The university needs to facilitate silence

However tragic, the fire in the Faculty of Architecture and the Built Environment (2008), gave Alexandra den Heijer an opportunity to test her ideas on university real estate in practice. Since then, the campus has been her living lab.

Most readers remember the campus as it used to be. If they visited it now, what would they see?

“There are two ways of looking at it: it’s still the same and yet everything’s changed. Most of the buildings are still there, but our organisation is different. Everyone used to have a fixed place of work, with the lecture hall at the end of the corridor. Now, 25 years on, they work on several projects, for several clients. They move around campus, spending time in different buildings. Education now transcends disciplines, is increasingly virtual and accessed remotely. 

In my speech, I called it Campus Matters.”

The classic image of a campus is one of young people, magnificent buildings and parkland. In your dissertation, you wrote: iconic buildings are never the primary task of the university. Don’t buildings like EEMCS and BK City deserve protection?

“As an architecture faculty, landmark buildings are important to us, but investing in them needs to be carefully weighed against direct investment in research and education. Striking that balance isn’t easy, because you’re spending public funds. The university’s primary tasks are education, research and innovation. Of course, you need places to study, workspaces and state-of-the-art laboratories for that. But the amount and quality always provokes debate within the university, especially if functionality and identity are at odds with affordability and sustainability.”

Take the EEMCS tower as an example. When it was built 50 years ago, many saw it as a very ugly building. Now we see it as a TU Delft landmark icon. What is your view on this?

“People often say: you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone. When it comes to preserving EEMCS, you have to accept that it won’t come cheap. What percentage of resources do you want to spend on housing? Fifteen, or possibly 20%? If you want conservation, you have to take the consequences, both financially and in terms of energy.” 

I hear that you enjoy puzzles in your free time. Is that linked to your field of public real estate management?

“Definitely. My field is also a complete puzzle. The problem is that the puzzle sometimes needs to be solved by just one person and yet many people provide the pieces of the puzzle. In a way, this symbolises the field because any decision about a building involves various aspects. What values does a university want to express, what qualities does that require and how will we prepare ourselves for the future? And that’s just a single perspective.” 

What other aspects are involved?

“The financial side – the university's role is increasing all the time. It has to educate more students and serve more agendas, with ever fewer resources. Then there’s the functional side: students and staff must be able to work healthily and safely in our buildings. And those buildings increasingly have to meet all kinds of environmental requirements. Every decision about a public building is a puzzle with four perspectives: values, finances, functionality and environmental standards.”

But what if the puzzle won’t fit together?

“Of course, you can say you need more money. But that’s the easy option. We’re engineers – we should put our minds to it. How can we identify a set of variables that will make it fit?”

Do you have an example?

“For the last three years, we’ve been doing research into smart tools, because we think campus management is actually a question of logistics. We need to try to do more with less, which is possible if you take the time factor into account. Then you can timeshare facilities. One problem with that is that many places may be claimed, but remain unused. Think of the towel on an empty deckchair. Restaurants have the same problem. Some face bankruptcy because people book but don’t turn up. That’s why universities are now trying to get more out of existing buildings by organising demand smartly. Although we don’t want to limit people’s freedom and autonomy, when it’s really busy, we plan to advise them to turn up half an hour earlier or later to avoid the queues.”

On 13 May 2008, the Architecture building burned down and the main building happened to be empty. What were the main lessons for your field?

“My motto was: practice what you preach. I felt we should apply our campus management theory in practice here and if it didn’t work, I should opt for a different profession. But if it did, it would give me a nice addition to my dissertation on the ‘new’ BK City building. And that’s what happened. The first lesson was: a good crisis helps to change things. The second was the need to develop the building like a city – with more public than private space. We also put quality before quantity. By reducing space, we could spend more per square metre. The old building covers 40,000 sq. m. BK City was less big, so we had to sacrifice quantity in favour of quality. Of course, the quality was partly there anyway, because it’s a building to be proud of. That was another lesson: people are more forgiving towards heritage. They take a more flexible approach than they do with new buildings.” 

Can you make a prediction about the campus of 2045? 

“People started wondering: does everything really have to be in English? Do I have to travel so much? There was a move back to basics and towards consolidation. There are certain biological conditions that are inevitable: territoriality, the need for silence, a lack of distraction, separation of work and private life. More than before, universities have to facilitate that because it’s in such short supply elsewhere. But we need to do it in a new way because we can’t afford to give everyone a place of their own.” 

So how will we achieve that?

“Perhaps we need to move towards a system that rewards sustainable behaviour and makes the costs (including energy cost) of privileges, like having a permanent workspace, transparent. It will be a kind of serious gaming for students and staff, working together on an inspiring, functional, affordable and sustainable campus. I can picture it now. It will enable you to do more with fewer resources and involve the whole university community in this puzzle.”


Professor Alexandra den Heijer (born in 1970) embarked on a degree in Mathematics at TU Delft in 1988, but switched over to Architecture, graduating in 1994 with a focus on management of the built environment. She became an assistant professor and did doctoral research into campus management at all Dutch and several foreign universities. She completed her PhD in 2011, with a dissertation entitled Managing the University Campus. She was appointed Professor of Public Real Estate in 2018 and gave her inaugural address at the end of 2019. She is married and has a modern patchwork family. She drives a Saab convertible and enjoys music in her spare time.

People are more forgiving towards heritage.