Campus Officials Seek Building Efficiencies, One Square Foot at a Time

April 17, 2009

At Pennsylvania State University, they call Deborah L. Blythe the Space Queen. Her domain isn't exactly galactic, but it is vast and ever-expanding just the same.

She manages, assesses, and helps to distribute some 23 million square feet of classroom space, offices, meeting rooms, and laboratories on Penn State's 19 campuses. Now and then she grabs her digital camera, her keys to any room here on the flagship campus, and goes on a "walkabout" to look at a space that might be underutilized or outdated. Department heads, protective of every closet and cranny, sometimes tremble to see her coming. Once, she says, a department took a room that had been stacked with chairs and garbage and arranged it to look lived-in, complete with nameplates of nonexistent people. The ruse didn't work.

Space is a serious, expensive business on college campuses. There is a saying: "Academics will fight over money and kill over space."

Now, following a decade-long building boom, a crippling recession, a spike in energy prices (with further increases probable), and in some regions fierce competition for a shrinking pool of students, the stakes of managing campus space have never been higher. Students, it is often assumed, decide whether or not to attend a college on the basis of the quality and quantity of space. And many researchers expect to have their own offices or laboratories, or both.

But more buildings means higher utility bills and maintenance costs when colleges cannot afford them. Facilities are second only to personnel in campus expenditures. One gross square foot of construction can cost $300. Some experts say that on a five-million-square-foot campus, 1 percent of underutilized lab and office space equals about $3.7-million in wasted construction costs. And that's just the beginning. Maintenance, utilities, and renewal costs can compose about 70 percent of the lifetime costs of a building.

In tight times, administrators, lawmakers, and the public will increasingly ask: Are colleges using their spaces well? And how does one measure good utilization?

Certainly there are stereotypes about how colleges waste space — the campus that holds classes only from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Thursday, the professor who sits in his lavish, book-lined office a handful of hours a week. The issue is more complicated than that, say Ms. Blythe and many others who look at campus space. "There are not Taj Mahals of empty space sitting out there," she says. "Not at any of the institutions I know."

At the same time, however, colleges will have to slow the pace of building and maximize their use of space, requiring tough choices that many are already grappling with.

By the Numbers

Part of the challenge of analyzing space utilization is that there are no reliable numbers to track. The Society for College and University Planning collected data on campus-space inventories from more than 200 institutions from 2003 to 2007, but not on how those spaces were utilized. "The people on campuses don't really want anyone to know," says Phyllis Grummon, director of planning and education at SCUP.

One common assumption generally holds true: The more elite and wealthy the college, the more space it has per person. Those affluent colleges typically use their endowments to subsidize their operations — a tough situation today, when endowments are suffering and campuses are bigger than ever.

Colleges have grown tremendously, and that growth has outpaced growth in enrollment, say Philip Parsons and Gregory Janks, planners at the Boston architecture firm Sasaki Associates Inc. According to Mr. Parsons's back-of-the-envelope calculations, colleges had 1.3 billion assignable square feet in 1974 and a full-time-equivalent enrollment of 7.8 million students, equaling about 160 square feet per student. Today colleges' assignable square feet is estimated at about six billion and growing, and there are about 13.2 million full-time students. That works out to about 450 square feet per student.

"The space per student has in some cases tripled since the 1970s," Mr. Parsons says. "Colleges have been prodigal."

The campus arms race is a driving factor in this growth. "The mind-set that many institutions have had is that each institution needs to be complete onto itself, with one of every shiny toy that it can get, which means that there is often duplication of facilities on a regional basis," Mr. Janks says. "That leads to massive inefficiencies."

Colleges are certainly doing more research, and more-complicated research, than they ever have, which accounts for some of the growth. But, Mr. Parsons says, research budgets often do not justify the scale of the building.

"Every college wants a biotech research park," he says. "It's unsustainable, and in many cases those research parks aren't doing well."

Growth has happened in student amenities, too — student centers, recreation centers, libraries, residence halls. "State-funding capital has diminished, so the things that you can fund are things that can be supported by student-fee-financed bonds," Mr. Parsons says. In some cases, "fees are larger than tuition, which means that we are putting money into buildings that have nothing to do with the core educational mission — because we can."

