Maintaining Flexibility In Facility Planning

Higher education is a dynamic environment, and construction planning should follow suit to maximize benefits and minimize risk.

By Pete Zuraw

In today’s market, to keep from committing resources to large-scale projects that suddenly lose validity or funding, many colleges and universities are striving to become more flexible in their planning. This means that most higher education facilities need to revisit the notion of plotting out long-term construction and renovation goals on five, 10, or 15 year plans.

Long-term construction plans remain necessary for governing the ongoing vision of a campus. However, in the short-term, it can be more effective to plan and allocate funds by revisiting plans as frequently as every 12 months. This ongoing planning helps ensure that investments are consistent with any short-term trends impacting the campus or the educational marketplace at large.

Schools can limit the most common risks related to capital investments by regularly addressing and adapting plans in response to micro-trends.

Examples Of Volatility

One of the most visible examples of volatility impacting higher education is enrollment. At most colleges and universities around the country enrollment has stabilized if not declined, with regional exceptions like the growth in Texas and the ongoing student interest in large research plans

Many of the factors impacting these rates of enrollment come from the volatile economic climate. Even the most accurate forecasts can’t account for unexpected events that may impact the economy or a particular school’s enrollment levels. Facilities departments must build in new levels of flexibility into their planning.

For starters, many institutions are finding they are even more tied to debt and gifts for funding with enrollment growth an even less likely funding source for new construction projects. Moreover, new construction is being viewed more cautiously with renovations and reinvestment into existing space being seen as a better area of focus for addressing evolving campus needs. Such smaller and more nimble investments provide facility managers and finance officers the flexibility they need to surf the evolving financial landscape.

Reorienting Existing Space

As an increasing number of colleges and universities are turning their focus to how they are using existing spaces, they are finding that it isn’t always necessary to construct a new facility to house a growing academic department. Through regular space assessments, facilities departments are finding that even minor renovations can vastly improve both building and campus performance.

As departmental needs change, it is often possible to reorganize departments’ layouts and better use the available space. For example, office space organized years ago around fixed offices and secretarial pools lends itself well to modernization that includes flexible (and perhaps even hoteling) office space for digitally enabled faculty and students who are working on the go and in dynamic groups. Technology and improved HVAC systems can make once underutilized storage space into social, meeting, or interaction spaces that are desperately needed for an educational framework rarely focused on a lone teacher lecturing a group of attentive students.

Build Construction Plans Based On A Best-Case Future, Too

Planning is often seen as a way to prepare for worst-case scenarios. It’s about creating back-up plans for unexpected outcomes. However, it’s also critical to plan for best-case scenarios so that these plans can be put rapidly in place once market conditions are right. Colleges and universities that are able to put new investments in place rapidly gain a competitive edge over their peers.

To plan for these best-case circumstances, facility planners should communicate regularly with department leaders. Where do they see their department in the future? What visions do they have for the campus?

By building these relationships today, facilities directors will be prepared to bring these visions to life — and ensure actions taken in the meantime are consistent with this long-term vision for the institution.

Contingency Plans For Flexibility

As mentioned above, most long-term plans are made around a worst-case scenario. It has never been more important to build in contingencies that cover unforeseen circumstances where possible.

For example, if opting to renovate certain halls to improve existing space utilization, and then enrollment exceeds planning, what do you do? And is that “worst case” for facilities short term… or is it in fact “best case” for the school? Is there a contingency plan involving the use of temporary space brought on site or leasing nearby available facilities? The former would require having a site and utilities for connection in place quickly, while the latter would require logistical plans for getting students to and from the leased site, and so on. And does the additional student revenue actually offset the operational costs to bring additional space online?

While it may not be possible to plan for every eventuality, you can make some arrangements today to be able to put solutions seamlessly into action tomorrow. And once those arrangements are in place, it’s important to examine those protections on a regular schedule as they too may be subject to change.

Long-term planning is as much an art as it is a science since the best data is still subject to short-term changes. But with flexible planning that accounts for best- and worst-case scenarios, and builds in frequent adjustments close to a 12 month rather than a 12 year cycle, facilities departments at higher education institutions can prepare their campuses to meet many unexpected circumstances — and then grow when conditions are right.

construction plansZuraw is vice president, market strategy and development with Sightlines, a Gordian company that provides higher education facilities with services in facilities benchmarking and analysis, capital planning, space management, and sustainability. Zuraw is responsible for leading the company’s thought leadership efforts and programming activities at various professional conferences and events. Before joining Sightlines, he was assistant vice president of facilities management at Wellesley College.