POST-OCCUPANCY FORUM REPORT
THE WEST DOWNS STUDENT VILLAGE
KING ALFRED'S COLLEGE OF HIGHER EDUCATION
Higher Education Design Quality Forum
1.1 This Post-Occupancy Evaluation is based on a series of Forums conducted on a single day with teams of people involved in the design, construction, operation, and use of the project evaluated. The aim of the Forums is to extract and share good practice for the benefit of institutions undertaking similar projects; it is non-recriminatory and not intended to highlight shortcomings or grade performance. The views and ideas expressed are a combination of those of the Forum participants and of the team conducting the Forum from De Montfort University, Leicester, on behalf of the Higher Education Design Quality Forum. The enthusiastic participation of all involved is gratefully acknowledged and applauded.
1.2 The project is a 'Student Village' at King Alfred's College of Higher Education at Winchester constructed in two phases during 1995 and 1996. It provides 656 student rooms and communal accommodation. The total project cost of land, buildings and fees was £16 million of which the building cost was £5.2 million. The project is described and illustrated in 'Building, Friday 16 May 1997, pp 44-48, Ed Quarters'.
1.3 The Forums were conducted in mid-1999. The Report begins with a summary, key points are highlighted within the report in bold type, general conclusions are drawn at the end and illustrations follow.
2.1 Institutions have to make a conscious effort to rise above ad hoc planning based on the annual funding cycle. It is vital to set longer-term objectives, establish development priorities, and be ready to respond to opportunities.
2.2 The shortlist of potential architects included both local and national practices
to enable the institution to compare design experience, approach, and service offered. The local planning officer was on the selection panel which was considered enlightened co-operation rather than compromise of role.
2.3 The institution and town collaborated closely to their mutual benefit and the
culture moved from 'seeking acceptance' from local planners towards a more 'creative partnership'.
2.4 The financial vicissitudes were alarming and raise three questions:
- could anything have been done differently?
- what would have happened if Stage 2 finance had not been secured?
- why should a project team have to suffer such traumas?
The project succeeded only because all held their nerve and kept up momentum in the face of potential catastrophe.
2.5 A traditional contract allowed stages of work to proceed in parallel rather than
sequentially and so to keep to a tight schedule.
2.6 The academic timetable imposes severe time constraints which are covered by
penalties in other sectors. Can HE institutions apply appropriate pressure without resorting to penalties?
2.7 While final cost is critical, financial and design procedures are needed to
encourage value-engineering and life-cycle costing.
2.8 The 'village street' generates a community atmosphere and the courtyards with their planting give a sense of calm. The student leaders were very aware that the quality of this accommodation was a factor in students choosing this College. It is always difficult to secure adequate participation of the changing student population in briefing and feedback. HEDQF needs to consider appropriate incentives for students including payment and certificates.
2.8 Management of residential accommodation and its occupants requires
particularly careful attention; the combination of a 24-hour warden, live-in sub-
wardens and liaison groups appears to have worked well.
2.9 This accommodation integrates people with various disabilities. Students are
positive about the facilities but suggest further attention to kitchen space and bathroom provision.
2.10 In order to use accommodation for conferences during the Summer Vacation, the College has identified several additional requirements including noise management, key access arrangement, signage, cleaning, and storage.
2.11 The College considers in retrospect that all future student accommodation should have en-suite facilities. This is becoming the expectation and helps recruitment and conference bookings. En-suite facilities require more maintenance and the provision of adequate hot water just before morning lectures and at the end of the day needs better affordable technologies.
3.0 CONTEXT AND DESIGN
3.1 King Alfred's College, formerly run by the Church of England, has 3500 full-time, and 2000 part-time students, 170 academic staff and 300 other staff, and an annual turnover of £18m. About 70% of the students are female described as 'from middle England background'. Winchester, a medium-sized historic town, had insufficient and inadequate student lodging, houses and residences. The need for new residential accommodation became a priority as student numbers grew with the expansion of higher education in the early 1990s. The Governors had called for a broadening of the subjects the College covered, a change of image from 'paternal' to 'modern', better IT provision and teaching facilities, and guaranteed student residential accommodation for first year students. Future development of the College was seen as dependent on more satisfactory residential accommodation.
3.2 The College had responded to building needs for several decades with a series of ad hoc mediocre extensions that did little for the image of college or town. Ad hoc development can become the natural response to annual project-by-project funding procedures but this study shows that this need not be the case. The Local Planning Authority had warned the College that further sub-standard development would be unacceptable; the College faced a stark choice, vision or stagnation. A number of alternative sites and strategies for residential development had been assessed but planning, heritage, and archaeological issues had prevented any satisfactory conclusion.
3.3 The College appointed a director of estates who was aware of the local scene, the choice faced, and the personalities involved. The one suitable site which had been over-priced was now on the market at a realistic figure, half the former asking price, and about to be bought by a housing developer. If a planning application for student residences had been submitted by the College, the developers would have been alerted to their plans and would have been able to outbid them for the site for private house-building. The College therefore negotiated purchase of the site in a climate of total confidentiality.
