How can you juggle the demands of university lighting?

The new multi-million pound John Henry Brookes Building at Oxford Brookes University. The maintenance team have had to adapt to the tall spaces that the structure is comprised of.

Steve Holtom joined Oxford Brookes University in 1998 as an electrical technician and became electrical services manager at the University in 2008, an institution that caters to nearly 18,000 students a year.

In his early days working at the University the position was very much an operational role, managing a team of electricians and handy persons as they took on the job of reactive maintenance and planned preventative maintenance works across three campuses.

The university is comprised of the Headington campus on the leafy edge of central Oxford, Wheatley and Harcourt Hill. Over the next decade Wheatley is set to close and the refurbished Headington campus will pick up the slack.

This is one of many changes at the University, as it embarks on a multi-million pound plan to modernise a string of older buildings and develop new ones. Things began to change for Steve with the building of the university’s impressive flagship multi-million pound John Henry Brookes Building.

In the years before the flagship's construction, the University had a capital projects team that managed the development of new structures and then handed them over to estates to be maintained. But this meant that the maintenance team had no input in to the creation of a building that they they would later have to look after.

This system has now been considerably reformed and now Steve gets involved in both day to day maintenance and the development of new projects, issuing standards, output specifications and data sheets to help with decisions. 

‘We have such a tight programme of refurbishment work over the next ten years,' Steve comments. 'Literally one project finishes and another one starts. The handover time is critical so it does not clash with semester start times, so this is a challenge.’

'We have such a tight programme of refurbishment work over the next ten years. Literally one project finishes and another one starts. The handover time is critical so it does not clash with semester start times

Steve Holtom - Electrical services manager at Oxford Brookes University.

The fact that Steve’s team were not originally involved in the development of capital projects meant that, for now, there is hardly any LED at all in the flagship John Henry Brookes building.

LED was still in its infancy when the structure was being designed and conceived and those involved in the project at the time were not confident about the use of LED. A majority of T5 fluorescents are currently used instead.

‘Because of some of the high spaces in the building, we might have instead of compact fluorescent, a metal halide, which then led to challenges over our control strategy, because we can’t use presence detection with metal halide,’ Steve comments. 

For example, in the library spaces at the moment when it gets to 11pm the lights dim to thirty percent, if anyone is in he building or not. 'If we improve the controls on that there might be a saving to be made straight away,' Steve adds.

‘This was a lesson learned that came out of post occupancy and the reviews that followed construction. Just looking back, nobody actually stopped halfway through to say before we started installing lighting on site that perhaps we should use something newer.’

So now Steve and his team finds themselves working in a building with very little LED in it, which means there are a lot of spaces in the building which are on time programmes, rather than presence detection. When it comes to control, the University currently uses a mixture of Simmtronic lighting controls and Harvard's innovative EyeNut. 

'We have found that where we have used LED on the site that it has over performed when it comes to light levels, but with the use of control systems, be it the the Eyenut or Symtronic, we have been able to cap those levels.’

The use of presence detection controls has also been important and the data that these control systems collect will give Steve the ammunition to go to senior management and to make the case for future LED conversions as it cuts down on both energy and maintenance costs.

The social learning spaces at the University are busy all the time, even in the early hours of the morning. This makes finding time for re-lamping difficult.

Steve is under pressure from his superiors to keep energy costs down and there is an sustainability team working at the University who set carbon reduction targets. 

Monitoring the performance of LED’s that the university does have in place is important and the length of warranties are always considered. Steve’s team are now fitting LEDs wherever they can and they usually ask for warranties of five years on site, irrespective of the hours the fitting has run. Building relationships with manufacturers such as Dextra Lighting and Trilux has also been important.

The absence of LED makes maintenance more of a challenge. The John Henry Brookes Building features a very high atrium space and high level spaces run throughout the building requiring lifts to reach. Also, with the rise of social learning, students getting together to work collectively, Steve and his team discovered that the new social spaces in the building were often still in use at 2am in the morning, leaving  precious little time to carry out maintenance works. Even when the students go home in between term time, the University is constantly hosting summer schools and conferences, which means a quiet moment is very difficult to find in which to do some re-lamping.

‘We have had to change the way that we do maintenance,’ Steve says. ‘We now work a lot more closely with our facilities team and we have started booking out spaces when we want to do work. The height of some of the spaces has also been something of an issue, but we have adapted, we have started working smarter and we make the best uses of new technology that we can.’

‘We wanted the new building, which cost £138 million to build, to give us the wow factor, as soon as you walk in,' says Steve Holtom.

The University has not yet started to look into the benefits of human centric lighting, which interplays with the body’s internal circadian rhythms to create spaces more hospitable for learning or sleeping, but it may start to consider it in the future.

‘The only thing so far that we’ve looked at in terms of circadian lighting, is for a butterfly and insect room in the sciences block which needed a particular type of lighting, so we actually looked at it for that.’  

With rising tuition fees, it is becoming more and more crucial for universities to regard their students as paying customers, but it is often difficult to maintain a consistent service in ageing facilities.

‘We have got an ageing estate that we have not invested in over the years, which is why over the next decade, we have to catch up,' Steve comments.

'We currently have three halls of residence where the lighting is coming to the end of its life after twenty years, but there is no point going in there and just replacing the lighting, as the buildings also need new kitchens, new furniture, so it will be a much bigger task.’

One of the outside spaces around the new John Henry Brookes building, the new flagship building on the Oxford Brookes campus.

This will not be an easy process as closing a forty bed property for renovation is going to lead to a lot of lost revenue for the University. Instead a much more delicate process has to be adopted, refurbishing halls one  house at a time, in small, incremental, stages.

Despite the challenges that he faces, it is the fluctuating nature of his job that gets him up for work in the morning.

‘The thing that gets me up in the morning is that you never know what is going happen during each new day,' Steve concludes.

'Most of our maintenance calls are for lighting in the halls of residence where we know the lighting is starting to fail, but we can use this as a positive in order to get a lighting upgrade to LED technology, which will reduce the amount of maintenance work that we have to do. This constant evolution is something that is thrilling to be involved in.' 

‘Lighting makes such a huge difference to a building,' Steve adds. 'And it certainly makes a difference if you get it wrong.’

Pictures: Robert Leeming

  • Public realm lighting will be one of the main subjects of the LuxLive 2017 exhibition and conference on Wednesday 15 November and  Thursday 16 November 2017. Entry is free – pre-register to stay in the loop HERE.

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