August 14, 2020

Six Value Propositions for Academic Institutions Who Think Strategically About Facilities

Achieving Impact

By Allan Donnelly

Facilities are a cost center for all institutions and each facility serves a function that helps the institution work toward its mission. According to Forbes, institutions can expect to pay twice as much as the cost of construction on operations and maintenance over the lifetime of a building,1 so campus leadership should think strategically about lifecycle costs when considering a project’s budget.

Another important near universality is that many institutions’ needs, when it comes to facilities, often far outpace available resources. Facility managers, campus planning groups, and institutional decision makers therefore, have to make difficult decisions about how to prioritize their limited dollars. Thinking strategically about how those dollars are spent provides great value for any institution’s current and long-term needs.

As a firm focused on experience and transformation, brightspot sees the impact that space can have in helping an institution fulfill its mission and improve student attraction, retention, and success. We work with our clients to optimize the value of their facilities by using their spaces to their full potential.

The sections below illustrate six different value propositions for academic institutions who think strategically about their facilities.

1. Assess Project Viability / Decision Support

When assessing the options for how to invest dollars, institutions need to build an understanding of what a building project will do for them, and what it will take to do it successfully. To begin, they can conduct studies to assess the viability of a project to determine whether or not it is worthwhile to pursue.

Wesleyan University, a small liberal arts university, took this approach during its development of a new Science Center. They wanted to understand if it was better to incorporate the existing Science Library into the program of the new building, or if it made more sense to update the library in its existing location. To determine what it would take to make the project a success, brightspot worked with Payette Architects and Wesleyan’s library staff and partners to conduct an analysis of its collections, seating, and services to understand what the overall space need would be in the new building.

Once we were able to determine a range of space need scenarios, Wesleyan was ready to address the question of whether or not it made sense to move the library into the new building. Given the constraints of the new science building project, and the findings of the analysis, the University chose to not include the Science Library in the new Science Center, and decided that it would be more advantageous to update the library to serve students in its existing location.

Future Collection Diagram

2. Optimize Existing Assets / Cost Avoidance

Developing a new building on campus is a costly endeavour. Yet, growth of existing programs, introduction of new disciplines, the need to stay current on research, and institutional goals for enrollment growth are key drivers in the increasing need for space.

One strategy that universities can employ to avoid the cost of new construction is to better and differently utilize their existing facilities. Reorganizing departments, making spaces more flexible and adaptable for multiple functions, and embracing remote work are some strategies that can be applied to existing spaces to maximize utilization.

The University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business wanted to understand the extent to which it could accommodate growth within its existing facilities before building new ones. To address this issue, campus leadership engaged brightspot in a study to take a holistic view of all of its physical assets in order to understand their current and future space needs, develop a space program to define those needs, and depict options for accommodating a growing suite of programs.

Taking a holistic approach led brightspot to use a combination of engagement, observation, and analysis to build a comprehensive understanding of the needs across campus. Through inventory analysis of existing spaces, observation of facility condition and use, space utilization studies, engagement with students, faculty, staff, and leadership, and definition of the activities central to the mission of the school, brightspot identified strategies that would allow Darden to optimize the use of their existing assets and avoid the costs of having to invest in new buildings.

Current Facilities Analysis, University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business

3. Build to Need / Target Investment

Upon determining that a building project is both viable and beneficial to the campus’s capital program, institutions should engage in strategic thinking regarding how best to invest the dollars they have committed to that project.

Conducting a robust programming and scenario planning study will provide a detailed set of requirements that is vetted by and has the backing of campus leadership. Making decisions early in the process about the mix and types of spaces, massing, blocking, and stacking, along with high level requirements for building systems, reduces uncertainty heading into the design phase and the risk of missing the schedule.

An R1 research institution developing a building for a new college for data and computer science engaged in this kind of strategic thinking before beginning the design documentation process. They saw these fields as central to the work of all academic disciplines and made the strategic decision to bring disparate departments, labs, institutes, and centers into one building.

With a building concept, a target maximum gross square footage, and a cap on the project budget, brightspot began the process of developing a building program that would fit within the project parameters while also providing the building occupants and the institution with the right mix of spaces that would best help them achieve the goals for the building. The programming work started by developing a shared vision for the building and defining the goals for what the building was meant to achieve. From there, brightspot explored the needs and goals of the building’s future inhabitants, asking questions about the experiences and activities of students, faculty, and staff in the building.

Based on this understanding of the users, the institution was able to develop a “wish list” of spaces for the new building: a mixture of research laboratories, offices and workspace, classrooms and study space, and signature public spaces. Then, by assigning dimensions and areas to each of the spaces, it was determined that the “wish list” of spaces far exceeded the target square footage goals, along with other critical project parameters.

Taking a data centered approach, brightspot built a model that calculated a building program by adjusting many different parameters related to space sizes and quantities. This model helped the institution assess a variety of scenarios and tradeoffs that would be necessary in order to meet the target building area.

By assessing each scenario through the lenses of the project vision, user experience, and campus goals, campus leadership chose a preferred direction and had a design brief and a detailed set of requirements for the design team to begin with.

Category level program comparison for a new data and computer science building at an R1 research institution

4. Increase Efficiency / Reduce Operating Costs

Ongoing operations of campus facilities is another area where institutions can reduce their costs by thinking strategically about their facilities. And while focusing on the delivery of power, water, heating, and cooling at the building-level can produce cost savings, implementing sustainability and operating efficiencies at the campus scale can have a great impact on an institution’s total operating budget.

University of North Carolina Chapel Hill outlined such campus-level goals in its Strategic Sustainability Plan, aiming to be a water-neutral, carbon-neutral, and net zero waste campus – what came to be known as the “three zeros.” Each of these goals are applaudable for their efforts to reduce the institution’s impact on global climate change, but also for their impact on the University’s operating budget.

