3.8 Understanding return on investment
We need to go for solutions which have already been tried out elsewhere, while at the same time be prepared to innovate, and maybe even to make a few mistakes, because if we don’t do that we’ll end up with something that is mediocre. (manager )
The consequences of decisions made during design and construction phases of a building project can last throughout a building’s lifetime and beyond. Knowing what time-span a decision refers to can help guide the decision-making process. Several of our case studies are using their city context to develop long-term goals. One institution set itself the task of becoming a more vibrant campus that would create a destination for students, a high proportion of whom come from locally-based ethnic minority and lower socio-economic backgrounds. It wanted to become a place where students would want to be, even when they didn’t have classes. This institution now has a number of recently completed iconic buildings which are seen as important in attracting first class students and staff and enabling the university to operate on an international level while maintaining a clear commitment to the diverse communities in which its campuses are situated. The university is fully integrated with local educational provision through its collaboration with further education colleges and various forms of widening participation activities, including study days for local school children. It also plays an important role in innovation and enterprise through partnerships with industry and business.
Another university has developed the idea of a cultural quarter on one area of its campus to promote the university’s ethos of inclusivity and create an important connection to the city centre. Even relatively small-scale refurbishment projects are used to promote this long-term goal of inclusivity. The university’s culture lab, a flagship research and teaching facility based in a refurbished grade II listed building within the cultural quarter, is being used to attract members of the public not directly associated with the university onto its campus.
When assessing the likely timeframe of decisions around building projects, the key time periods institutions might like to focus on are:
- 50+ years
- 30-40 years
- 10-20 years
- 1-5 years
The estate agent’s mantra of location location location applies to educational establishments too. A well-located site can bring enormous benefits to an institution while those with less than ideal locations need to think carefully about investing in long-term development – are we committed to being here for the next fifty years and beyond, can new buildings sufficiently compensate for our location? Other key issues include a site’s ability to enable an institution expand, contract and change over time.
Providing for current needs within the context of long-term institutional flexibility is a scenario familiar to anyone who’s been involved in a building project. In these situations it can be useful to distinguish between two types of brief – base-build and fit-out. One of the job’s of the base-build brief is to maximise long-term flexibility. It does this through careful consideration for a building’s basic shape, structural system, external fabric and environmental services. Worn-out external fabric on a well-configured existing building can sometimes be replaced to not only extend that building’s life for another 30+ years, but also provide a radical new identity. Internally, a well thought-through environmental strategy from the beginning can enable replacements and upgrades to be made with relative ease, thereby prolonging building life.
The fit-out brief is a well established concept in the commercial and retail sectors, offering tailor-made responses to current tenant needs. Despite numerous precedents of very innovative and exciting fit-out designs, educational users are generally wary of this approach, perhaps because of the blandness that can result from insufficient funds being allocated to fit-out, or perhaps a wariness of generic buildings in general. Comprehensive furniture strategies are another well established concept in the commercial sector, very much less so in educational environments. We believe there’s a strong case to be made for institutions to become more strategic about furniture provision, particularly because of the role it can play in enhancing user flexibility and supporting new ways of teaching, learning and working.
Technology falls within this timeframe as many institutions struggle to keep up with the pace of technological change. Older buildings in particular can provide obstacles to the demands for ubiquitous technology everywhere. We sense that institutions are gradually shifting their focus of provision towards infrastructure support for general resources that students will bring themselves (laptops, ipods, mobiles, cameras, etc) and leased arrangements for high-end resources that are too expensive and/or used too infrequently for students to own. This trend may enable institutions to do better long-range planning.