The auxiliary forces behind public real estate managers

News - 07 November 2019 - Communication BK

A homeless faculty. That was what the faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment was when its permanent accommodation at the Berlageweg was destroyed by fire in 2008. For Alexandra den Heijer, a lecturer and researcher at that time, this personal drama provided the impetus for an inspiring learning process. What do you miss the most when you suddenly lose your building and its facilities? As the new professor for Public Real Estate, Den Heijer likes putting that question to students and professionals.

What does the future hold for a university campus? While one person advocates more space to study, another is determined to see research facilities optimised, a third calls for listed buildings to be preserved and a fourth wants the focus to be on improving sustainability. Since being awarded her doctorate in 2011 for research into campus management, Den Heijer has found her expertise to be very much in demand. Together with assistant professor Monique Arkesteijn, she is leading the campus team researching the development of Dutch and European campuses and documenting the smart tools available to support campus managers worldwide. “As academics working in the late 1990s, we began to take an interest in the complex agenda of the public real estate manager. How can this pivotal figure, working in a highly-pressurised field of opposing forces, reach a good, evidence-based decision?” Based on a series of case studies, Den Heijer defined this decision-making as a process that involves matching four key variables: bricks and mortar, people, organisational objectives and money. “The public real estate manager is the matchmaker, someone who above all needs examples, analyses and an effective tool kit. That is what this chair and our seasoned team aim to provide. We are the auxiliary forces on hand to provide help and reinforcement.”


In her theorisation, Den Heijer likes to use terminology from physics to interpret the different physical states of campuses: from ‘solid’ – top-down managed institutes in cellular offices – to more ‘liquid’ matrix organisations, where ideas are exchanged between faculties, and onwards to virtual 'gaseous' universities in which research and teaching have been disengaged from a shared location and staff meet primarily in cyberspace. “The many case studies we collected and described teach us that you need a mixture of solid, liquid and gas. What makes all these students and staff into a community – what binds the molecules – is serendipity, when things come together by chance. This can only be achieved if people are regularly at a short distance from each other and move through the same spaces. Of course, the title of my inaugural address – Campus Matters – is deliberately meant to have a double meaning.”

Smart tools

While campuses may matter, decision-making on their development must be backed up by facts and figures, says Den Heijer. For example, the repeated calls for more space are not always totally appropriate. “The future of the campus actually lies more in the flexibility of people and buildings. It is all about making optimum use of the existing resources – energy, space and money – with as much as possible left over to spend on education and research. You need to invest less in the quantity and more in the quality of space.” To achieve this, campus managers can use smart tools: data-driven information technology that provides an insight into patterns of use. Where on campus are people to be found? How do they move through space? What type of working space is needed most? “Managers need this kind of specific information in order to make well-founded decisions. And users can turn to smart apps, for example, in order to find a free place to study or meeting room.” Den Heijer’s research also involves mathematics, lots of it. “But I always see the data and algorithms as a means to an end. The information needs to be given a human dimension. The aim is to strike a balance between usability and livability, between virtual and physical contact, between dynamism and calm. You need the digital environment, in part, to keep the analogue environment in place.” Besides, hard facts are not always enough, as Den Heijer now knows from her own experience. Another key instrument in the public real estate manager's toolkit is serious gaming. “We say: you need to get the key stakeholders to participate in role plays. In a gaming situation, you can cultivate understanding for other people’s perspectives.” 


Den Heijer has outlined a series of priorities for the chair. For example, she wants to improve statistical knowledge of public real estate. “What do we mean by that? From square metres through to cash flows, there is a considerable lack of reliable fundamental information about the sector, even in education. But this lies at the heart of decisions that have a far-reaching impact on society. Just think of all the many design, transformation and innovation challenges that public real estate faces. Marleen Hermans, professor of Public Commissioning, and I have therefore started to systematically quantify all of the variables that affect the management of public real estate.”

Den Heijer also intends to add new projects to the database built up so far. “I am repeatedly asked questions like: what’s the best campus or the best campus project? There is no unambiguous answer to that. But when you build up a collection of project descriptions and continue to monitor the projects, you can analyse your cases. A well-stocked deck of cards like that provides basic reference material.” Thirdly, Den Heijer intends to expand ‘her’ Dutch network of public parties with real estate management issues. “What has been learnt here in Delft about campus management in the last two decades is actually generic knowledge. Institutions in healthcare can identify with the case studies, both in terms of the challenges they face and their practical experiences. The same applies to the Central Government Real Estate Agency. We should learn as much as possible as we can from each other. That is what this chair will deliver: reading material for owners and managers of public real estate.”

Inaugural address Alexandra den Heijer
13 November 2019 | 15:00 | Aula TU Delft