Changing the Culture of Space Allocation

As more postsecondary institutions undertake space management initiatives, those tasked with such initiatives are finding that they face challenges not just in inventorying and benchmarking space utilization, but in grappling with a siloed campus culture and attitudes of ownership toward space. Yet if institutions are going to meet increasing and competing demands for more space to enable more teaching and more research, it will be critical for academic and administrative leaders to treat campus space as a strategic asset, and for space management to cease to be an isolated function within facilities services and be seen as a shared responsibility across the institution.

"We need to make it clear that space is not owned by a department; it is allocated to a need or an activity, to contribute to that activity's success. We need to set the expectation that as activities shift in priority, space reallocation will be necessary."
Phil Rouble, Algonquin College


When we interviewed Frances Mueller, the University of Michigan's assistant vice provost for academic and budgetary affairs and recently the project manager of the institution's Space Utilization Initiative, early this year, she stressed the need to promote a collective commitment to stewardship of the campus' physical resources and the importance of a clearly defined space allocation process to support that commitment.

"In the absence of a defined process for space allocation, you risk a lack of consistency in how decisions get made, and a lack of transparency. ... This fosters an increasingly siloed, competitive approach to the institution's physical space."
Frances Mueller, U of Michigan

To learn more about what a proactive space allocation process might entail -- and how it might empower culture change -- we recently interviewed Phil Rouble, facilities planning specialist at Algonquin College, who offers a strategic look at the issue from a small-college perspective.

Steps to an Effective Approach

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"


Key players in space management efforts at the University of Michigan, Auburn University, and Michigan Technological University will walk you through the steps to consider when implementing a space database, effective strategies for generating buy-in and shifting the culture across campus, and the basics of space guidelines and policies.

Establishing the Space Committee

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."

Once 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."


Determining your gross square footage (GSF) per enrollment can help you set an overall goal for optimizing space use. Rouble cautions that GSF is difficult to define (it requires clarity on how your institution will define an enrolled student) and is even more difficult to benchmark. For example, research institutions necessarily will have a higher GSF ratio (because of the greater amount of research and lab space on campus), as will satellite campuses (because of the redundancies required to operate them). However, even though GSF is not a definitive measure, it can be a useful first indicator of how densely you are using -- or not using -- your facilities space.

Algonquin College has reduced its GSF per enrolled student to around 60 after an aggressive space management initiative, but many institutions have a GSF in the hundreds. "The more that number creeps up," Rouble warns, "the more difficult it is to afford new facilities. If we had maintained the GSF density we'd seen in 1990, our campus would now be two-and-a-half times larger than it is -- and correspondingly more expensive, with a correspondingly greater carbon footprint. The buildings with the least cost and the least environmental impact are those that you never build."


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


Citing both the need for more accountability and the power of peer pressure, Rouble also recommends publishing utilization reports from all departments, transparently. "If one researcher has three large offices, and another has one small office, peer pressure may go a long way toward helping to balance the utilization," Rouble suggests. "But you also need to give people a chance to make the case for why they are utilizing space a given way."


"A dean may tell you that the professor with three offices is one of that school's star researchers, and those resources are needed in order to retain them. Make that explicit. Shed some light on it, let cooler heads prevail, and cultivate the awareness that if there is an exception, it's intentional and there is a clear and transparent reason for it."
Phil Rouble, Algonquin College

An Exercise in Raising Awareness and Buy-in

One key to Algonquin College's approach is that its space management committee treats a meeting with the academic deans as not only a resource-balancing exercise but an awareness-gathering exercise. First, the space management committee conducts a periodic "utilization zone analysis," sorting spaces by their level of utilization. If the utilization is on target, the space is labeled green; if utilization is at 50 percent of the target, the space is labeled yellow. If utilization is less than 50 percent, it's labeled red.

This enables the committee to color-code floor plans. If you are in the position of making the case for space management, Rouble recommends holding a workshop focused on these plans. "Invite all the deans and directors," Rouble suggests. "Then wallpaper the meeting space with color-coded floor plans for your facilities. Talk through the implications of hoarding versus sharing space."

This can be a powerful visual tool that helps your deans and directors both grasp the significance of space management and begin brainstorming how to resolve space allocation quandaries. Rouble suggests establishing annual meetings with individual deans and their department chairs to look through their space again, and to discuss how to handle the "red" spaces.

The Message Your Campus Needs to Hear

Rouble offers this additional comment on framing the conversation in terms that invite academic and administrative leaders to consider the issue from an institutional, rather than departmental, perspective:

"When strategically managing a resource like space, communicate that it's not about making everyone's space too small. It's about rightsizing, and ensuring that resources that would otherwise have gone into empty space now go back into new faculty, new equipment, and more accessible/affordable education for students."
Phil Rouble, Algonquin College


In other words, make sure that conversations about space allocation at your campus start with the institution's mission and student needs, rather than starting with departmental needs.