New corporate housing plan: ‘Some mourning, but we’ll have something beautiful in its place’

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A university selling over a third of its real estate stock, including one of its showpieces – the International Campus? Why? President of the board Anton Pijpers and director of Corporate Real Estate & Campus Fiona van ‘t Hullenaar have quite a lot to explain after the university’s new corporate housing strategy was made public. “This is definitely not just a story of less and less; we’ve got something to offer as well.”

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On Monday, around noon, students and employees received word that their University College will have to move within five to ten years. The university is selling its resplendent campus property at the Prins Hendrikstraat. The English-taught programmes Economics and Politics, Philosophy and Economics that are currently housed on the International Campus will also have to find a new home elsewhere.

UU president Anton Pijpers realises all too well that this means letting go of an appealing location. “That location has undeniably contributed to the success of a small-scale, innovative UCU, with a strong community. I understand their disappointment.”

Still, at the moment, the university doesn’t see any other option but to sell the former defence terrain of the Kromhout barracks. Pijpers: “The property has numerous great downsides as well. The buildings are old, inflexible, and they require a lot of investment and maintenance. Furthermore, there’s a large, monumental, and therefore expensive, outdoors area, as proven by the renovation of the Gate building.”

The property has great downsides as well

The high costs of the International Campus can no longer be justified, given the relatively small number of people who study there, Pijpers says. Especially given the enormous challenge the university is facing the coming years.

The university wants to limit the housing costs to a maximum of 15 percent of its revenue. To make that possible, more than a third of the available spaces for offices, laboratories and education needs to be disposed of, the university board announced on Monday. Most of the plan consists of cutting back on square metres for offices. Employees will have to get used to a new interior for their work environments, in which they likely won’t have their own rooms or desks anymore.

At the same time, the university is investing over a billion euros from now until 2035 in creating more efficient, sustainable buildings. Most remarkable topic in the new strategic vision is the decision to redevelop the Kruyt building at over 100 million euros. The university had previously announced it would give the Van Unnik building a second life. Veterinary Medicine’s Androclus building will be demolished and replaced by new property. Pijpers: “Those three antiquated buildings were responsible for a large share of our energy bill.”

The measures flow from the previous corporate housing plan from 2017, in which the university board and the university council had made agreements on limiting the costs of housing. UU president Pijpers acknowledges that two years ago, he had not foreseen the choices the university forced itself to make with this plan. He’s also had to have numerous ‘fierce debates’ with faculty deans and directors, but calls the decisions unavoidable. “If we’d continued on with this practical policy of replacing where necessary and a limited focus on maintenance, the costs of housing would increase every single year. That means less money for education and research, and that’s exactly what we don’t want.”

Even more rigorous measures wouldn’t be defensible

An analysis of the university’s corporate real estate stock, led by newly-appointed director of Corporate Real Estate and Campus, Fiona van ‘t Hullenaar, showed that the university owns a large number of outdated, less-than-sustainable, poorly maintained, inflexible buildings. On top of that, some of the available space remains unused. That means the housing stock doesn’t connect well to the university’s desired trend of interdisciplinary work, more sense of community, and reducing its carbon footprint.

At first, there’d been an even more rigorous plan for the future, in which not only the ICU was sold off, but an entire faculty was to move from the city centre to De Uithof, and one library building would be disposed of. Pijpers: “But that was something we wouldn’t be able to defend at the moment.”

The current plans require more monetary investment than earlier plans had established. But they do have the support of the University Council and the faculties, Pijpers says.

Hopefully, disappointment will be followed by enthusiasm

UCU was asked to indicate what it expects of a potential alternative location. The university board says the Utrecht Science Park is the most obvious place to look, but other options – such as the Jaarbeurs area and even the Kanaleneiland neighbourhood – were mentioned as well. Van ‘t Hullenaar: “It’s important that the UCU has an influence on its own future. Then, hopefully, the disappointment will be followed by enthusiasm for something new. Of course, no one’s eager to move, but after the mourning, something beautiful can be had in return.”

Pijpers is convinced University College could also flourish in a new building in De Uithof. “Imagine a building in ‘Carré’ shape, with a view of the green environment beyond; classrooms with housing above them. Doesn’t that have great potential?”

Reducing the size of the office space will be quite the challenge, Pijpers and Van ‘t Hullenaar realise. The university is planning on a norm of 0.9 workplace per fulltime employee, where currently, that figure is 1.3. Pijpers: “In the corporate world, 0.6 or 0.7 is standard. So we’ve got some things to learn from them.”

