduction has been at the top of our agenda for some time. As a company, Toshiba achieved carbon neutral status in 2012, the first – and still the only – UK air conditioning supplier to operate to this standard. In terms of products, all the equipment we manufacture meets – and often exceeds – target energy efficiency ratings through innovative product design, to ensure the lowest possible carbon emissions. This is achieved through pioneering technologies, such as the high-efficiency twin-rotary compressor, forward-looking ERP Directive/Eco-design Lot 6 compliance, and use of low global warming potential refrigerants. As a global leader in HVAC innovation, we are at the forefront of technologies that help customers reduce carbon emissions.

Securing planning permission for onshore wind power has been the trickiest issue that we have overcome – Phil Butters, University of Keele

Q. As government funding has declined, how can a large estate be deployed to generate income in other ways?

JWo: Conferencing and commercial hire of classrooms and bedrooms over the summer and through the year, where schedules permit, is an obvious one; rationalising estates, by being cleverer with timetabling and the flexible use of space and more shared office space, allows universities to increase use of its estate and, in some cases, reduce the size of it. Others have found ways to lease space to third parties, often those partners they are collaborating with, which not only increases revenue but raises the interaction between university and industry.

PB: Our campus is also home to the Keele University Science and Innovation Park, a 70-acre site offering office, workshop and laboratory space to businesses. The science park has more than 40 companies and hosts Keele Business School which includes the Smart Innovation Hub made up of small- and medium-sized enterprises. Upcoming developments include a 150-bed Marriott International hotel and a veterinary school and animal hospital developed by CVS Group. Keele is also an open campus and offers the local community leisure and sports facilities, shops and food outlets, as well as conferencing and event spaces.

AM: University income derives mostly from student fees and research. Former caps on UK student numbers have been lifted over recent years and fees increased, especially for international students. More intensive use of space, as well as estate expansion, has resulted. Income generation from the estate needs to be balanced against the main need of student and staff space for teaching, learning, research and administration. Opportunities for academic space lettings for conferences and short courses in the evenings, on weekends and for summer schools, can be seized, as well as lettings of student residences out of term. However, income generation from these sources tends to be modest.

JW: Not all estates teams manage the relationships with commercial providers of services on campus, though many do. They are involved in helping those providers understand student expectation about everything from the sandwich shop to the gym. But, at the more strategic level, the quality of the estate can leverage support from a wide range of players – local authority or NHS partners, business and industry, NGOs, government – bringing in investment for specific research projects and the buildings that house those teams, for instance.

Q. What is the trickiest estates-based issue you’ve had to handle in recent years?

JWo: Fires in buildings, which lead to significant disruption. Even small fires can cause significant smoke damage and unpleasant conditions, rendering spaces out of use. Even if this is only for a few days, the impact is significant.

PB: Securing planning permission for onshore wind power has been the trickiest issue that we have overcome. In 2019, after 10 years of sharing our vision of renewable energy at Keele with the local authority and community, involving all stakeholders from the initial stages through to design and development, we were granted planning permission for solar panels and two wind turbines, and as part of our renewable technology commitment we successfully developed the SEND initiative.

NH: We are particularly proud of our contribution to the recently completed sports centre at Southampton Solent University. It has complex usage, spanning sports halls, studios, gyms, a therapy zone, plus refreshment, admin and social areas. Importantly, it is designed to achieve a BREEAM rating of ‘Excellent’, and comply with Southampton City Council’s climate change strategy. Our solution provides for the complex heating and cooling requirements of the multiple spaces within the building, ensuring optimum comfort conditions and air quality for athletes, visitors and staff, while delivering excellent energy efficiency and low running costs.

AM: About one third of university space is devoted to offices for academics and professional staff. Yet, while filled with books and papers and equipment, academic offices are often empty of people. Why? The job requirements of university academics mean that they work in many locations – in lecture theatres, classrooms, labs, libraries, hospitals, workshops and studios – and they need to share their knowledge with colleagues, industry and public officials at meetings and conferences around the country and across the globe.

Reallocating academic office space in fresh ways that diverge from the concept of one professor/one room, and one desk/one academic staff member is a challenge. It can work well if there are guaranteed spaces for quiet, focused work, and for confidential one-on-one discussions, and if it is sensitively introduced using evidence, consultation, intelligent design and time to address the challenge of change.

It’s important to spend what needs to be spent. Neglect can lead to compliance issues which can be very costly – Jane White, AUDE

Q. What tech have you found most useful?

PB: Our building management systems show us how people are using the buildings and facilities on campus so we can monitor, maintain and improve our service. These systems also feed into the SEND project, which uses a cutting-edge intelligent information system which constantly streams live energy data and automatically controls and balances energy flows across campus.

JWh: The digitisation of our campuses is going to be one of the biggest themes of the next decade. The data that can be captured in our buildings – by security gate systems, water systems and even lighting systems – tells us so much about how buildings are used, and therefore about how to design them as better spaces for the future. That feeds directly into the quality of experience we can offer to students, while also helping us to build efficient spaces that cost less to build and maintain. The digital tech driving this improvement in space design is very meaningful within estates teams, and to overall university financing.

JWo: Handheld devices to allow staff to be provided with information on the move, reducing frontline staff inefficiencies. Smart meters to help with real-time monitoring of energy usage have also proven highly effective at reducing its use. The use of wifi hotspot-mapping – to determine areas of heaviest use on campus and help plan the provision of services and facilities at the right level in the right location – has also been extremely beneficial.

NH: University buildings are complex and have diverse requirements; there isn’t a single magic bullet that meets all needs. We take a solutions-based approach that focuses on the needs and usage of each building, to produce the best possible level of comfort, air quality and energy efficiency.

Underpinning plant, we provide critical site monitoring with 24/7 back up. Through our remote monitoring systems we can optimise plant performance and quickly diagnose problems.

Our BMS solutions integrate with existing building systems using industry-standard protocols to ensure seamless high-level control across entire estates.

Q. Is there a ceiling on how large and complicated a university can grow before it becomes unmanageable?

AM: As with any enterprise, scale in itself predicts neither manageability nor quality.

Wikipedia lists several university systems in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Iran with above a million students, mostly using distance learning.

The USA and some European countries have created single site universities as well as vast federal, multi-campus systems where hundreds of thousands of students are taught face-to-face. Large systems can operate well by balancing efficient university-wide systems, such as enrolment and graduation, with effective, bespoke, possibly idiosyncratic education and research spread across a variety of campuses and departments.


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