Maximizing Space Utilization

Measuring, Allocating, and Incentivizing Efficient Use of Facilities

Topics: Academic Affairs, Deferred Maintenance, Facilities and Operations, Administration and Finance, Energy Management and Sustainability, Space Utilization, Capital Planning, Budgeting, Research Parks, Research Enterprise, Interdisciplinary Research

The Barriers to Improved Utilization

A Problem of Excess, Not Shortage

Even when all participants are motivated to rationally allocate space, there are physical limitations to the ability to redeploy space where it is most needed. Reconfi guring space can be expensive, and constantly moving activities can be disruptive.


While colleges and universities often complain that they do not have enough space, most, in fact, have too much space. Their excess space, however, is diffi cult to access because it is trapped in buildings or rooms that are slightly larger than they need to be given the activities they contain. Academic spaces can be highly specialized and diffi cult to subdivide, placing important physical limits on the ability to match the supply of space with demand. The desire to cluster related activities near each other further limits the fl exibility of space. An empty offi ce in the physics department might be of very little use if the demand is for an office in the English department on the other side of campus.

A Problem of Excess, Not Shortage

+ Download Graphic

Failing the "What's in It for Me?" Test

The fundamental reason that space is poorly utilized is that those who control space on campus have few incentives to do more with their existing space or to give up space they are not using. Space is extremely valuable, but it has no cost, leading to a range of suboptimal space allocation decisions.


Many of the unproductive uses of academic space are simply rational responses to the fact that space is a scarce resource but has no cost for its user. Units or individuals will hold onto space even when they do not need it because it costs them nothing. Moreover, they often have little confi dence that they will be able to get space back later when they do need it. They have little incentive to share space or give it up—they lose something valuable and get nothing in return.


While most campuses have an explicit policy that all space is “owned” by the institution, in practice individual units often control their own space and have a strong sense of ownership. In some cases, the units may have even raised some or all of the funding to build or renovate the space. Local ownership, however, means that some units hold on to more space than they need while others struggle with a lack of space. Even campuses with suffi cient space overall will experience regular “local” space shortages.

Failing the "What's in It for Me?" Test

+ Download Graphic

The Challenge of Implementing Objective Standards

In the absence of agreed upon standards, space allocation decisions on most campuses depend on subjective criteria rather than an analysis of current or projected utilization rates.

The chart above illustrates the factors used by academic medical centers (AMCs) in allocating space. Despite the fact that AMCs tend to be the most quantitative and formula-driven of higher education institutions in their management style, their most common factors in assigning space are qualitative and political—recruitment needs, faculty/department chair support, and provost support.


Even when standards do exist, they are often out of date and diffi cult to enforce. They may be applied to some new construction but not all, and they are rarely used to reallocate existing space. So many exceptions are granted that the standard becomes meaningless.


Poorly defi ned and sporadically applied standards may lead administrators and faculty to believe that space standards are impractical and too rigid to accommodate the diverse space needs of different units across campus. But standards (suitably defi ned and implemented) are necessary to set a bar against which performance can be measured.

The Challenge of Implementing Objective Standards

+ Download Graphic

The Barriers to Improved Utilization

Four basic challenges make it diffi cult to maximize space utilization—a lack of actionable data, a lack of implementable standards, a lack of incentives, and challenges to redeploying space.

Four factors stand in the way of space productivity at most institutions:
• A lack of data on how space is currently being used
• A lack of enforceable space standards that clearly communicate utilization goals to the entire campus
• A lack of incentives for deans, department chairs, and individual faculty members to better utilize space
• The physical challenge of reallocating space to a unit or individuals with greater space needs

The Barriers to Improved Utilization

+ Download Graphic

Through a Glass Darkly

While all institutions know how much space they have, few measure how space is actually being used, making it impossible to answer basic questions about the productivity of specifi c spaces on campus.

Most space management systems were developed to inventory space, store fl oor plans, and track maintenance needs. Many are used to calculate indirect cost recovery rates for federally funded research. But few institutions track how space is actually being used—which offi ces are occupied and by what type of staff, which classrooms have below-average utilization, how much funding per square foot is generated by each researcher. Such data can be complicated and time-consuming to collect and often requires new software tools or modifi cations to the existing space management system. But without a means to measure the productivity of specifi c spaces, it is impossible to track and improve space utilization.

Through a Glass Darkly

+ Download Graphic

The Utilization Cost Savings Opportunity

Five Steps to Maximizing Space Utilization