Strategic Space Utilization Plans: Save Money, Time in Planning

Time is money, the old saying goes. But that truism has a corollary that’s just as important for colleges and universities trying to stay competitive in a highly competitive market: space is money.

That’s why a strategic space utilization plan is a wise investment. An institution can avoid costly mistakes by knowing exactly what its existing space is, assessing future needs, and understanding how existing facilities can best be modified to meet those needs.

The strategic space utilization plan is a new concept that provides institutions with a very useful tool for planning. It can also uncover situations that need attention, such as ADA accessibility shortfalls and potential life-safety, fire alarm code, and campus security issues.

Strategic thinking is key to developing a good space utilization plan. Institutions must look at their available square footage and assess anticipated growth in enrollment and changes in curriculum while considering renovations of existing buildings.

The process begins with a facility condition assessment: a detailed analysis of the condition of existing buildings where we look at the type and amount of space in the school’s inventory and what would be required to bring it up to the best and highest use. With a picture of the quality and quantity of the space, we then overlay some master planning and prepare a space need program that determines which spaces can be renovated most efficiently and where new construction might be needed.

Sometimes colleges and universities build new facilities and move whole departments out of buildings without knowing what they’re going to do with the vacated space. That’s why we advise taking a campuswide view, looking at all spaces to determine the best use.

Sometimes converting a space to a new use is in order. For example, at Fontbonne University in St. Louis, our space utilization study determined the school’s small theatre was not being used. We renovated the building and added a second floor, doubling the usable space. The renovation allowed for expansion of departments housed in an adjacent building. We also set up the upper floor for future changes by creating an infrastructure to support renovation. Then we gave the school a long-range plan on how to renovate its buildings.

To prepare for the assessment, we gather background information from faculty and staff, examine drawings associated with the building, obtain a detailed space listing, and visually inspect all existing buildings.

To get an accurate snapshot of existing buildings and future needs, we gather information from the registrar on the actual scheduling of classrooms and look at optimizing class scheduling periods and class sizes. With that information in hand, we walk through the spaces, interview department representatives and other stakeholders about their space needs, and estimate the needs for each department to determine changes that make the most sense.

We figure out the domino effect of changes — that is, what happens to vacated spaces when a department moves — to develop a plan with a phasing diagram. When we renovated Classic Hall at Hanover College in Hanover, IN, for example, moving faculty into the renovation freed up space in Science Hall. It’s like a big 3D chessboard because we’re dealing with multiple buildings with multiple floors in each plan.

When we prepared a space utilization plan for St. Louis-based Washington University’s College of Arts and Science (one of the biggest schools on campus), they learned they were using 48 buildings and had faculty members in buildings they didn’t know they occupied. The diagrams we drew up helped them determine where to place departments to create synergy and encourage collaboration.

In a space utilization plan, we examine the structural system of each building, looking at infrastructure such as technology, networking, heating, ventilation, air conditioning, and electrical systems, and create conceptual cost estimates projecting future work for budgeting purposes. We also develop a timeline showing when these projects could be developed for scheduled phasing. A 5- to 20-year timeline shows how facilities can be renovated and how renovated space can be filled.

It’s important, however, to differentiate between a campus master plan and a strategic space utilization plan. A master plan addresses similar components, but also focuses on property acquisition, landscaping, and hardscaping. The strategic space utilization plan focuses on what’s inside the building and how to better utilize that space. Like a master plan, the space utilization plan needs reexamination every few years to determine if adjustments are needed.

Chris Chivetta, PE, LEED-AP, is president and managing principal of Hastings & Chivetta Architects, Inc. in St. Louis. The firm focuses on higher education projects, primarily athletics and recreation, sciences and academics, and student life. He can be reached at [email protected] or 314/863.5717.