Quality Versus Quantity

One can hear that kind of indictment at conferences like SCUP's, where architects and facilities managers discuss the campuses on which they work. But spend a day with a space planner like Penn State's Ms. Blythe, and the picture becomes more complicated.

In her office on the University Park campus, people can be seen updating campus maps or collecting satellite images of the system's campuses. The staff here maintains detailed inventories of all the space at Penn State, with much of that information kept on a homegrown database that can call up pictures, locations, and sizes of rooms, and even the occupants and the use. If a researcher calls requesting more space, Ms. Blythe grabs her camera and heads out to see what that researcher already has. Her job is to make recommendations to administrators, she says, but her goal is to provide people with the share of space they need.

A chart leaning on a wall gives some sense of how difficult that is. It lists the names of various researchers, the research dollars they bring in, and the square feet they occupy. Some universities might make snap judgments on a dollars-per-square-foot basis, but that's unfair, Ms. Blythe says. A business professor might be doing most of his work in a small office, while a chemistry or biology professor might need an expansive, sparsely populated lab to make major breakthroughs.

Her current challenge it to find space for two world-class malaria researchers whom the university has attracted.

"We are constantly looking at space because we don't have enough," she says. Penn State and the other Big Ten universities routinely share data about space on their campuses. Ms. Blythe says her university has among the least space per person compared with other Big Ten institutions because it has been traditionally very conservative in how it spends money. But Penn State is slowly moving up. (Ms. Blythe will not reveal how the other Big Ten universities compare.)

Space experts say administrators can see such benchmarking as a kind of ranking system — it's bad to be at the top, which might indicate extravagance, but worse to be at the bottom.

At Penn State, attitudes are no different. Ms. Blythe says administrators there anxiously await the Big Ten space report to find out where they land.

During a tour of the campus, she describes space management as a delicate balancing act: "You get into that line of where do efficiency and quality cross?"

To illustrate, she walks into a classroom that looks as if it was last updated 40 years ago. Wooden chairs with attached desks are bolted to the floor, placed so close together that people sitting there would rub elbows. When this classroom is refurbished, it may have half the seats it has now, with desks and soft chairs that can be moved around to accommodate group study and other teaching styles that are popular today. Is that wasting space? Ms. Blythe doesn't think so.

"It's flexible seating, it's teamwork, it's technology — and it all requires more space," she says. Teaching today is sometimes conducted in working laboratories, and that, too, eats up space. Even nutrition plays a role in the space equation, she points out. For better or worse, our well-fed bodies are bigger than they were 40 years ago, and thus require more room.

And yes, she says, class schedules have narrowed to the middle of the day, but that might also be a response to quality and campus culture. Research shows that college-age students soak up less information in early-morning hours, and Penn State's administration has pushed for more midday classes. Even the student newspaper called for the abolishing of 8 a.m. classes. (Ms. Blythe's own point of view is that students, who will have to show up for jobs in the real world someday, should just get used to waking up early.)

Curbing Growth

But classroom space is only a small part of the average campus — less than 5 percent on a Big Ten campus like Penn State. Office space and residence halls, criticized in recent years for their opulence, can each take up about 25 percent. Research space is often around 12 percent.

And in the past decade, colleges have built those spaces in a frenzy. Sightlines, a company that analyzes space at more than 200 colleges, recently determined that 14 percent of their buildings went up in the past 10 years. At research institutions, the proportion is even higher.

Many colleges are now saying that they will have to be more disciplined. The University of Michigan — at almost 35 million square feet, among the largest systems in the Big Ten — is one of them. From 1997 to 2007, the campus grew at a rate of about 2 percent a year (not counting the hospital or auxiliaries like residence halls), during a time when student population grew 5 percent and research grew 17 percent, says Phil Hanlon, vice provost for academic and budgetary affairs.

In recent years, as Michigan has been hit by a lengthy recession, the university lost $100-million in state appropriations and saw energy prices and construction costs spike, he says.

"One thing we did right away is we put in a more disciplined and transparent process for the construction and renovation of space," says Mr. Hanlon. Instead of departments telling administrators what they wanted to see built, "they now have to deliver quite a bit of information about what their needs are and show how they are currently utilizing their space."

One department recently came in, begging for more classrooms, he recalls. "They schedule six classrooms, and when we showed them the data, they were using those only about 20 percent of the time."

