skip to content

Estates Division


What are the latest developments of Reshaping our Estate? We spoke to John Dennis, the Lead Academic Sponsor of Reshaping our Estate, and David Cardwell, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Strategy and Planning, to discover the latest insights of the programme.  Image of David Cardwell and John Dennis

For those who may not be aware of Reshaping our Estate, how would you summarise the programme?  

David Cardwell: Reshaping our Estate is a collaborative, strategic programme of work that is looking at the University’s estate to understand how space is used and the opportunities to use space more efficiently, to create an estate that is fit for the 21st century and which, at its core, will enhance the University’s world-leading research and education. I can’t emphasise enough that this is a 20 year programme and we will be working closely with NSI’s, Schools, Departments and Faculties right across the University to enhance the effectiveness and quality of our estate, rather than to impose solutions on them.  

John Dennis: Our aim is to academically co-design and deliver an estate that supports and enables the University’s mission into the future in close collaboration with colleagues across the University; creating an estate that is more effective, more efficient, more environmentally sustainable, and fit-for-purpose.  

Why is now the time to act and change our estate?  

John Dennis: The University’s academic mission is critically dependent on an infrastructure that is fit for the 21st Century and beyond; it is imperative we maintain our academic top tier status in the face of fierce competition internationally.  

To remain competitive, we need to use the resources we have, both our money and our spaces, much better. This presents us with an opportunity to rethink how we use our space.  

David Cardwell: Unfortunately, much of our existing estate is in a very poor condition and many of the buildings do not provide modern space that is fit for purpose and capable of supporting a modern collaborative approach to teaching/learning, studying and researching.  

Our estate is also very expensive to run and manage; in part because it is in a very poor condition, and therefore has more expensive failures, and in part because it is larger per head than any other Russell Group university (excluding the Colleges). The estate has become run down over many decades of under-investment with no cohesive strategic plan and many of the buildings require extensive refurbishment – there is an opportunity to reimagine those spaces as we consider that costly refurbishment rather than just continue with the current layout and designs. 

In February we met with the University Council and General Board, and it was agreed that both the academic imperative and the need to drive financial savings were equally important factors when considering the estate. Our joint opportunity is to change the way we use our estate to deliver much higher quality facilities that everyone will enjoy using, whilst at the same time reducing the size and running costs of the estate.  We see very low use in large swathes of the estate today because it is just not a pleasant place to be and the scale of that unused space, as John has mentioned, is making us uncompetitive.  

Infographic with statistics showing that 25% of the University of Cambridge's estate is in a poor or very poor condition, has 20% more space per head than any other Russell Group University and emits double the carbon per staff and student compared to the Russell Group average

What are the benefits of Reshaping our Estate?  

John Dennis: Ultimately, our goal is to support the University’s academic mission, creating high quality working and learning environments that foster world-class research, teaching, and collaboration, whilst ensuring we remain competitive, both nationally and internationally.  

This sounds repetitive, but I cannot stress this message enough; a well-designed high-quality estate will result in better facilities enhancing academic capacity and improve the social well-being and overall experience of staff/students within fewer buildings that are less costly to manage and maintain. 

But in order to do so, as agreed at University Council and General Board, we must challenge how we think and use our existing spaces. Many of our spaces feel dead and unloved in the way we use them today. Since the global pandemic, we are interacting with spaces in new and different ways and the future of our estate could offer a range of flexible and vibrant spaces that allow people to work in very many different ways. 

David Cardwell: We are at the start of the collaborative journey to improving our estate and, before any changes can be made, the first step is to establish the facts and present the opportunities for colleagues to consider and test. We will be developing a Strategic Estate Framework to support a renewed approach to the way space could be used in order to support the University’s mission which will be submitted to the University Council and General Board during the Summer 2024. The Strategic Estate Framework will outline a 20-year financial capital plan and develop a structure by which all future estates projects should be considered. 

How are you listening and working with colleagues from across the University?  

John Dennis: The team have been working with the academic community, conducting over 130 interviews across the Schools and NSIs, gathering an understanding of how spaces are being used across the estate today and identifying the demand. Data has been collated looking at the volume of space, amount of carbon, and costs of running the estate, as well as conducting surveys across a third of the estate which provides a snapshot on how space is being used.  

Those utilisation study results highlight our spaces are poorly used and, whilst this information is high level without the nuances around each space, it gives us the ability to look at overall trends of use – what is liked and what is not. It helps us to initiate important discussions as we start to test the emerging opportunities, looking at how can we create inspiring and vibrant spaces that support the academic vision of the Schools, Departments and wider University - spaces of which people feel proud. My test is to ask the question, would I be excited to bring a fellow academic to our University and show them around? 

