Seeing Success in Space Optimization

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In a July 2012 survey of facilities managers in higher education, Academic Impressions found that 73% of facilities managers cite optimizing space utilization as either "high priority" or "highest priority" among initiatives for the next year. When asked about challenges faced in achieving this, facilities managers expressed concern over buy-in, both from senior leadership (for prioritizing space needs) and from the rest of the campus (in implementing a space utilization initiative).

It is no surprise that space use is often a political issue on college campuses, with many departments, both academic and administrative, vying for protection of "their" space. If a space optimization effort is to be successful, it will need both senior leadership and a commitment across the campus to shift the conversation from departmental ownership of space to institutional ownership of space.

Leadership Buy-in

For advice, we turned to a panel of experts that included Kambiz Khalili, the assistant vice chancellor for student affairs and the executive director of housing and dining services at the University of Colorado Boulder; Dan King, the assistant vice president for facilities at Auburn University; and Kathie Shafer, vice president for operations at Messiah College.

This panel stressed that the two officials that absolutely have to be on board in order for a space optimization initiative to succeed are the provost and the chief financial officer. If you are starting from the ground up and need to make the case to these senior leaders, our panel suggests:

  • Making the case to the provost: Start with asking the provost where the academic side of the house feels a pinch in space use. Identify problems that the provost agrees are pressing, and begin with brainstorming solutions for those. With each problem solved, you build a deeper partnership.
  • Making the case to the CFO: Identify examples of especially wasteful space use and present these in a slideshow or concept paper, perhaps a "10 Most Under-Used Spaces on Campus." Then quantify what the same amount of space would cost to construct. Show the dollar cost of poor space management practices.

Changing the Culture

Once there is a commitment by the chief academic officer and chief financial officer to allow strategic priorities to drive space allocation, the CAO and the CFO need to establish a formal, structured process by which departments on campus can raise their space needs and by which these needs can be evaluated and addressed by the provost, the chief financial officer, or both in tandem. Set realistic expectations and clear criteria by which space requests will be prioritized.

"In the absence of a defined space allocation process, there is often a lack of consistency or transparency in how decisions get made.  This can contribute to a more competitive or siloed approach to an institution's physical space."
Frances Mueller, Assistant Vice Provost for Academic and Budgetary Affairs, U of Michigan

Read our article "Changing the Culture of Space Allocation" for more advice on:

  • Establishing a space management committee, led by academic affairs but with cross-campus representation
  • Empowering the space management committee to set clear targets for levels of space utilization
  • Assembling the deans or department heads periodically to review a "utilization zone analysis," as an exercise in securing buy-in for space optimization

Creative Ways to Optimize Classroom Space

We also learned in our survey that 61% of facilities managers cite shifting needs for classroom space as the primary driver behind efforts at space optimization. Given that finding, we asked our panel for examples of low-cost ways to optimize classroom space.

Among their suggestions:

  • Develop a five-year plan for replacing classroom furniture to provide for flexible space use. "In this case, you are not adding space," Shafer remarks, "so much as making current space both functional and multi-purposed."
  • Hold conversations with faculty about how they teach, recognizing that how they teach can drive where they teach. For example, some science faculty may spend most of their class hours teaching in the lab, and spend very little time in the actual classroom. If you find that this is a trend, consider converting the lab into a teaching lab. This frees up under-utilized space, and the modifications needed to the lab space are likely to cost much less than an addition to the building to hold more classrooms.
  • Survey academic departments on what specific types of space are most needed. Does a particular department need more seminar rooms? Or larger, open spaces with flexible, movable furniture and partitions? If you can chart out the types of space needed and compare that with an inventory of current classroom space, you can spot the areas where space is currently under-used or misused.
  • Consider residential academic programs, with learning spaces or classroom space within your residential facilities. The University of Colorado Boulder has found that offering 15% of core classes for freshmen in the residence halls frees us classroom space elsewhere on campus, permitting increased enrollment without requiring added classroom space. The institution has also found that evening utilization of residence hall classrooms is popular with students, allowing for optimized use of those spaces.