How to Build Flexibility Into Your Campus’ Long-Term Facility Planning

The single greatest challenge in effective facility planning for the future direction of your campus is that no one can predict the future. No matter what type of data you use to plan for future needs, unexpected factors are bound to disrupt them. Even the best-laid plans must account for a certain amount of volatility and build in enough flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances.

Lessons in volatility

Enrollment trends vary depending on the type of institution and by region, but they also vary based on the impact of broader, sometimes unexpected, events. Enrollment was on an upward trajectory in 2007, growing by 7 percent through 2012. Then many campuses experienced a leveling of enrollment through 2015. Forecasts predict continued leveling, if not a greater decline, into the 2020s. And none of these forecasts can account for the unpredictable. Given this type of volatility, it remains imprudent to count exclusively on continued enrollment growth to fund new construction projects.

Experiences like these have taught facilities managers, and finance officers, that facility planning must account for volatility. But how do you plan for the unexpected?

There are a number of ways to build flexibility into your planning:

1. Focus on space utilization

Making the most of your existing space is the best way to avoid over-committing to new facilities. Take a hard look at your existing portfolio and determine whether your facilities are being fully utilized. For example, can the building that houses your science department support English classes, as well? What resources would you need to serve different departments in a single building while preserving the distinct character of each department?

Is your library fixed into one specific future vision? As students increasingly rely on digital research materials, can you reclaim some space and turn it into a technology center where students can use the latest to study and collaborate?

A key challenge in this approach is keeping a facility’s identity intact, and adapting to change in a way that protects the character of the campus and its unique facilities.

2. Plan for best-case scenarios

It’s also important to put plans in place to achieve long-term departmental or institutional goals. That way they can be deployed rapidly when market conditions are right. Every department has its own wish list of improvements. Acknowledging those wishes and planning for them — no matter how unfeasible they may seem right now — can give a college or university a competitive edge when the time is right to make a change. Talk with departmental leaders and other key decision makers about how their plans can drive the institution’s overall mission. Build the relationships and gather the data necessary to put that plan in place at a moment’s notice.

For example, the facility manager of a growing institution knew that a new residence hall was on the school’s wish list. So when he was asked in December if he could have a residence hall open by the following fall, the answer was “yes.” With a detailed plan already in place, the school was able to begin designing the new facility right away.

Of course, it is equally important to prepare for the worst. Any facilities plan should include protection to cover unexpected outcomes. In this case, the manager’s plan also contained contingencies to accommodate students when schedule delays pushed the dorm’s opening back to January.

3. Build an “out” into every plan

Every plan—whether for adapting current space or building a large-scale addition—should include a contingency to cover unforeseen circumstances.

For example, what if your student population were to suddenly drop 20 percent? Would you need to shut down classrooms and dormitories? If so, how would you carry it out?

The same thinking applies to enrollment spikes. Do you have a partner lined up to lease space on a short-term basis? If the plan is for rental classrooms, where would you put them? Do you have a plan for utility hook-ups?

Remember, too, that any protections that you put in place may also be subject to change. Carefully monitor any factors that may limit your ability to adapt.

Emphasize fluidity in planning

No plan is perfect, but by building flexibility into every campus and facility plan, institutions can limit the risk associated with their investments. Five-, 10- and 15-year plans provide a strong framework for steering the long-term vision of a campus. However, these plans need to be continually updated to ensure they’re consistent with micro-trends and more short-term changes on campus. Consider revisiting your plans every 15 months to address today’s demands within the context of the long-term vision.

To keep up with your school’s demands for space, you need to keep an eye on projected growth trends, facilities improvement needs, and other relevant data. And remember that not every program or goal is going to pan out.