The management of a new building project at Nottingham Trent
The new Students’ Union building at Nottingham Trent’s City Campus houses the union’s membership and commercial services and university sports facilities. It has been built on university land by a private halls provider which manages 630 bed spaces located immediately above the new union.
The development has required effective partnership working to ensure a successful outcome. Built on the site of the old Students’ Union building, construction took over two years to complete, during which time we had considerably diminished space within the city centre. It took five academic years from initial research about the building with our members to the conclusion of the first year of operation. The project was directed by a project board which included representatives of the university senior management team, union and university sports department.
Despite inevitable teething problems, feedback on the new building from our members and visitors from other unions and universities has been overwhelmingly positive. This article reflects on the factors that were key to ensuring the success of the project from a union perspective.
Relationship with the University
Our university has long understood the value of a vibrant and effective students’ union to the student experience. They were less convinced however that our students’ union could be vibrant and effective.
Throughout the development process the union deliberately took steps to build the confidence of the university in its capacity to operate the various elements of the new development. This was achieved through establishing an effective policy framework, addressing issues within the staff team and improving our financial viability. The union actively sought to change the tone of its relationship with the university, volunteering greater accountability and transparency in the hope and expectation that the university would respond positively. It did. The refurbishment of facilities at our Clifton Campus the previous year and the improvements delivered by the union as a result also did much to establish confidence.
A process of confidence building and improvement has meant that the union operates all the services in the new building other than sport and facilities management, a different scenario from that originally envisaged by both the union and the university. We have been fortunate that our institution has been willing to approach its relationship with us in an open minded way and recognise the positive changes within the union.
Maintaining the Offer
The union was keen to replicate as much of its offer in the city centre as possible during the build. This included for example, finding a home for our regular Saturday night club event to maintain the brand and entering a partnership for a day-time bar as a safe place for students to socialise. During the construction work, our officers successfully focussed on strengthening their representative role. However, the desire to replicate the services of the union as fully as possible was also valued by our members.
Maintaining the services made establishing activities in the new building easier than starting again from scratch. This approach may also have contributed to an increase in our Q23 score from 66% to 70% last year as students continued to be able to participate in our large scale events bearing our established brands.
Matching the University’s Aspirations
The university had an established approach to its Estates Strategy and applied to the development aspiring to excellence for the union’s new physical environment. Visits to a number of other unions were arranged to explore examples of good design and always included both senior estates managers and student officers. There were some significant differences of opinion about what might work at NTU and these were resolved early in the design process. The evident commitment of senior estates managers to understanding the perspective of the officers was a useful foundation to resolving difficult issues later in the redevelopment process. The assumption of union officers and staff was that their opinions would always be properly considered.
The commitment to ensuring the details of the building were correct and that the fit out was of the highest quality contributed significantly to the success of the building. It has also been critical however, that the union has been able to field its own staff to dedicate attention to these issues.
Resuming Usual Operations
There was mild concern within the union that having spent so long understanding union life in order to deliver a high quality building, some university staff might struggle to disengage. An awareness of this meant some time was spent within the union thinking about how we could assist the estates staff in their withdrawal. Our concerns generally proved to be unfounded. Any lingering interest has now been subsumed by the next estates capital project.
Continuity within the Officer Team
Throughout the development process the union had a President who was a second year officer. The benefits of this have been significant, enabling a smooth transition from one year to the next throughout the project. This has been important with regard to the substance of discussions and decisions. However, it has also been significant in ensuring a consistent tone in union engagement with the Project Board, a consistent level of expectation in successive executive teams and established relationships which formed a sound basis for resolving difficult issues.
While it should not be possible or desirable to manage the outcome of elections, the Executive had an understanding of the benefits of continuity for the project and this, coupled with a desire of officers to maintain their involvement with such a large and exciting project, has helped contribute to this continuity.
Ability to Work at Pace
It was always apparent, given the complexity of the partnership, the housing and sporting dimension and the pressures of the academic year that it was necessary to ensure the union could keep pace with the decision making required by the building programme.
This was particularly important as construction was undertaken by a building contractor for the private halls provider engaged in partnership with the university. The university had staff members engaged with other contractors for the fit out of the building. Some of these people were understandably less committed to the operational detail of the building than others. Most were not generally interested at all in the union’s decision making structure.
