5 Keys to Space Management on College Campuses

Colleges and universities have always treated learning environments – classrooms, lecture halls, laboratories, etc. – as crucial ingredients in the academic experience they create for students, faculty and researchers. For this reason, it's important for those physical learning environments to be well maintained, flexible enough to accommodate changes in enrollment and able to evolve to support new instructional needs.

In the past, to meet the repair needs and the changing programmatic needs for space, colleges often had the opportunity to "grow their way" out of the facilities problem by increasing enrollments that raised tuition revenues and debt capacity or by obtaining more funding from their state governments. Unfortunately, those options aren't really there anymore. Institutional budgets are under the dual pressures of rising operating costs (e.g., people, benefits, utilities, etc.) and decreasing capital funding, which was cut dramatically in the years following the 2008 great recession.

The tension this raises for higher ed. executives is to figure out how to optimize fixed capital resources in a way that better utilizes space in alignment with program needs. The specific challenge is to define long-term capital budgets that not only make sure buildings are safe, but are also reliably maintained and functional for evolving living and learning pedagogy. One key opportunity to develop a more effective capital plan is to define space management policies that release hidden value from the buildings already on your balance sheets.

There are five keys to effective space management on college campuses:

1. Improve space utilization

Every college campus has spaces that are "general use" (classrooms that can be used for multiple academic purposes) and other space that is "owned space" (classrooms, seminar spaces, laboratories that are controlled by departments). Those department-controlled spaces are seldom tracked and often have much lower utilization – especially during peak space demand periods (9:00 a.m. – noon). So an easy win here is for colleges to implement more holistic policies that releases "owned" space for general assignment, especially during peak periods. In addition, colleges can significantly improve space utilization by right-sizing their classroom designs to better align with the enrollment realities on a campus – for example, by renovating two large rooms into three rooms that align closer to class size.

2. Increase the scale of campus buildings

Our database shows that it is between 20 to 30 percent less expensive to maintain one 100,000 square-foot building than it is to maintain a group of 10,000 square-foot buildings. The point is that it's advisable to focus on the maintenance of fewer buildings with larger footprints in order to increase economies of scale. This is particularly key for master planning – build the larger building that supports modern program but remove the smaller, older, ineffective spaces.

3. Optimize the mix and flexibility of space

We often find that the facility costs are most challenging for campuses with a heavy concentration of disciplines that require inflexible space – for example, Arts and Music spaces are equipment-intensive and are simply not very easily adapted for other uses – versus campuses that have more flexible academic instruction environments. We believe strategic plans need to be informed by the economic realities of the mix of space so that plans are defined that are both programmatically successful and affordable.

4. Coordination of repairs and modernization

There is a simple motto that we preach to college executives: don't pay for repairs twice. Too many universities sink a significant amount of money into building repairs, only to turn around a few years later and renovate the same space. Basically, costs are compounded and capital is wasted. Coordinating life-cycle repairs with modernization plans saves capital. This often is challenging as different organizations manage these decisions, but the benefits are large. After all, would you go invest in a new set of tires and an engine overhaul on your car, then turn around and trade-in that car for a new one the next week? Coordinate repairs and modernization investments so that you never pay twice.

5. Addition by Removal

Finally, have a clear strategy that targets facilities with large backlogs of needs. For instance, it may be cheaper to replace a facility than to repair/modernize the old space; despite the money spent, the campus is still left with a previous generation design that is less efficient and effective for today's programs. So for the building that has huge repair problems, its removal eliminates the capital backlog and lowers operating costs that are likely disproportionately greater than the rest of the campus. Regardless of other emotional considerations, the prudent course of action is probably to flag that building as a candidate for removal. Therefore, target those transitional buildings and define a reserve to manage the failure issues until the disposition of the building occurs. Not only will such a strategy improve space management, it conserves capital and tends to build constituency support for change on campus.


If your campus has unlimited financial resources, then you may not need to bother with a space management assessment. But for most higher ed. executives, this is not a luxury you can afford.

Our database with reported metrics from more than 400 campuses in North America shows that campuses are now just seeing the rebound of capital spending to the pre-recession levels (seven years ago!). Despite the welcome gains, the investments for repairs and maintenance remain far below the capital need that has grown in size and urgency. So as the capital problem grows, buildings continue to age and campuses need more effective plans to create greater impact for their finite resources. Sound space management policies help to drive policies that make the problem "smaller" and create greater impact for each dollar spent.

Effective space management can be a powerful way for college executives to navigate their way through these challenging times. By getting more out of the space you have now, your campus can better pursue its academic mission and achieve its strategic goals.

About the Authors
David Kadamus ([email protected]) is founder and executive chairman, and Jay Pearlman ([email protected]) is associate vice president, of Sightlines, a leader in helping academic institutions better manage their facilities and capital investment strategies. For more information, please go to www.sightlines.com.