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Great estates

Jenny Oldaker takes a look the priorities and challenges uni estate managers face as they prepare for the new student intake

Posted by Hannah Oakman | August 20, 2016 | People, policy, politics, money

While summer is the time when students and most members of staff take a well-earned break from campus work and life, this time of year also represents the period when university estates and facilities teams are stepping up a gear. For this department summer means all hands on deck as they strive to ensure the campus is primed and ready for the new student intake and the start of the new university year in September.

Estates teams face myriad responsibilities and challenges year-round, but summer marks an especially important period of preparation. “Summer is the only opportunity to undergo general maintenance, improvements and development work,” explains Ian Willgoose, director of estate at the University of Derby. “Whether it’s a lick of paint, renovating teaching spaces or carrying out alterations to enhance the academic estates portfolio, this is the core work we undergo throughout each summer.” 

Like other institutions, at the University of Leeds year-round work ensures that academic buildings, sports facilities and student residences are maintained to a high standard. “The busy campus needs to work hard for students and staff alike, but it is particularly important to make sure a safe, secure and high-quality environment is ready for when the new student intake arrive in autumn,” says Leonard Wilson, deputy director (development) of estates services at the University of Leeds. 

“A substantial amount of interior design work takes place to upgrade reception areas, toilets, corridors etc in the summer months, ready for students in September. When most students take their breaks at Christmas, Easter, and summer, also at weekends and at night, this is when the heavy and noisy work is undertaken, so that staff as well as students have as minimum disruption as possible.”

Planned refurbishment of Leeds University library

With students and staff out of the picture, Mike Clark, director of estates and facilities at the University of Brighton concurs that the summer period is vital for maintaining – and improving – university estates: “Each year, an extensive programme of maintenance projects is planned to take place predominantly during the summer vacation period. This is when the university is at its quietest and access can be gained to many areas for the purposes of maintenance and refurbishment. Many of the works to the fabric and structure will go unnoticed by returning students but are nonetheless vital to ensure that the university estate is operational, safe and fit for purpose for the forthcoming year.”

Much of summer’s hard work may go unnoticed, but some endeavours are more dramatic. “More noticeable projects are undertaken,” agrees Mike Clark. “Such as refurbishments of specific facilities such as cafés, restaurants or sports centres, as well as an annual rolling programme of refurbishment of residential halls. Schools often sponsor changes and refurbishment of their own, dedicated accommodation and projects undertaken on their behalf may include setting up new specialist teaching, laboratory and research facilities.”

Summer also marks a time for initiating bold changes, developing new campus buildings or working towards new working solutions. Birmingham City University’s (BCU) recent move of its vice chancellor’s office and some of its professional services departments to a new base is a good example. The project saw BCU relocate some 200 staff to a refurbished five-storey office building in the heart of Birmingham. 

The move effected a change from a traditional cellular working culture to a new open-plan approach. This dramatically different new space required efficient installation to get it finished to a high standard and to deadline. For example, in designing the contemporary interior BCU worked with flooring manufacturer, Interface, introducing modular flooring that could withstand heavy use, and which ensured installation was simple and straightforward for the contractors to fit within the tight timeframe required.

At universities up and down the country, similarly extensive developments and new-builds are in action. At Buckinghamshire New University, for example, accommodation at Hughenden Student Village has now been completed, with availability for more than 400 students. And that’s not all: “A £4.5 million re-development of the South Wing was completed in 2015,” says Ian Hunter, director of estates, facilities and services at Buckinghamshire New University. “It includes learning and teaching areas, more informal space for students, and an advanced clinical skills laboratory with eight-bay hospital ward and interactive medical and teaching aids. Inside South Wing ‘The Room’ is a 220sqm flexible, multi-purpose space, hosting events from exhibitions and shows to film screenings and music nights.”

As might be expected of any larger-scale changes that take place on campus, it’s important to ensure everything is running smoothly in good time before the new intake actually arrives, especially in the case of residential buildings. “We now operate a system where any major new projects, such as newly-completed halls of residence, are handed over at the start of August so that we have a settling-in period particularly for the building services before new students start,” explains Ian Hunter. “The expectations of students continue to rise year-on-year and with this in mind we ensure that all of our halls of residence and facilities undergo a thorough deep-clean.”

An aerial view of Bucks New University, showing South Wing and The Gateway

Student expectation is, indeed, one important factor that is adding to the demands and the evolving role of estates departments in UK universities. Ever-rising tuition fees have changed the nature of the relationship between the student and their university, and the expectation on estates staff to ensure their facilities are world class is higher than ever.

“The level of student expectation is rightly continuing to rise,” agrees Ian Willgoose. “We – and other universities – are investing more and more money in facilities in order to improve our students’ learning experience. Our strategy supports the university’s commitment to provide a learning environment which will inspire our learners and staff to thrive. We do this by creating a technology-rich environment that offers opportunities to innovate with flexible learning and teaching approaches.”

Student expectation aside, another factor to impact on the role of estates teams is the recent lifting of the cap on student numbers in the UK. This has already seen a surge in students being accepted on university courses and it places an inevitable new pressure on campus facilities. We are seeing universities respond with capacious new-builds to accommodate the rising number of students. One of the largest such projects in the UK is the University of Hertfordshire’s new student accommodation, which is due to be completed ready for 2016’s new intake, and to provide an impressive 2,500 new and 500 refurbished bed spaces.

The busy campus needs to work hard for students and staff alike. But it is particularly important to make sure a safe, secure and high-quality environment is ready for when the new student intake arrive in autumn

As well as large-scale residential projects, rising student numbers are also being tackled by employing speedy builds to expand learning space. At University College London (UCL), for example, Portakabin has constructed a ‘pop up’ learning hub. The two-storey modular building was installed in just two days, all ready for the start of the academic year. It would have taken many weeks had it been constructed using traditional site-based building methods.

The proposed new atrium at Leeds University Union, part of the Union Upgrade scheme

The University of Brighton is also tackling the rise in student numbers through carefully planned changes: “Our Business School has grown substantially over the last three years and has a target growth of a further 20% over the next five years,” explains Mike Clark. “This has led to a number of radical accommodation changes within one of our key academic buildings on the Moulsecoomb Campus. During the summer vacation of 2014 and 2015 a project was undertaken to move and consolidate over 300 professional services staff from in some cases, a highly cellular set up, to a more open plan collaborative workplace. This has yielded circa 1,000sqm of space for additional teaching and learning facilities.”

Leeds is, likewise, in the process of creating important additional space as a part of its £520m campus masterplan. Alongside developments such as the refurbishment of the Edward Boyle Library and the University Union upgrade, Leonard Wilson explains: “Over the coming years the University of Leeds will invest in a transformative programme that will result in a world-class campus at the heart of a vibrant city… We have identified a total of 19 new development sites that will complement our current buildings within Leeds’ city-centre campus… with the potential of providing circa 80,000sqm of additional space.” 

Across the UK, the role of universities’ estates and facilities departments is continuing to grow, and the teams’ hard work during the summer is essential in ensuring that campuses run perfectly when the academic term begins. And though estates staff are certainly deserving of a long break by October, there is likely to be little respite, as the year-round requirement to maintain a first-rate campus means that their skills are ever in demand.

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