5.5 Maximize Space Utilization to Minimize or Avoid New Construction

5.5.1 Wasting Space on Campus

While new construction is sexy and having a LEED Gold or Platinum building on campus certainly gives you real bragging rights, the reality is that each new building adds to your campus carbon footprint unless it is a zero-energy building or it replaces a building that used more energy. While zero-energy buildings may eventually become the norm, with very few exceptions they are not here yet. New campus buildings, even those which are LEED certified or better, may turn out to be energy hogs – and thus are responsible for significant increases in the size of campus carbon footprints, increasing the difficulty of achieving carbon reduction goals.

Colleges and universities committed to reducing their carbon footprints need to look at new construction in a new way. They can save energy dollars and reduce carbon emissions by maximizing the utilization of existing space and avoiding new construction. While it may be difficult to imagine a president of a college or university resisting new construction (since new buildings are often viewed as legacy accomplishments), that’s what is needed.

On many if not most of our campuses inefficient space utilization is the norm. The most desirable spaces may be intensively utilized and fought over while less desirable spaces are cast off and sparsely occupied. Over time, as new buildings are constructed and departments and offices move into those glitzy, high prestige spaces, the areas they leave behind are taken over by existing personnel and offices. What happens is that everyone spreads out with the net effect of decreasing space utilization density. Ever greater areas are “used” while activity and output stays roughly the same.

Our campuses tend to have structural space inefficiencies as well. Consider the academic calendar. At many schools it is common to see beautiful campuses mostly barren of students, faculty and most academic programming for the entire summer -- beginning in early May and stretching to late August. Meanwhile, because staff are still present and departmental offices are still open, all buildings are considered “occupied” and all HVAC equipment is running. This is the way colleges and universities do business but from an energy and climate perspective it does not make sense.

The inefficiency of faculty offices deserves special mention. Faculty members generally have their own offices but these offices may be utilized only few hours a week during 15-17 week spring and fall semesters and completely unoccupied otherwise – all the while these spaces are heated and cooled twelve months of the year as a consequence of building HVAC system design. This is no way to do business if you are in the business of reducing your carbon footprint down to zero!

5.5.2 Strategies for Addressing Poor Space Utilization

There are a variety of ways to tackle these problems or, alternately, take advantage of these opportunities – perhaps none are easy but all are possible. Here are some ideas:

  • When a new building is proposed, first determine whether there is a way to meet the alleged program needs for the building by reconfiguring and better utilizing existing space.
  • During break periods, especially intersession or the December holiday break, encourage or require everyone to take vacation time and put the campus in a shutdown mode as much as possible.
  • HVAC modifications can be implemented for faculty offices so these spaces stop being heated, cooled, or ventilated when unoccupied (which is most of the time).
  • If your school is committed to an enrollment growth scenario, it might be possible to accommodate many more students without new construction if you operate academic programs at full tilt year round and thus make better use of existing buildings over the summer.
  • More aggressive scheduling including starting classes earlier or even on Friday afternoons can defer the need for a new building. (Since earlier classes may be resisted by students and faculty alike, they may need to accompanied by rules for earlier bedtimes!)

The Society of College and University Planning (SCUP) offers a variety of resources campus space utilization.

Niles Barnes