The university president says faculties and departments will mostly have to decide for themselves how to realise the reduction of square metres. “There are no blueprints. That wouldn’t work anyway, in such a large organisation with so many internal differences.” They’re also not considering financial incentives, making faculties pay less for their housing if they give up more square metres, at the moment. “But we will monitor it. And it has to be clear that the time of each faculty having its own building is no longer. We have to work together here.”

We can learn from the corporate world

Van ‘t Hullenaar acknowledges that a change in culture is needed. “Having your own room is still regularly a token of appreciation, something you get when you’re promoted.” However, she’s convinced the university can offer the necessary knowledge and support needed for the faculties and departments to take these steps. “A number of faculties are already looking at ways of creating workplaces using ‘activity-based housing’ in a way that suits their work. There are so many ways to do that.”

Pijpers thinks there will also be many employees who don’t mind having less space if it means having better facilities instead. “Plus, I’m an optimist. I think people will understand that it’s necessary for the greater good – and their own. And then we should try to make it as fun and easy as possible.”

Pijpers says the university board is considering leading by example and creating a shared workspace for the three board members. “I’m only here 40 percent of the time. That’s a waste, really.”

Scheduling more classes in the evenings is not unthinkable

Education, too, will have to use the available space more efficiently, Pijpers says. The extra lecture halls many faculties have been calling for for a long time, are not going to be created for now. The university board says the use of the available spaces is still suboptimal, and improved scheduling of courses and teaching different types of classes should offer some relief. But Pijpers doesn’t want to rule out more extreme measures. “I definitely view evening classes as a realistic possibility. With some customisation, that has to be possible. Teachers tell me they prefer not to work between 5 and 8 pm, especially if they have families. But one course, one night, from 8 to 10 pm, they wouldn’t mind that.”

In the city centre, the university library will sacrifice a part of its open emplacement collection to create more office space. An as yet undecided group of employees from either the faculty of Law or the faculty of Humanities might move to De Uithof eventually. Pijpers: “If you want to house economics and PPE in the city centre, and you simultaneously have to reduce your square metres, that will probably not fit. We’re now going to discuss with the faculties to see if there are groups for whom a move to the Science Park might be interesting for content-related reasons. That discussion includes the USBO situation and the building at the Bijlhouwerstraat. USBO is successful and wants to grow, but the building is too small.”

We made a conscious decision to stay in the city centre

Pijpers and Van ‘t Hullenaar reject the suggestion that the city centre faculties that have to give up buildings get a rougher deal than the faculties in the USP, for which large-scale investments are planned.

Pijpers: “We made a very conscious decision to stay in the city centre, despite the fact that the buildings there are expensive and inefficient. Perhaps in absolute terms, more money is spent on the Science Park, but that’s mostly because technological laboratories are expensive and we have to remove asbestos. We now managed to house the Faculty of Sciences for less money, with more sustainability, and with better options for growth in the Kruyt building than in the two new buildings that had originally been planned. That opens up money to invest more in the city centre, over 100 million euros in total. And we will do so – including investing in improved educational spaces.”

Van ‘t Hullenaar: “The surfaces sizes aren’t comparable, but the future quality level is. Everything will improve. That has to sound appealing to city centre employees, too. This is by no means a story of just less and less and less. Look at what we’re doing for the Faculty of Law at the Achter St. Pieter.”

This is definitely not business as usual

There are still plenty of challenges left for the university. The question remains, for instance, how the university will handle the increase in influx of students and employees to the Science Park in the long run. The university hopes to construct more student housing units soon, but has to depend on market parties and the municipality to do so. The university is also not the only organisation in the Utrecht area with large-scale construction plans. The UMC Utrecht and Jaarbeurs trade fair have plans as well – for multiple billions of euros in all, Van ‘t Hullenaar estimates. Competition and inflated costs are obvious dangers.

Pijpers: “This is the biggest project the UU has ever done. We constantly have to monitor the manageability. This is not business as usual. But I do think we’ve now laid the groundwork for something that can take us through the next ten, twenty years, regardless of other developments.”

Van ‘t Hullenaar: “We’re going to do so many cool things. Reducing carbon emission in our housing stock by 65 percent within five to ten years is unheard of. It’s my greatest dream to construct healthy buildings, which people leave more healthy than they’d entered. That’s something we want to work on with our own scientists.”

Pijpers: “Whether this project will change the UU? I hope in a positive way: this is not a prestige project. We’re doing this for education and research.”

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