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How colleges manage inner space

Flexible design, more efficient classroom usage, and integrated planning all help institutions get the most out of interior building space
University Business, April 2018
  • FLEXIBLE LABS—UMass Amherst employs standardization and modularization in its Institute of Applied Sciences, with easily movable furniture and rolling equipment, so multiple research teams can use the same space.
  • FLEXIBLE LABS—UMass Amherst employs standardization and modularization in its Institute of Applied Sciences, with easily movable furniture and rolling equipment, so multiple research teams can use the same space.
  • FLEX SPACE—The University of Michigan-Dearborn has created a prototype flexible classroom with easily movable furniture and collaborative areas to see what works best to accommodate new teaching pedagogy.

From 2007 to 2016, higher ed campuses grew by more than 10 percent in building space, outpacing the 8 percent growth in enrollment during the same period, according to the most recent “State of Facilities in Higher Education” report from Sightlines. It is the fourth consecutive year of construction outpacing enrollment growth.

Much of this new square footage comes in the form of academic buildings and research labs, primarily built to attract students and researchers—and that’s a risky strategy, says Mark Schiff, president of Sightlines, a facilities planning firm.

The funding to support new space has not grown at the same rate, requiring institutions to improve efficiency, flexibility and utilization to maximize return on investment.


Online exclusive: Providers comment on what aspects of managing space higher ed should be considering (but may not be)


“Higher ed administrators are being told they have to build new space to accommodate all these new programs, when in fact, so much of the space they have is underutilized,” says Schiff. “The focus needs to be more on how that space gets changed to accommodate the needs of these evolving programs.”

Schiff advocates a no-net-new space approach. “If enrollment is flat and you’re adding space, there is also space that can and should be taken offline at the same time,” he says.

By shutting down an older building when adding a new one, an institution removes potential deferred maintenance, adds a newer building that can be more highly utilized and keeps operating costs relatively flat.

Improving space utilization is a goal on every campus, with data analysis tools and software key to many efforts. Ultimately, there are different cases for different spaces.

4 to-do’s for space planning

When planning new space, Sightlines recommends:

1. Investing with space utilization in mind—Target investments to improve space efficiency.

2. Coordinating to create investment “win-wins”—Collaborate between departments to increase success.

3. Maximizing the impact of each investment—Make sure that any planning considers wider campus goals.

4. Planning for where not to spend future capital—Recognize situations where the institution would be throwing good money after bad (if a building is no longer viable and not worthy of renovation).

Flexible future

To address evolving pedagogy, University of Michigan-Dearborn has a prototype flexible classroom that includes the latest ed tech and a half-dozen collaborative work areas.

The room also allows campus planners to assess how much space is actually needed for new methods of instruction, says Director of Facilities Planning Kate Pepin, who has seen the campus double in size during her 20-year tenure.

“A flexible classroom layout requires approximately 45 square feet per student, while fixed seating can be accommodated with 15 to 20 square feet per student.”

A goal for future expansions is finding the right mix of standard and flexible classrooms. The university’s new physical science building has six recitation rooms featuring moveable furniture, extra writing surfaces and standardized, easy-to-use instructional tech so a physics professor can teach just as comfortably in a building designated for business.

Overall the institution is moving toward fewer lecture halls and more classrooms with strip tables and chairs, as opposed to the traditional table armchair. “We’re conscious of which spaces are used more frequently and how we can accommodate that to the best degree possible while not reducing the number of classrooms or seats,” says Pepin.

Getting more out of more

Northwestern University—hemmed in by the city of Evanston, Illinois, and Lake Michigan—faces limited expansion opportunities. As such, officials try to get the most out of existing facilities, says Carrie West, associate director of facilities planning.

“We want our spaces to be ‘and’ kinds of spaces,” says West. “As in, ‘This space functions as this, and can also function as that.’ ” For instance, the recently renovated Mudd Library includes an open classroom area with flexible seating for daytime classes that is also available at night as study space. Other rooms can host special events.

West uses a database to track building and room usage—including occupancy, performance improvement and course information—at the university’s Evanston and downtown Chicago campuses.

“We’re really trying to get a much more granular level of data tracking,” she says. “We use the information to plan for new buildings, innovations and needs of our campus users.”

The university has been working to standardize all departmental office space. For example, during recent renovations on Kresge Hall, the 90,000-square-foot home for arts and humanities, standard space guidelines—or the equivalent square footage—were set.

The equivalent option allows departments to design their own areas, such as creating open lounge seating for group work, while adhering to the allotted amount.

The University of Michigan-Dearborn is also standardizing offices, which, as Pepin explains, involves first evaluating a department’s current spatial resources.

“We’re doing that for one department right now, who thought they could use more space,” she says. “As we’ve gone through the process, we’ve realized that they already have significantly more than we would allocate if we were to build new space for them.”

Pepin has been walking through the department with administrators from that area to discuss how they are utilizing the space and how it can be managed better in another way.

Back to the lab

UMass Amherst is a tier-one research university, with nearly 2 million square feet dedicated to STEM-related research. As at many institutions, lab space is the most expensive to keep up and the demand is growing—even though enrollment has been flat, says Thomas Huf, senior program manager for facilities programming and planning.

When assessing space-related projects, Huf relies on a database that includes GIS information for rooms and buildings. An online self-reporting tool, developed in-house, allows university staff to easily update the data.

“When we’re looking at a new renovation project for what we have or what we need, our information is already more than 90 percent accurate,” says Huf, “as opposed to in the past, where someone may have retired and space was going unused and we didn’t know about it at all.”

The institution recently did a wholesale shuffle of its Institute for Applied Sciences because some research teams had grown while others had shrunk. Standardization and modularization became the goals.

“The modular design of the building made it easy to shuffle around 12 to 14 research groups, or about 150 researchers, to better fill the building,” says Huf. Instruments and technology can be easily moved, and in some cases equipment is just rolled from one room to another.

With help from the registrar, class scheduling is also being optimized. The emphasis is on making sure classrooms and labs operate closer to capacity and accommodate multiple departments.

During a recent renovation of Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine, attention was focused on creating modular research space and designing flexible labs. “Having the ability to create centralized resources that all the researchers can use is something we’re continually trying to do,” says West.

Instead of creating multiple versions of the same lab, similar researchers were grouped together—researchers who use high-intensity wet labs or who engage in low-vibration research share work space, for example. Such flexibility, particularly when not knowing whether a research project will go forward, provides options for campus planners.

‘Space is just not infinite’

The biggest key to managing campus space is “having the administrative people, the academics people and the facilities people all come together to plan together,” says Huf. Everyone needs to be in the room to discuss utilization, needs and how to use space more efficiently.

Michigan-Dearborn’s registrar gets involved closely in any classroom update project, Pepin says.

Analyzing scheduling data can increase classroom usage—such as by making sure 15-student courses are not being held in 60-seat classrooms—and the university avoided having to construct an additional classroom building, which could have cost $20 million to $30 million.

“It was a good way to demonstrate how if you use the space more appropriately, you can avoid additional costs,” she says.

Ultimately, optimizing campus space boils down to increased planning, better analysis and more open communication. “We have become much more thoughtful about how we use our campus sites that are available, and how we renovate those existing ones,” West says. “Because space is just not infinite.”


Ray Bendici is deputy editor of UB.