In the past two years, the university has managed to slow its growth to half a percent; each 1-percent reduction in the growth of square footage equals a savings of $4-million in operations costs. But some growth spurts are not included in that figure — like the university's recent acquisition of two million square feet of space at the complex of Pfizer Inc., the pharmaceutical company, in Ann Arbor. At $108-million, Mr. Hanlon calls the purchase a "phenomenal deal."

Kean University, a teaching-oriented institution in New Jersey, has also struggled with its use of space. Only 11 percent of its classrooms were utilized on Friday afternoons; on Saturdays, utilization was 8 percent, says Dawood Farahi, Kean's president. When he pushed to expand the times the university offered classes, some faculty members pushed back.

Eventually the university did expand its schedule. Mr. Farahi says it came down to economics. To cover its $16-million in operations costs amid state cuts, Kean would have had to bump up its tuition by almost 20 percent under the previous class schedule.

Now, with classroom use on Fridays at almost 50 percent and on Saturdays at 16 percent, the university has been able to accommodate more than 700 additional students without any new construction and with a tuition increase of less than 5 percent, Mr. Farahi says. As an incentive, Kean offers course discounts of up to 20 percent to students who enroll in Friday and Saturday classes.

Mr. Farahi says the university also looks for people who will rent empty space on the weekends.

The efforts keep a college education accessible, he says. A quarter of Kean's students are either first-generation Americans or the first in their families to go to college. "Opportunity becomes meaningless if it's unaffordable," the president says. "It makes it kind of incumbent upon us to be creative and innovative to use the resources that we have."

Sustainability Challenges

In the drive for better utilization of space, there are limitations. Office space, which can make up nearly a third of campus buildings, is the stealth consumer. Walk down a hall of faculty offices where the doors are all closed, and who can tell if they are occupied? Administrators at some colleges gingerly float ideas like office "hoteling" — the notion that no one would have a permanent office, but rather temporary, shared office space. That idea usually goes nowhere.

Campus growth is also still seen as an exciting sign of progress. Princeton University, for example, is planning its biggest building boom since the 1960s. It recently announced plans to add more than two million square feet in the next 10 years, an increase of 20 percent, during a period when student population is expected to grow 11 percent.

Sustainability is a central part of Princeton's plan. But even if the university can afford to build and maintain the space, the growth will probably foil its carbon-emissions goal: to return to the 1990 level by 2020.

Princeton has not signed the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment, a pledge to work toward climate neutrality in terms of greenhouse-gas emissions, but some colleges that are planning major growth have signed. One of them, the State University of New York at Buffalo, recently announced a plan to add or renovate some seven million square feet in the next 20 years. Every new building will add to the university emissions.

"The biggest challenge that all the institutions that have signed the Presidents Climate Commitment face is growth in square footage," says Mr. Parsons, the space-planner at Sasaki. "If they can't contain that, they are going to find it impossible to meet the Presidents Climate Commitment."

Some colleges, for reasons either economic or environmental, are considering a halt to their growth. Administrators at the University of Minnesota, which has signed the climate commitment, are just starting to discuss a no-net-growth policy: If the university builds something new, something else has to come down. That could be a difficult step to take on a campus with lots of historic buildings. And even if such a policy gained traction at Minnesota, it may have to come after the university puts up a new football stadium, a biosciences building, a center for magnetic-resonance research, and other projects already in the pipeline.

Mr. Parsons says he has discussed a no-net-growth policy with some of his clients, who have been receptive at least in theory. "It might be easy as a generalized rule but harder when it comes down to specifics," he says.

Penn State is not considering a no-net-growth policy, but Ms. Blythe says there are plenty of opportunities to get better space and efficiency without adding square footage. During the University Park tour, she points to buildings that, in her raspy, Southern accent, she refers to as "get-'er-done buildings" — 1960s and 70s facilities that were poorly designed and hastily built, the sort that litter every American campus.

"When I first moved here, I thought this was an abandoned elementary school," she says, pointing to one such structure. It is actually a research building. She would like to see it torn down and something more efficient built in its place.

"It doesn't always mean that you are going to end up with more space," she says. "It means that you are going to end up with better space."


The amount of space and the way it is divided vary widely from institution to institution. Here is a rough estimate of how space is divided at big, public research institutions. The example below does not count hospital space. Section: Money & Management Volume 55, Issue 32, Page A1