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Maximizing Space Utilization Efficiency in Higher Education


Now that the initial rush of back-to-school activities is over and everyone has settled into their new routines, the little and big hurdles to a successful academic year may be starting to make themselves known. One factor that is sometimes overlooked and/or neglected before the academic year begins is buildings and facility space. At many institutions of higher education, space has become a premium commodity, unable to keep pace with ever-growing enrollment numbers.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, between 2002 and 2012, college student enrollment increased 24 percent, from 16.6 million to 20.6 million. Much of the growth between 2002 and 2012 was in full-time enrollment; the number of full-time students rose 28 percent, while the number of part-time students rose 19 percent.

For example, in an effort to keep up with the demands of an increasingly growing student population, Northeastern University this year will offer more campus housing than ever before. With the opening of its East Village, Northeastern now has more than 9,100 beds for its undergraduate and graduate students. That number has nearly tripled since 1998 when it provided 3,663 total beds.

As an industry, progress is being made to address student housing, administrative space and even lecture halls. However, access to singular study spaces, collaboration areas and workspaces can be a challenging area for a campus facility manager. It’s not just about offering the space; it’s more about providing 24/7 access through modern means to reserve, and occupy spaces on campus. To be an efficient and productive partner in the learning process, the institution needs to be able to provide access to students when and where they want. Many institutions use disjointed reservation systems — building by building, floor by floor, etc. Without a holistic view of all of the available spaces, it is difficult to understand how to maximize efficiencies.

New dorms are often built with communal study areas planned out. However, most universities have older living facilities without modern amenities. Understanding and tracking use of space in these facilities can be extremely important when it comes to planning future spatial needs. Libraries, student unions and other large communal spaces have nooks and crannies throughout the infrastructure. Having a clear understanding of when a space is used, for how long, what time of day is most popular and several other data points can be instrumental when conceiving new capital plans and/or rehabilitation projects.

One possible solution is to establish kiosks with space management software available throughout the campus. The software would make sure all spaces are accounted for and creates rich data for planning purposes. Beyond kiosks, online capabilities and smartphone apps are essential for convenience and up-to-the-minute reporting. Students or faculty can create online reservations for study spaces, or claim a workstation across campus by using a touch screen or app. Beyond simply reserving space, these integrated workplace management systems (IWMS) can also allow real-time reporting of maintenance requests. A student could scan a QR code to report a broken desk or a burned out light bulb — sending an immediate work ticket to the facilities department for repair.

In addition, the actual usage of the working environment can be measured and controlled by linking sensor technology with an IWMS. This means information about available spaces is always correct and up-to-date and can be used by everyone from the facilities maintenance department to the university president to the human resources department. By implementing these technologies, these professionals can spend more time focusing on the student experience and analyzing the needs and efficiencies of campus spaces, thus allowing a more holistic view of the institution.

By implementing a more efficient use of space, there are significant opportunities for cost savings. A properly implemented IWMS system can help colleges and universities of any size realize cost savings by managing, monitoring, and even predicting the use of space for the organization’s real estate portfolio.

Tim O’Connor has more than 10 years of experience in the technology and facilities management industries, ranging from corporate space planning to office furniture to broadband resources. He is currently a sales director at Planon, working with colleges and universities to optimize their real estate and facilities management processes.

For another article on space utilization considerations, click here.

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