Quality vs. Quantity in Campus Space Planning

One of the most common client comments we hear in our campus planning practice is “there’s not enough space for ___”. While there may be legitimate deficits in certain types of campus space (more on that later), what we frequently discover though interviews and analysis is that it is not the amount of space that’s the problem, but instead that the existing spaces provide the wrong size / configuration / location / technology for their current use. While the total amount of teaching space on campus may satisfy the metrics established by the Coordinating Board or compare with peer institutions, space which fails to serve current needs cannot be utilized effectively. The perception of inadequate space is often compounded by room scheduling practices which result in inefficient use of existing rooms and conflicts over those spaces most in demand.

The last twenty years have seen a rapid evolution in pedagogy, with accompanying changes in requirements for learning space. Large capacity, stepped-floor lecture rooms have largely been supplanted on campus by smaller, more flexible flat-floor rooms which allow variable furniture configurations and facilitate student collaboration. The match between room capacity and class size is an important consideration as well: rooms too big for a class enrollment result in empty seats and inefficient space utilization; rooms too small for a typical size class may not be used at all. In today’s best education facilities, instruction spaces are supported by “break-out” spaces for informal learning and small group activities. Throughout the campus, students expect (and faculty demand) seamless, integrated technology which is consistent from room to room.

Two areas where we frequently do find space deficits compared with best practices are in faculty/staff offices and in student/enrollment services. On many campuses, the demand for office space for new hires has outstripped availability, resulting in cannibalizing other types of space for office uses and departments which are diffused and distributed, inhibiting staff collaboration and effective workflow. The pressure for office space is often most severe for adjunct faculty, who need space to meet with students, interact with their peers and full-time faculty, and work between classes. Student- and enrollment services are frequently another pressure point. Student success and academic support are critical to student retention in a competitive environment, and improving the user experience in expanded, enhanced and co-located student services is a priority for many universities.

Space is a valuable resource on today’s campus. New space is expensive – a single new 900 net square foot classroom represents approximately 1385 gross square feet, or approximately $485,000 at $350 per square foot – so institutions need to make the best use of existing space. Thoughtful analysis, assessment, programming and planning can help universities to be good stewards of that resource.

Jonathan Rollins is a Principal at GFF Architects.