Allocating Campus Space Strategically

"Space is a critical resource, just like your institution's financial resources; it has to be managed effectively and used efficiently. It is an asset that you need to allocate in order to support short- and long-term priorities."
Frances Mueller, University of Michigan

Institutions of higher education have a limited history of tracking and allocating their existing space effectively, but facing state budget cuts and/or rising enrollments, a handful of institutions have taken recent action to organize campus-wide space management initiatives to help reallocate prime "real estate" on campus in support of strategic priorities, looking for ways to optimize the space they already have.

This is a critical step, and it involves:

  • Acknowledging that your campus space is a strategic asset for your institution
  • Building out a robust space database to allow for more sophisticated tracking of space utilization
  • Taking steps to change the culture of space ownership on campus, shifting space from a departmental asset to an institutional asset

Frances Mueller, project manager for the Space Utilization Initiative at the University of Michigan, and Phil Rouble, facilities planning specialist at Algonquin College, offer their advice about making this shift.

Assessing Your Space Use

For example, Mueller recommends assessing your use of central campus space, such as the quad for a residential college:

  • Do the departments and functions currently using that space need to be located there in order to function optimally?
  • Would other departments benefit from that real estate?
  • Are you making the best use of that space to meet your institution's strategic priorities?

Many institutions still locate their administrative and HR functions centrally on campus. "You can move those functions to free up this prime location for critical student services or for the needs of a high-priority academic unit," Mueller advises.

To better steward your institution's finite physical resources, it's critical to know what your priorities are and have the courage to allocate your space accordingly. Mueller recommends identifying, as specifically as possible, the opportunity cost of not reallocating a given space -- "here is what we will lose if we don't do this." This will help drive decisions and will also help to make a clear case to stakeholders on campus who may be resistant to the change.

Mueller offers another scenario to illustrate how institutions can think more critically and more creatively about optimizing space use. Suppose that a large research institution has set a high priority on interdisciplinary work. "Look proactively for opportunities for shared research space," Mueller advises. For example, perhaps the college of engineering is requesting a biomedical engineering lab. An enterprising provost might ask if this function might be better served if it is located not in the engineering building but closer to the medical school, as part of a move to foster research partnerships and synergy between the two schools.

Your institution needs to be asking both short- and long-term questions:

  • How well does your current space utilization support your institution's and your departments' priorities?
  • What are the space challenges your departments face now, today?
  • What are the foreseeable challenges they will face later?
  • Who do those challenges effect?
  • Are there spaces on campus that are being used poorly or could be used more efficiently?
  • Are there things you can do differently with existing space to avoid having to add space? (shared space; repurposed space)

Changing the Culture

"It won't be enough just to reallocate the space," Mueller warns. "You have to change the culture, especially if you are fostering shared space." It is important to move the conversation away from territoriality and to ensure that the space management initiative on your campus is not locked within a silo that has little power to suggest (or resource) changes.

Rouble adds that to foster campus-wide stewardship of physical space, you need to:

  • Ensure that you have a transparent and up-to-date space inventory or database
  • Establish a space management committee, led by academic affairs but with cross-campus representation
  • Empower the space management committee to set clear targets for levels of space utilization
  • Assemble the deans or department heads periodically to review a "utilization zone analysis"

Led by the provost or a direct report to the provost, the space committee needs to include:

  • The deans of each school
  • Representatives of major functional areas in administration and support services
  • The registrar
  • Facilities planning

"Space is an enabler for success," Rouble remarks. "You need to have the space users at the table, you need to have facilities to bring the utilization data and note issues, and you need the registrar to collect timetabling data centrally, so that at any time you can produce a snapshot of your utilization -- and so that someone is ultimately accountable for ensuring space is timetabled efficiently."

After you have your space inventory current, up-to-date, and relatively accurate, task the space management committee with setting specific metrics for optimization of space use. Be certain to factor in more than just square footage, hours of utilization, and utilities costs, however. "Consider the programmatic objectives for the use of a given space or type of space," Rouble cautions. "Optimizing space is not just about scheduling it to capacity, but optimizing it to meet the objectives for the activities that space is used for."

Once there are clear benchmarks for space use, ensure that the space management committee is empowered to approve or decline space allocation requests. The submission of space requests to the space management committee is the major process change that needs to occur. "Your institution has to take the big-picture view that no one owns space," Rouble emphasizes, "and that space will be allocated to high-priority needs, based on real data. If you can bring to the table that philosophy plus definite metrics to measure what is considered ideal space utilization on your campus, then it is much easier to justify space reallocation when needed."


"Let's say we have one area in decline. Perhaps during the bust, computer science lost a lot of activity; now there are surplus labs. The departments have been sitting on that space, making the argument, "We'll get the students, it'll turn around." The space management committee needs to be empowered to say, "When enrollment picks up again, we'll make sure you have the space you need -- but right now we have several programs starting up that need space." This is a difficult but necessary decision, and a difficult but necessary conversation."
Phil Rouble, Algonquin College


For examples of how to set the table for these conversations, refer to our article "Changing the Culture of Space Allocation."

In This Issue

A Letter from Amit Mrig, President, Academic Impressions
Allocating Campus Space Strategically
Creating a Housing Master Plan
Taking a Proactive Approach to Energy Savings and Deferred Maintenance
Funding Facilities and Facilities Improvements in the Current Market