UNC already had a significant set of accomplishments toward reducing their impacts on the environment, including an 0.8% reduction of energy consumption and 60% reduction in potable water use over a 12 year period despite an increase in square footage of 41%. These accomplishments were among many that led the University to realize it could have much greater effect by scaling up their impact, by embedding sustainability into their policies, operations, and behaviors.

brightspot, in partnership with BuroHappold, led six teams with representatives from across the University in the development of different thematic areas such as Environment and Resources, Materials and Waste, and Policy and Investment. At least three strategic goals were developed for each theme along with a list of strategic actions to be taken.

The report concluded with recommendations for tracking the key performance indicators associated with the strategic goals, and UNC did exactly that. The facilities department, for one, began tracking metrics associated with resource consumption in all campus facilities following the release of the report. It was able to show that, in the two years following the report, the University continued to reduce its use of potable water, and avoided nearly $600,000 in costs.2 Furthermore, it demonstrated 3.3MM in cost avoidance in 2019 under the metric of building energy consumption.3

Identifying strategic opportunities for resource conservation at the campus-level is a highly valuable way for institutions to save money. Monitoring and evaluating progress on key metrics and indicators will help campus leaders measure progress and calculate dollars saved.

UNC Chapel Hill’s Vision for Sustainability

5. Provide Tools for Further Delivering on Mission

Another value proposition for thinking strategically about facilities investments is to think of them as tools for further delivering on the institutional mission. Buildings create the spaces where the activities that advance the mission are conducted. Using buildings as tools to engineer the types of activities necessary to further the mission is a strategic action for campus leaders.

State University of New York Fredonia found that the demographics of its student body were changing. Broad socio-economic and population shifts meant that there were fewer students coming from the surrounding region. In order to address these changes, the University began recruiting students from more distant and metropolitan areas of the state.

This shift in recruiting meant that the demographics of the University’s student population began to shift as well, including greater racial, ethnic, gender, and economic diversity. The University wanted to build on their success at better attracting and enrolling students by increasing their retention and graduation rates as well. To that end, the University engaged brightspot to begin a process of rethinking its student services by co-locating them in a new Student Success Corridor.

brightspot took a multifaceted approach to the challenge and began a study to examine their services, staffing, and spaces to figure out how SUNY Fredonia might better serve their students. We began with a vision for the building, one that created an inclusive environment that enables student empowerment, proactive engagement, and connection to the campus community.

Then through engagement with students, we identified the pain points and gaps in the existing service model. This understanding helped Fredonia to imagine a future service model that would navigate the many challenges of being in college while also minimizing the complexities of navigating student services.

The planning process brought together staff from across all the student services, and together they built a better understanding of the ecosystem, allowing them to generate operational solutions before the building was designed. Using the new Student Service Corridor as a tool for supporting this new model would also be a tool for SUNY Fredonia to deliver on its broader mission to educate, challenge, and inspire students to become good global citizens and professionals.

Service Point Diagram, SUNY Fredonia

6. Performance Evaluation / Project Validation

Once a building project has been completed and its occupants have moved and settled into the building, institutions should assess whether their facility investment is achieving its original goals. Post occupancy evaluations are a helpful tool in validating success, and also opportunities to assess user satisfaction.

University of Michigan wanted to understand how a recently completed building was measuring up to its stated goals of creating a more flexible and collaborative academic workplace for staff and faculty as well as a more engaging and interactive place for students. In order to do this, brightspot developed a survey that asked respondents to provide feedback on their level of satisfaction across a wide range of topics including organizational attributes, physical attributes, specific spaces, productivity, and culture. The survey was deployed twice, once prior to the move into the new building to develop a baseline, and again after the occupants had been in the building for one year. After an initial analysis of the responses, brightspot then conducted interviews and a focus group to learn more qualitatively about the findings of the survey.

While the analysis showed that overall the building was a broad success, there was a need to better support shared ownership and individual productivity. With a clearly stated goal (creating a more flexible and collaborative academic workplace) and assessment data from a period prior to completion of the new building, the University was able to validate that the building was in fact achieving its primary mission: Satisfaction levels increased on facets such as access to colleagues, variety of spaces, ergonomics and comfort, furniture and equipment, technology, and thermal comfort, while time lost due to waiting for feedback from colleagues, directors and managers decreased.

But the evaluation also uncovered areas for improvement: Satisfaction with noise levels, distractions, and feeling of a sense of community decreased. By conducting this survey to understand how the building was performing relative to its goals, the University was able to identify cultural issues that arose due to certain aspects of the building design such as ownership of workplace norms that allowed for more distractions.

Strategies for updating and enforcing workplace norms, restacking the building to colocate departments with similar workstyles, and reorganizing the floors to create a greater sense of identity for each unit were identified as opportunities to improve the building. Empowered with this assessment, the University was able to engage building occupants in co-creating solutions to remaining challenges and empowering them to enact changes to realize greater satisfaction.

University of Michigan Weiser Hall Post Occupancy Evaluation

Moving Forward

Decisions facing campus leaders are operationally, financially, and politically complex, and the goal is always to do what is best for the institution. Facilities are one facet of that complexity, and with the relative costs of building programs and operations and maintenance budgets, facilities make up a large portion of an institution’s total expenditures.

Finding ways to reign in, reduce, or avoid some of these costs can alleviate some of those complexities. Thinking strategically about the viability, opportunity, value, and benefit of a project will create greater impact for both the institution, the students it serves, and the community it is a part of.



Endnote 1: Why The Campus Building Boom May Turn Out To Be A Bust, Forbes

Endnote 2: Strategic Energy and Water Plan 2017

Endnote 3: Fiscal Year 2019 Cumulative Savings

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