3.4 The director of estates reached an understanding with the chief planning officer that the City Council would support a planning application for the student village in return for good quality architecture. On the strength of this, the College purchased the site not subject to planning but at their own risk. This was a very high-risk strategy; if consent subsequently had been refused or deferred, the College might have been at risk of bankruptcy.
3.5 This extraordinary scenario shows how important it is for institutions to set clear objectives, identify development priorities, and be ready to respond quickly to opportunities.
3.6 The estates team examined recent residential projects and drew up a shortlist of four architects for interview. Two were local and two national and each was asked to make a presentation explaining how they would approach the design. This shortlist offered the College an opportunity to compare the different experience and approaches and the services that might be offered.
3.7 The local planning officer was a member of the interview panel. This might be considered compromising the role in that it could be more difficult subsequently to reject the selected architect's proposals. On the other hand, the College took the view that it had an opportunity and even a responsibility to become a significant player in local planning issues and wished to co-operate creatively. With increasing development of HE within dense urban areas, and with attention focused on brownfield sites and improving townscape, it must now be time to move from 'seeking permission' towards 'creative partnerships' with Local Authorities. This is the subject of another HEDQF initiative into 'development frameworks'.
3.8 The College needed to meet a tight schedule to construct the village to gain return on its investment as quickly as possible and to replace properties sold off in the town. They therefore authorised scheme design prior to site purchase and detailed working drawings were prepared during the three months it took to gain planning consent.
4.0 CONSTRUCTION AND COST
4.1 The funding arrangements brought this project to the edge of catastrophe; the project succeeded because all concerned were committed and held their nerve. The original business plan presented to the bank was marginally unprofitable and the bank required a portion of the site to be sold off for private housing. This is acknowledged to have been realistic but led to problems in reconciling the proximity of new quality housing and student residences. The bank also required that the housing assets in the town that would become surplus to requirements be sold off. This again was reasonable but set an absolute deadline by which the accommodation had to be ready. Finally, having enabled the project to proceed beyond the point-of-no-return, the bank's funding policies changed and they refused to support Phase 2 on which overall viability depended. Fortunately, after desperate enquiries, another bank came forward and the project was rescued.
4.2 This experience raises the question about how enlightened projects of this nature can be encouraged when funding on which they depend is subject to such uncertainties. It seems unreasonable to expect people to design adventurous quality projects within such inadequate financial systems. This is a national issue of concern to many sectors of the economy but of particular concern to education.
4.3 Other design consultants were appointed soon afterwards following visits to various projects. Early appointments were considered vital to facilitate a comprehensive and rapid design process. Despite the funding pressures and the tight timetable set by the academic year, delays resulted in planning approval finally being sought long after the proverbial eleventh hour. The schedule was maintained by authorising design work to proceed while waiting for planning approval and work on site began four days after approval; is this a record? Students moved in less than nine months later. The architects believe that this project could not have been completed within this timescale under a Design-and-Build contract because it would not have allowed project stages to proceed in parallel.
4.4 The architects led the design and construction team throughout. It was decided not to appoint a project manager or a clerk of works on cost-saving grounds. This put enormous pressure on both the design team and client. However, the contractor appreciated the direct contact with architects, clearly aware that the success of the project would be in doubt without the effective leadership and decision-making that took place. From the architect's point of view, there was a clear preference for working within a traditional contract that allowed direct access to both client and contractor rather than through a project manager. All were aware that the timetable was critically tight and trust between all involved was an essential component.
4.5 The project was administered under a standard JCT contract in two phases. It overran two weeks on time and students moved into a building site but the sense of achievement was tremendous. The College saw everybody including architects and building labourers carrying student suitcases across gangplanks while builders are alleged to have said, 'get 'em in and then it's their responsibility'.
4.6 Although control of final cost was a major concern to the client, broader issues were also considered. Value-engineering principles and life-cycle-costing were applied to decision-making. It was essential to finish the project on time for a fresh intake of students and to build a quality building which would yield a rental income over 25 years that would service the bank loan and maintenance.
4.7 The final cost exceeded the budget by 1.2% due largely to additional work on fencing, telephone ducting, car parking, and landscaping. Much of the credit for keeping costs down is attributed to the quantity surveyor who played a very pro-active role. Some unforeseen problems and extras are almost inevitable within a very tight timescale. One crisis that occurred, despite careful checks and advance precautions, was the bankruptcy of the main contractor. The whole team had to swing rapidly into action to secure the site, assess the state of the work, and make alternative arrangements for completion
5.0 SPACE AND MANAGEMENT
5.1 Space and management information is based on comments from staff and a forum with students. The students were not representative because they were student leaders with insufficient direct personal knowledge of the 'Village'. Nevertheless, they did indicate the general level of enthusiasm for the accommodation and made a number of suggestions.
