On planning physical infrastructure for a university

In recent years Government of India has been announcing setting up of new universities and institutes of higher learning in different parts of the country. More than a dozen universities (NITs, IITs, IIITs and CUs) have been announced in past one decade. Till date only one or two of them have become fully functional from their independent campuses. Reasons of the delay are varied, though one thing is common: lack of proper planning in those projects. Even though MHRD allows them to operate in a project mode for extended years, most administrators and planners do not seem to treat the mammoth task of creating a university as a project. Very few of these projects have employed the services of certified/experienced project managers. Most of the project managers in those projects are personnel who have just risen through the ranks over time without any formal project management training or certification.

Nevertheless, my intent in this post is not to dissect reasons for project delays. Lately I've been thinking to jot down some points that I have learnt during my association with a infrastructure related projects for an IIT. Some macro-level questions that come up when tasked with building physical infrastructure of an institute of higher learning are:
  1. How to find out what facilities to build? That is, what are my requirements? What should be the basis for those requirements?
  2. How to plan for the project? When should I start planning? What kind of team do I need? 
  3. After the plan is in place, how to execute it?
    1. What teams or individuals do I need to execute the project?
    2. How to choose/setup/contract those teams and individuals?
    3. What are important points to consider when selecting/contracting them?
Of course, this is not the exhaustive list of concerns which need to kept in mind while planning for infrastructure. Based on my experience I will share my thoughts about handling of concerns such as above.

Key inputs for planning

A critical input for most decisions about planning infrastructure of a university or institute is the number of students (including researchers etc.). One should not only have clear idea about the immediate (2-5 years) numbers but also projections about growth in number of students over 5-10 years and beyond. Typically, ratio of students to faculty and faculty to supporting staff are well established. This information forms the basis of quantum and timeline of physical infrastructure needed to run a university. Another critical input is the academic and research areas which the university considers a priority for itself. For example, a new IIT may have the following growth plan for academic programs and students in each:

TABLE-1 (Student intake)

2015 2018 2021
1 Computer science and engineering 40 15 15 50 20 20 60 30 40
2 Electrical engineering 40 15 15 50 20 20 60 30 40
3 Civil engineering 40 15 15 50 20 20 60 30 40
4 Mathematics
15 15
20 20
30 40
5 Physics
15 15
20 20
30 40
6 Chemistry
15 15
20 20
30 40
7 Chemical engineering

10 40 20 20

Program total 480 180 360 680 240 520 880 400 1040

Overall total 1020 1440 2320

For the student intake numbers shown in TABLE-1, one may calculate required number of faculty and then the number of supporting staff. This table shows a steady growth of intake in various programs (UG, PG etc.) and also of the disciplines itself (e.g. Chemical engineering is added in 2018). These number shall form the basis of your infrastructure planning.

Prioritize what facilities to build

For having a functional university, you need to have equipped academic buildings, adequate residential and recreational buildings for students, faculty and staff, basic facilities for meeting daily shopping needs and a health center. Challenge is to determine how much space to build in each category and scheduling construction so as to align with the projected growth in university's population. Though it may seem daunting at first, if academic and research priorities of the university are clear and identified, prioritizing the creation of infrastructure facilities should not be difficult.

Now coming back to the original question of what facilities to build?: Here you should keep in mind the primary business (teaching) of the university and its key stakeholder (students and faculty in this case). Your first priority can safely be to bring up adequate lecture halls, teaching labs, student hostels and accommodation for faculty and staff. Expensive (in terms of space and equipment) research labs can come in later phases. Basis of deciding the quantities should be a table such as TABLE-1 for your scenario. That is, you should work up the quantities based on population of students, faculty and staff.

Next I share my thoughts about a related question: how to plan buildings so as to be able to start as many teaching and research programs as possible within my allocated budget of built-up space and funds?

