Robert Hutton, Director of Estates: “We have to take collective responsibility to find solutions”
By: Jacqui Bealing
Last updated: Wednesday, 26 August 2020
Robert Hutton, Director of Estates, Facilities and Commercial Services, reflects on the plans and strategies to cope with Covid-19 on campus.
There hasn’t been a single day during Covid-19 when members of SEF and the estates team haven’t been on campus. It’s been a massive, collective effort to get through this. Now the housing team are working flat out allocating rooms, and we’re bringing back the catering teams. We also have great relationships with our campus partners – Balfour Beatty, Interserve and Chartwells.
We need to take a battle approach to deal with Covid-19. I was in the British Army for the first 19 years of my working life and there’s a military saying that no plan survives the first contact. You’re conditioned to know that, despite the best-laid plans, things can change in front of you. I’m running the campus re-entry steering group and everyone is putting in an enormous effort to make it the best experience we can.
I think we have to take collective responsibility to find solutions. You’ll know what feels right and what feels sensible. There will be some areas on campus where we’ll ask people to wear face coverings. We’ll be applying the same sensible measures on campus as we have seen in shops and restaurants. There will be enough reminders for people to take the right precautions. I think our overseas students, particularly from Asia and China, will feel very comfortable with what we are doing. I worked in Hong Kong for 13 years where, if you get the flu, you would wear a mask. Ever since SARS in 2003 that has been the norm.
I’m an optimistic person. I always want to find the cup half full. But I do see the other side. We have been working on worst-case scenarios for the pandemic and some of the measures that I have to consider are pretty hard. We’ll be keeping the East Sussex County Council temporary mortuary on the Sport Centre car park until January 2021, but we are reducing its size and giving back 50 car parking spaces. We’re also reducing the fence so that it’s not so intrusive on our environment.
During lockdown we’ve done a lot of work to campus. People will see that we’ve been upgrading the general teaching spaces, but there’s a whole bunch of ‘underground stuff’ that’s been going on too – fixing gas mains, fixing leakages and electrical outages, and putting in new water systems and a new electrical supply. I’m using local suppliers as much as possible and I’ve produced a booklet about the projects we have done over the summer. One of the tasks was to remove a herd of cows who broke onto campus and tried to get into the Business School.
Basil Spence’s buildings are growing on me. When you get more involved with them, you realise they’re quite not as boxy as they at first seem. I’m appreciating Spence’s vision of the flow between the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’, which involved the strategic planting of trees. These now need to be trimmed to restore the line of sight.
As we see the new projects continue, the heart of the campus will be further up the valley. That will be exciting. We’ll have the same feel, but with better facilities all round. And we are passionate about continuing to make campus as sustainable as possible. All the energy that comes onto our campus will be from renewable sources.
I went into the Army because I was a young man who loved sport, adventure and team work. I reflect on that a lot. I enjoy working in teams and when I was at school I was influenced by my sport, playing a lot of county rugby. You don’t go into a rugby match thinking you will break your leg. Likewise, I didn’t think about the danger of warfare. I had a sense of duty because it’s what I had signed up for, but I never actually thought I would go to war.
I was in a cavalry regiment and was in tanks in armoured warfare. I went to the Gulf war, I went to Iraq, I had a few tours of Northern Ireland and Bosnia. I was aide de camp to the Commander in Chief of the British Army. I was staff officer to the Chief of Staff of the British Army. I only joined the Army for three years, but they kept giving me better and better jobs until I eventually left with a pension.
A lot of ex-military people move into programme management type work, which I’ve done now for 20 years. I joined a project management consultancy on leaving the Army and that got me transposed into capital projects. Then I worked for Pfizer Pharmaceutical and got involved in the major capital building projects in the USA, UK and across Asia Pacific. From there, I went further and further in buildings facilities management and corporate real estate.
I love Sussex as a county. My parents retired to the New Forest and so, after living in Hong Kong, Sussex seemed a good place for my wife and I to come. I love walking along Seven Sisters and in the countryside. I have bought a book of the 20 best South Downs walks. It’s too easy to take this beautiful countryside for granted. There’s no pollution compared to Hong Kong – and the skies are so blue!
This profle is part of our This Sussex Life series.