A pragmatic approach was generally taken to address these issues. In general this was effective as officers understood why it was necessary and how it could be implemented. Some unanticipated problems arose however. For example, when placement students working for the university were asked for input on decisions instead of our officers it understandably caused problems. Other issues arose when students from the surveying course were allowed access to the building while it was still under construction as part of their studies before our officers had the opportunity to tour the site. These issues were important to the officers and had to be addressed diplomatically to ensure that they did not slow other aspects of the project.
The ability to work quickly delivered considerable benefits. One particular advantage was that when it was necessary to take some time to resolve disagreements, the importance of the issue was apparent to the other partners. For example, designs for the office spaces emerged from a focus group held for the staff and officers who would use them. They were then amended and agreed by e-mail in a very short space of time. The lounge fit out by contrast took several weeks to agree. During this time the union rejected several designs. However, it was apparent to all involved that the union had genuine issues with the design rather than inefficient processes for making decisions.
Managing in Temporary Spaces
Due to the restricted space available during the re-development process, all SMT members were relocated to our Clifton Campus, four miles from the City Centre. Officers and student advice staff were provided with temporary office spaces in the City Centre. This included two hot desks for union staff who might need to be at the campus.
These arrangements required officers and managers to embrace new ways of working. This included more effective management of communications and better planning of meetings. Occasionally, the speed of the development required rapid responses on evolving designs and other issues. Officers became adept at reviewing visual images and renders of design features and providing feedback in a way that created effective dialogue without face to face contact. Finding effective ways of doing this was challenging but essential to ensuring officers felt a sense of ownership of the project.
Professional Working Relationships
The geographical separation of staff and officers created opportunities for schism and faction, either by accident or through a sense of mischief either inside or outside the union. Both officers and managers conducted themselves in a way that meant this very seldom became an issue. This required commitment from all those involved to managing effectively through unconventional arrangements.
Capacity for Work on the Detail
The role of senior managers was also of critical importance in delivering a building that works so effectively. While the CEO and President spent considerable time working with various partners at a strategic level, our Trading Services Manager spent many hours understanding the detail of the building. This included flow rates for admission and bar serveries, the location of power and data points, the journey of cash and stock back of house and fire alarm protocols to give just a few of hundreds of possible examples. Other senior managers and staff within Trading Services were willing to work flexibly to backfill some of his more usual responsibilities.
The relocation of staff to the Clifton Campus required most of them to engage in a longer commute for a period of two years. In addition, the handful of staff who still worked at the City were subject to disruption, having to work in poorer quality temporary spaces with construction workers occasionally using and abusing some of their facilities. While the union did not reduce its expectations of staff, it did take a pragmatic approach to staff travel allowances and flexible working. In addition, staff forum meetings were made more frequent and efforts were made to deal with staff issues promptly.
The nature of the development agreement involving a private halls provider without previous experience of building or operating a union building presented significant challenges. In part this reflected the unique nature of the development and the lack of a precedent to learn from the successes and potential pitfalls.
There was some reluctance by the halls provider to acknowledge the expertise of the union in key areas of operation. There was also a difficulty in conceptualising a relationship with the union within the project in a way which went beyond their previous experiences of us.
On a day to day basis the most significant operational issues have been resolved at a local level on a pragmatic basis. This reflects the relationships which have evolved from shared experiences of working within the new development. However, the detail of how all the aspects of what is now a multi-faceted relationship with a private halls provider should be managed is still a work in progress.
A high quality students’ union offer is now regarded as mission critical by most universities and is an area where few universities would be willing to take a laissez-faire approach. Ensuring therefore that the union building that emerges from a redevelopment process reflects the wants and needs of union members requires a meaningful dialogue between the union and the university and a union team resilient enough to withstand the inevitable disruption and intrinsic uncertainty. An acknowledgement of the union’s expertise in operating services and the ability to articulate this expertise effectively is essential to ensuring that the vision can be operated effectively.
An investment in the relationships necessary to support these requirements has been the key to the successful redevelopment of the union building at Nottingham Trent.
The research underpinning the development of Byron House can be found here