The team are also engaging with the student community, conducting focus groups to understand how students currently use the estate, what do our under-grads and post-grads feel about the spaces they work in? And what spaces could be changed to support their overall University experience and, importantly, well-being? It is interesting, for example, to learn that our students feel unwelcome in other people’s departments – not a positive environment for inclusivity as well as cross-disciplinary research and learning!  

David Cardwell: We also cannot ignore the impact on the planet. Our estate is the size of three and a half Empire State Buildings and without wanting to mix comparators, we have, on any day of the week, numbers of empty football pitches the size of Wembley that are being heated. There are thousands of tonnes of carbon being emitted every year for spaces that add little value to our academic mission. We hear loud and clear that we must reduce our environmental impact and this is one of the ways where the way we do things can have a positive benefit on the planet. 

But this work cannot be achieved in a silo and it’s important we work in partnership with the Schools, Departments and Non-School Institutions (NSIs) to ensure we create better spaces that are fit and flexible for the future. It is not for the Estates Division to come up with the answers. They will present some opportunities, a hypothesis, that we will test as a collective to explore and make better.   

What key themes have emerged? 

John Dennis: Broad trends are beginning to emerge across the estate. The top concern is that the current condition and quality of the estate unfortunately does not meet the aspirations of a top-five world University.  

A consistent theme is that there is little collaboration space that allows inter-disciplinary working. Set against this remains however, that Schools and Departments want to retain strong individual identities and the physical buildings are a key demonstrator. So the challenge for the future is how do we maintain the promotion of individual identities and, at the same time, provide welcoming space that allows cross disciplinary research and learning to flourish. 

And the ability to grow is a key driver – having the space that both attracts the best staff and students as well has the flexibility to accommodate future growth. All existing spaces are allocated which restricts the opportunity and yet we have under-used space.  Our challenge, therefore, is to think about how we use space differently that allows more people to do the best work.  

What are the emerging concepts being explored to support current challenges?  

John Dennis: From the information gathered to date, there is a strong desire to create a range of high quality, flexible spaces. Concepts are being explored, looking at how we can create more collaborative spaces and social environments within each site. This includes creating more active ground floor spaces with visible and inviting external spaces to work and socialise. There remains a high degree of suspicion about the availability of single or two-person offices and this is one of our greatest challenges to enabling growth and interdisciplinarity. We will be working with Schools and Departments to explore how we retain offices for those that want them, looking at ways that security for books can be provided and ensure that any spaces are available for use. 

Throughout our engagement with the Schools, Departments/Faculties we hear the value of their identity and heritage. We cannot have interdisciplinarity without strong internationally recognised individual disciplines. So we need spaces that reflect this. The hypothesis is that we can do this whilst also creating a ‘heart’ for each site with different types of themed spaces that invites staff and students to collaborate as well as support independent research and work with quiet academic spaces. 

David Cardwell: The foundation for the hypothesis is creating internationally recognised centres of excellence for specific disciplines at each and every one of our sites.  And each site will encourage both single discipline recognition as well as spaces where our different academic disciplines can work together in a vibrant inspiring setting. 

We are now planning a series of workshops to test the hypothesis and to develop these opportunities further with the aim to co-design spaces that reflect the requirements of our staff and students whilst innovatively thinking about the future requirements of the University to maintain our international reputation.  

What should we expect to see next from Reshaping our Estate?  

John Dennis: This is only the very beginning of a long journey over the next 20 years – the life of the plan. The concepts that are being developed are at a site rather than building level and respond to the feedback you have given as to the different types of site spaces that you consider are the future need, and the data around how our spaces are currently used with their running costs.  

We will develop these concepts for each site enabling the University’s decision-makers to identify a sequenced plan of activity over 20 years that will, over time, change the estate to be the match for any of our competitors. Spaces where not only would we be proud to receive visitors, but spaces where other Universities will recognise as being the world-leading research and teaching environments where they will meet the finest minds and thinkers. 

David Cardwell: The need for change to our estate is a given and the objective of Reshaping our Estate is to manage this well. This is an exciting opportunity for all stakeholders to create collectively a more vibrant estate that is more efficient, more effective, more environmentally sustainable and fit-for-purpose - which ultimately inspires our communities to continue achieving international academic excellence.  

Reshaping our Estate aims to create an estate that is more effective, more efficient, more environmentally sustainable, and fit-for-purpose which celebrates the past and looks to the future. Find out more about the Reshaping our Estate programme or contact the Reshaping our Estate team.