5.2 The 'village street' generates a community atmosphere and the courtyards with their planting give a sense of calm. The student leaders were very aware that the quality of this accommodation was a factor in students choosing this College. Students are shown the Village when applying as no description could capture its character. The impression was of an exciting image, comfortable spacious rooms, and quality.
5.3 The College recognised from the outset that the proximity of expensive private
houses could be problematic. The site was previously school playing fields and local residents were used to open space and quiet evenings. A number of measures were taken, some initially and some in response to problems. The village incorporated a warden's office which is manned 24 hours. Each of three groups of accommodation has a live-in sub-warden. In response to problems, particularly late-night noise, the College set up a liaison committee with local residents. This met to hear complaints but now that these have been resolved, major difficulties are rare.
5.4 Wheelchair-bound students and other disabilities are catered for in ground floor flats and students welcomed this integration and the thought that had gone into it. Showers, doorbells, fire alarm procedures, and even pillows had been considered. However, the students commented that improvements could still be made to kitchens and laundry and also felt that additional bathroom facilities are required for the able-bodied students in flats with disabled students.
5.5 The size of group sharing a student flat is critical. Students felt that the optimum number is probably 6-8, small enough to encourage responsible behaviour (clear up the kitchen) and large enough to give a choice of friends. The group would rarely eat together because of different timetables, work pressures, tastes and friendships, but if there are 6-8, some will meet and there is room to invite friends. The Village was felt to be a place where meeting was easy, in the bar, in the street, or in each others' flats. Some students, who had now moved to halls of residence actually spent their free time here.
5.6 More storage space would have been welcome, especially for food above the worktop, more lockers, more cupboard space for cleaners, and a trunk room for cases; such demands are probably insatiable.
5.7 Educational accommodation faces particular problems resulting from the academic year and timetabling. Virtually everybody moves in on Sunday afternoon before term starts when chaos is inevitable and they have to rebuild a community from scratch every year.
5.8 Use of the Village for conferences raised a number of special issues requiring detailed attention. It is more difficult to control short-term visitors and they can be rowdy. Clear signage of rooms and a manageable system of key access are important. Extra storage is needed for linen.
5.9 Successful as 'the village' is, it generates further expectations. Students would like all-weather sports facilities complaining in good humour that, in bad weather, their only option is drinking! They would also prefer more spacious communal facilities. The communal facilities have not been evaluated in detail in this study.
6.0 ENVIRONMENT AND SUSTAINABILITY
6.1 The accommodation splits geographically between the noisier more sociable flats on the street and the quieter courtyards. Inevitably, there is noise from the street and from music and parties in rooms opposite. On the other hand, the street generates the community character and provides opportunity to meet and talk. Open windows provide effective cooling and cross-ventilation but exacerbate the noise problems. Large ground floor windows tend to be used also as doors
6.2 Soundproofing between rooms and floors is inadequate and students hear drawers opening, music playing, people on the stairs, and rain on the metal roof. However, this may be almost inevitable and students conceded that it was quieter than most accommodation in town.
6.3 The College built this accommodation at a time when en-suite bathroom facilities for each student was considered a luxury. In retrospect, they would have provided 100% en-suite accommodation but that was not the climate even a few years ago when the extra cost was not considered affordable or cost-effective. Basic units were costed at £13,000 and en-suite units at £13,500. Chargeable rents were predicted by comparison with those in the town but this left out the 'community' and 'quality' factors. The Students' Union indicated that students and parents would be in favour of accommodation that was better quality than that offered by the private sector at the same rental. However, this begged the question as to whether or not quality and campus-style accommodation could attract higher rents, extra students to the College, and conference bookings. After long debate, en-suite facilities were provided in one-third of the rooms. The students feel this makes a 'class distinction' and also commented that a visitor's toilet is needed where all facilities are en-suite. En-suite facilities require more maintenance and access is more difficult.
6.4 The 9 to 5 day creates insatiable demands for hot water beforehand and afterwards. This was foreseen and the reheat time for showers is only 20 minutes, but is still a matter of complaint from students, exacerbated by system breakdowns.
6.5 Fire-safety aspects must be particularly self-evident in a young-persons' environment. There is a fire-control panel in the warden's office and sub-wardens can also respond to alarms. Fire escape from four storeys is achieved by entering at first floor level from steps in the street. However, these steps are metal and dangerous in icy conditions (now fitted with non-slip surface) and some students are concerned that their escape route down two internal flights and then down the outside stairway may be too long.
7.1 This was an unusual and exciting project to evaluate and one which succeeds in creating a student village community at very modest cost. The enthusiasm and dedication of the institution and design team were impressive and there was a justifiable sense of achievement. The project has given the College a higher profile and set it on its way towards a new creative partnership with the town.
7.2 Students, like everybody, want more but they balanced their enthusiasm with a number of perceptive suggestions which can only help and challenge future designers and providers to even greater heights.
Professor George Henderson and Rev Dr Charles Doidge
The Leicester School of Architecture
De Montfort University
Leicester LE1 9BH
0116-257 7415 or 0116-257-7426
on behalf of the Higher Education Design Quality Forum