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Higher Education: Three Strategies to Make Long-Term Facility Plans More Flexible

By Pete Zuraw
A long-term view is essential for turning plans to meet a higher education institutions’ facility goals into action. These long-term plans — five-, 10- and 15-year plans — have been the norm for most institutions, but recent examples of volatility have demonstrated that higher education facility planning requires unprecedented new levels of flexibility. While long-term plans are still necessary for directing the overall vision of a campus, more colleges and universities are seeing the need to revisit plans as often as every 15 months to ensure their actions are consistent with short-term trends impacting the campus. Revisiting plans more frequently, and taking steps to improve flexibility in response to micro-trends, can also help higher education institutions limit the risks associated with their capital investments.

A New Way to Plan

Enrollment trends vary across institution types, by region, and due to other more unpredictable factors. As a result, even the most informed forecasts can’t account for unexpected events that may impact a particular institution’s enrollment levels. Given this volatility, it is impractical to continue to rely on enrollment growth as the sole fund of new construction projects — or to rely on new construction as the only solution for changing campus needs.

The new levels of volatility that higher education institutions have experienced in recent years have taught facilities managers, and finance officers, that facility planning must become more flexible.

Fortunately, planning for the unexpected doesn’t require a crystal ball. In truth, there are three strategies that institutions can use to build new levels of flexibility into their facility planning, and begin to prepare for the unexpected.

Building In New Levels of Flexibility

The three strategies for building flexibility into facility planning are:

1. Ensure the appropriate utilization of existing space. By conducting ongoing assessments, higher education facility managers can better determine how minor adjustments to space utilization can improve the overall facility or campus performance. For example, it may not be necessary to construct a new building to house a growing academic department. As needs change, it may be possible to reorganize departments in a way that better uses the space available. Or a growing technology focus may mean reorienting a library’s vision to focus on digital research, freeing up some space to meet other needs. The challenge is to make these changes in a way that preserves and highlights the unique identity of the departments involved and the higher education campus as a whole.

2. Plan for the best. Although it is important to prepare for the worst case scenario in long-term plans to cover unexpected outcomes, it’s important that you don’t stop planning for best-case situations. When market conditions are right, higher education institutions can gain an edge by being able to rapidly put improvements into action. To plan for the best circumstances, it’s important to talk regularly with decision makers and department leaders about their unique visions. With these relationships in place, facilities managers can get a stronger picture of the long-term vision for the school, and how the facilities department can make it happen.

3. Put protections in place. Even the most optimistic long-term plan should have an “out” designed to cover unexpected outcomes. Every long-term plan should include a contingency to account for unforeseen circumstances. Say you reorganize your academic buildings to improve space utilization—and then you see an enrollment spike. What then? Do you have a relationship in place with a trailer rental company? Is there nearby space you can lease? What arrangements need to be made to put the best solution seamlessly into action? Of course, it is also important to regularly examine any protections put in place, as these too will be subject to change.

The Best Plan to Account for the Unexpected

No long-term plan for a campus’ evolution will perfectly account for unexpected micro-trends that may impact higher education along the way. There is no data available that can absolutely reveal future enrollment trends or predict an endowment. As a result, it is important that campuses find ways to meet their long-term goals while allowing room for flexibility along the way.

No plan will be perfect, but you can build flexibility into every long-term plan and thus limit the risk associated with any capital investments. Watch projected growth trends, keep careful track of facilities’ improvement needs, and keep in mind that not every plan will work the way you expect. By regularly updating your long-term plans to account for volatility, your higher education institution will be in a better place to adapt rapidly to shifting circumstances.

By Pete Zuraw is vice president of market strategy and development, Sightlines.