3 higher education space-planning trends to watch

In almost all cases, higher ed space-planning teams are being asked to connect their budgets to the student experience, and this means rethinking traditional space allocation.
Julie Johnson Roberts

Directors of Facilities and Operations at higher educational institutes who are tasked with space planning post-pandemic find themselves in an impossible place.

With limited or no surge space, and a common practice of space hoarding—various departments staking out claims on labs or buildings—Space Planners can often find themselves perched precariously at the center of space disputes.

At the same time, they must consider sustainability at every turn, and a new focus on how collaborative, high-tech spaces are an essential part of the modern student experience.

Continuous space utilization data collection

University of Missouri’s Director of Space Planning Gerald Morgan spoke about the plan to cut one million square feet of space at a conference this past February for higher ed facilities leaders. Morgan has been working in the Space Planning division for 30 years but the pandemic’s impact on enrollment has leaders across academia feeling vulnerable and concerned about the cost of keeping and restoring older properties.

To achieve the one-million-square-foot divestment goal, Morgan and the team at Missouri switched to an allocation model where each academic unit paid for its own space as opposed to a pool of general operations funding.

Even with that change, something was missing: data. The university collected utilization inventory once every three years but as they found out, clicker studies and other one-time occupancy analytics monitoring become outdated quickly, are high in spend and lack historical data overlays for comparison purposes.

They moved to a continuous data model, a trend mirrored across an array of industries with the record-breaking adoption of the work-from-anywhere culture. This transition will help with transparency, efficiency, and preventative maintenance.

The evolving, flexible workforce

Stanford’s Niraj Dangoria, Associate Dean of Facilities Planning and Management for the School of Medicine, has been running a pilot program for redesigning the school’s campus space allocation. Dangoria’s renovations hinge on a strategy that moves the campus from “assigned space model” seating with individual cubicles and offices to “free address models,” similar in nature to hot desks from the corporate world.

Also in line with corporate office trends is the desire to continue to support a hybrid work environment, necessitating transparency and collaboration between HR departments and facilities management teams. Dangoria’s initial employee survey showed an appetite for hybrid and flexible work models in knowledge-based roles, specifically those roles which do not require community engagement.

And it’s not just Stanford and large universities that are looking at space reallocation.

At Lesley University, 10 historic homes are for sale to fund capital improvements. The “Cambridge Connection” portfolio is for sale in order to fund capital improvements – and the properties are no longer suited to Lesley’s programmatic needs.

A recent Education Advisory Board (EAB) podcast points to a survey of chief human resource officers in which 50% of the respondents were implementing, or had already implemented long-term remote work policies.

While some leaders are hesitant to implement a wide-reaching work-from-anywhere policy on campus due to the potential negative impact on the student experience, the need for hybrid and remote policies is becoming an important part of employee retention strategies.

Classroom redesign around the student, not the instructor

Think back to any movie centered around the college experience and you’ll envision a single teacher in front of a large lecture hall. Emerging studies suggest traditional lecture halls are not conducive to discussion among students and ignore the learning process and learners’ unique needs.

Strategic Space Planners or campus space planning teams are charged with creating spaces for project-based learning, where students can collaborate more easily. Planners looking towards the future of education see lines blurring between indoor and outdoor classroom types, more accessible technology, and greater flexibility mirroring big business models like Google and Apple.

In almost all cases, higher ed space planning teams are being asked to connect their budgets to the student experience, and this means rethinking traditional space allocation. Single-purpose buildings are considered behind the times, and campus space planners are tasked with creating multi-purpose, indoor/outdoor options that can serve as a gateway or connection to the world outside the smaller college campus.

These gateway projects or landmark buildings aren’t new, but a heightened understanding and urgency around space planning and student experience have forced them to center stage—with space planners standing in the spotlight.

Julie Johnson Roberts is co-founder & CEO of Armored Things, an industry leader in Smart Space Planning. The Boston-based startup leverages AI to provide occupancy and space utilization data to higher education and corporate campuses around the globe. Prior to founding Armored Things, Roberts focused on cybersecurity and the Internet of Things at Qualcomm. She holds degrees from the University of Pennsylvania, Wharton, and Harvard Business School.  

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