Possible approach to planning the buildings

First you need to determine the requirements (space, services, equipment etc.). It is important to involve faculty in generating detailed requirements for various facilities. However, the dimensions and numbers given in faculty inputs are often not accurate. It is not uncommon for faculty members to ignore the utilization aspect of a facility they are asking for. They end up over-provisioning the assets and tend to ignore bigger picture. Basically, most of them are not trained in planning infrastructure. As such they may fail to recognize the opportunities for pooling resources and improve utilization. I have seen cases where faculty of a department had asked for as many furnaces as there were faculty members in that department. Instead, they could have created a reasonable size single furnace lab which could have been shared among them. 

When money is not going from our own pocket we like to over-provision :). We need to understand possible approaches for planning the buildings.

Department-oriented vs function-oriented buildings

I think there can be two main approaches to planning campus infrastructure: 
  1. Construct big monolithic department-oriented buildings such that we run one independent department from each such building. In this approach typically almost all the facilities needed to run a department are provided in one big building.
  2. Construct function-oriented buildings and allocate/lease space in them for use by different departments as per their need. In this approach typically a department uses facilities from different buildings.
Of course, there are pros and cons to each approach (will write later on this). There are universities that have followed either of these approaches or even a hybrid. For example, IIT Roorkee seems to have followed approach #1 whereas IIT Kanpur seems to have followed approach #2. 

In my view, for a new institute when you are constrained with funds, time, space and when you are also under pressure to start and grow, you will be better off by adopting approach #2. Basic idea of constructing function-oriented buildings is that you co-locate functionally similar spaces/facilities into buildings of their own. A major advantage of this approach is that you can start small and expansion is much easier if you plan buildings around functions. For a newly setup institute this model fits the best.

Monolithic department-oriented buildings have to be designed and built so that they cater to all the requirements of a department. It is difficult to build them in part and also expansion of a monolithic department building is difficult. As they are designed for handling department's peak demands, they are mostly underutilized (peak demands last very short duration).

For example, instead of running chemical engineering and chemistry departments from separate monolithic buildings and separately providing wet labs in each, utilization and flexibility of re-provisioning of space may be better if you house all wet labs (of varying sizes) in a separate building of its own. In fact it will also improve your chemical waste disposal and management system.

Basic idea is that you need to plan buildings per function (e.g. teaching, wet labs, dry labs, computing labs, faculty offices, admin offices etc.). The idea is akin to how kitchen of a restaurant works: they keep basic ingredients separately ready and are able to quickly prepare different dishes as and when new orders arrive.

Planning for the project

It should start early. The critical inputs, as I have highlighted earlier, are: 
A) sanctioned built up area and funds, B) number of programs that you want to start with, C) number of students in each program, D) growth rate of adding new programs and students over the years. Items B to D depend on A.

Importance of local BWC

Normally, Building and Works Committee (BWC) of the university will be responsible for this planning. However, reality is that members of BWC will mostly be external to the university and will not be available full-time at university. For a new institute having a non-local BWC leads to serious issues and major slowing down of infrastructure building project (to verify, just talk to a director of any new IITs). So in order to avoid issues and delays in your infrastructure development you must ensure that majority of the BWC members are available locally to plan and monitor the project on a day to day basis. Remember, non-local BWCs may work for universities which are already well established. Your university/institute is just born and your issues are different from your older cousins.

Still, in case you are stuck with a less useful BWC, you should find ways to hire experts to take care of your (i.e. university's) interests. Ensuring quality work delivered on time and on budget in mega projects is not easy. If you are in-charge (dean, director etc.) of the infrastructure then you alone cannot run the show. You may be expert in one field (civil, electrical, architecture etc.), but for developing a campus you need a team with hands-on know-how of architecture, civil, electrical, low-voltage systems, horticulture and so on. One administrator (dean/director) alone cannot handle this. It will be best to constitute the BWC such that it comprises of: someone with project management experience on mega-projects, at least one hands-on person from each of the functional areas viz. architecture, civil, electrical, horticulture etc. BWC should not be just a rubber-stamp body that meets only once in three months to perform the ritual of signing canned resolutions and approvals.

More in a different post.


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