You are here

Do More, Build Less

Space utilization as a tool that supports sustainability
University Business, Jul 2011

In higher education, sustainability and green design have moved beyond buzzwords to become real practice. Programs such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment, and the College Sustainability Report Card are commonplace measures of an institution’s commitment to sustainability.

Using space wisely is a central, if often overlooked, sustainable practice available to any higher ed institution. The ways a college uses its space are as critical an aspect of sustainable practice as LEED certification of new buildings, energy-efficient heating and cooling systems, co-generation, or geothermal wells. A college that uses its space as efficiently as possible is one that does not build new buildings, however green, unless its mission and programs absolutely require them. Instead, it reinvests in its existing facilities and energizes its community through the active use of all spaces.

Space utilization as a sustainable strategy may be relatively new to higher education leaders, but its relevance as sound management practice is not. More than 50 years ago, John Dale Russell and James Doi’s seminal Manual for Studies of Space Utilization in Colleges and Universities (American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, 1957) contains recommendations regarding space utilization that still apply today, in terms of sound management of an institution’s core capital assets. Their call that “any addition to the physical plant should be made only after careful study indicates no space available within existing facilities to house adequately the services for which the addition is proposed” could have been written today.

How do you manage space in a sustainable fashion? Start by making space utilization an institutional priority.

This means that senior leaders need to understand the issues around space management and be supportive of space management policies. If that fails, you need a champion like the head of facilities or the vice president of finance.

While sustainable policies and practices are becoming a mainstay for U.S. colleges and universities, take it one step further and add a statement to the sustainability policy regarding space utilization. Not only will it foster positive practice, but it will be noticed: Organizations such as the Sustainable Endowments Institute consider space utilization as a factor when reviewing colleges’ “green building” ratings. And yes, it would be great if LEED and other independent sustainable assessment organizations took efficient space management into account as part of their review.

No one said it would be fun, but it’s an important habit to develop. Measuring and managing space means collecting and updating (at least yearly) basic space inventory data: building name, room number (yes, that means rooms need to be numbered), department, space type (based on NCES codes), and square feet. To be fair, if you’re going to do a campus master plan, you’re going to need this data anyway. Supplement the inventory with space management policies that set explicit targets for classrooms, teaching labs, offices, conference rooms, and research space, among others.

Make this stick by enforcing these policies through a committee authorized by senior leadership to make space allocation decisions. Review and evaluate space allocation against the institution’s strategic and academic plans.

Why do institutions make classrooms and teaching labs their primary focus when it comes to space management? While they may occupy a relatively small percentage of the total campus inventory, the factors that lead to low utilization are often ones that most affect student learning and satisfaction.

That space management is a balancing act is something any registrar can tell you. The tendency for courses to be taught primarily between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday is an issue not only because classrooms sit empty many hours of the week, but also because it creates scheduling conflicts for students. The mismatch between the size of course sections and the available rooms creates less than ideal conditions for learning. Stretching the course schedule more evenly throughout the day and week, and balancing the classroom pool to class enrollments can often result in found space that can be repurposed to meet other pressing needs as well as reducing scheduling conflicts and allowing classroom investments to be focused. If sustainability doesn’t make enough of a case for you, perhaps saving the registrar’s sanity will.

Space management can have big implications for faculty and student behavior and campus culture. You’ll be hard put to find faculty who are eager to teach at 8 a.m., just as many students aren’t eager to take classes that early. But since many schools have an afternoon schedule constrained by time set aside for athletics and other extra-curricular activities, something will have to give.

What incentives can you offer to make the prospect more appealing? While persuading students of the value of 8 a.m. classes may be somewhat quixotic, there may be opportunities to reach out to faculty. Freeing up space by making better use of your schedule may give you the opportunity to address unmet office, research, or departmental space needs.

Don’t forget to think beyond the classroom. Sustainable space management should also focus on the utilization of offices and research space. These are the areas where policy and a space management structure can result in the highest and best use of space, freeing up room for things like new programs and faculty hires. Even skeptics can find a win-win here.

Where’s the payback in space management? The reward comes in two shades of green. By using space effectively, you can eliminate the environmental impact of new construction with significant financial savings as a result.

In the current economic climate, neither buildings nor the money to pay for them are growing on trees, however sustainable a prospect that might be. The dollar amount will vary from school to school, but the figures are significant. I can cite a very real recent example of one college that freed up 15,000 square feet by increasing utilization. The cost of new construction of that much space could range from $4 million for an office and classroom building to $7 million for science space. Add to that the operating costs?perhaps another $300 to $500 a square foot over 10 years?and pretty soon you’re talking real money.

Look for opportunities to seize the day--or the space. This can come in the form of backfill planning in the wake of new construction, as old space is repurposed and reprogrammed. It can come in the preparation work ahead of a campus master plan or master plan update, which relies on inventory data.

Start by asking yourself a few questions. How are we using our space? Can we use it more efficiently? Do we really need to build? Can we invest that money into retrofitting existing buildings? Can we manage our space with policies that are transparent and equitable?

Efficient space utilization--and the impact of executing this sustainable strategy--begins when you start to answer these questions.

Annie Newman is an associate principal at Shepley Bulfinch, a national design practice providing the education, healthcare, science, corporate, and public markets with architecture, planning, and interior design.