Students fill the places and we focus on the spaces to make things happen

March 30, 2007

People expect a campus to have modern amenities and be sustainable. The estate manager must balance such demands, says Peter Kerr

A university is often recognised by its estate, and many use it as part of their branding. But the reality of the 21st-century university building is very different from its popular stereotype.

While students may be attracted at first by the thought of eccentric academics and buildings to match, they have have been brought up and educated in modern homes and schools with the latest IT equipment. They demand the same quality of facilities of their university. It is no longer enough to depend on reputation to recruit students. Young people need an environment in which they can develop their skills.

The provision of facilities for students is a service industry. The demands of students, who now pay for their education, has meant growth in the creation of immersive environments, social learning spaces, learning clusters and group teaching and learning spaces.

Estates directors are attuned to these priorities. It is not simply the demands of investing in new or improved facilities for students that they face. The 2005 Estate Management Statistics show the sector managing 24.9 million square metres of gross space with a total annual estimated property cost of £1.55 billion. Some universities are responsible for botanic gardens or have iconic listed buildings. Many face deteriorating 1960s buildings.

Universities are finding innovative ways to fund maintenance and improvement of the estate, such as rationalising facilities or pooling them with other universities or outside partners, and capitalising the income stream from student residences, investing the funds in the maintenance of academic buildings and the creation of new and improved facilities for students.

For estates directors, things have changed, too, on the environmental agenda. Their inevitable association with the management of car parking has progressed to the issues of sustainability and renewables. Universities are aware of the need to reduce their carbon footprint

– students and staff form a very effective pressure group. But it is often students and staff who do not want the inconvenience of reduced or more effective energy use. Students have far more electrical equipment in their rooms than they had 15 years ago. Similarly, their expectation is of a 24-hour-a-day society with access to all buildings, which must be heated and lit, and an extended day for eating and drinking. It has been estimated that carbon dioxide emissions for the sector equate to 1 tonne per full-time student a year.

The tension between sustainability and the service and comfort society demands is apparent. An acknowledgement that there are too many vehicles on the roads is not matched by a cultural shift from reliance on the car.

Renewables are a requirement of building regulations, but the town planners may object to the installation of wind turbines or other renewable energy devices that are too visible. The modern estate management operation is faced with a plethora of legislation, which too often has contradictory aims. Many universities installed automatic doors to comply with the Disability Discrimination Act, but their use means a marked increase in energy bills because of heat loss. Fire risk assessments under the Regulatory Reform Act require measures in place that eliminate the need for firefighters to enter a building, but they also require staff to ensure that buildings are empty in an emergency.

Managing a university estate is a fascinating job that demands a variety of skills and abilities. The common factor is the desire to create a safe, attractive, sustainable and stimulating environment in which students learn and academics teach and research. Some years ago, it was suggested that estate management was not a core function of a university.

But the physical environment in which learning is undertaken is so fundamental to the process that this suggestion no longer holds true.

Peter Kerr is director of estates and building services, Heriot-Watt University.

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