To fit out or fit in

April 19, 1996

With space at a premium, Paul Roebuck, Peter Lyon and Frank Woods predict another university league table.

It has yet to dawn on many universities and colleges of higher education that space (area to the uninitiated) does not drop out of the heavens into their laps. In a hard commercial world the space that a company occupies is costed and appears in its annual balance sheet.

The following is a set of organisations that work with, though do not necessarily make public, their occupancy (or utilisation) figures: * Prisons work on cell occupancy, often over 100 per cent * Hospitals on bed occupancy, usually over 90 per cent * Hotels on bedroom occupancy, 70 per cent quoted in the much publicised Forte-Granada battle * University classrooms and specialist accommodation, utilisation figures of 30 per cent and 20 per cent respectively.

If universities were floated as private companies, (probably not very practicable), the shareholders with a wider portfolio of shares might well ask why are they getting such poor utilisation figures?

To achieve a better set of figures needs more progressive and/or aggressive management - the sort of talk that crops up in takeover battles. Universities and commercial space users are both driven by the same imperative - to do more with less.

University funding, based on student numbers, has created pressure on existing facilities; in the private sector the same phenomenon in the 1980s was thrown sharply into reverse by the recession in the 1990s; what has euphemistically been termed "downsizing" has become the order of the day.

In the expansionist 1980s large users of office, research and production space adopted space management techniques to contain the growth in demand for accommodation to prevent themselves becoming property companies first and bankers, consultancies, widget-makers second.

They took care to assess space required by calculating total area needs using limited sets of functionally-based space standards and rigorously applying them; they coordinated centrally those facilities that had intermittent use, and set up booking systems to ensure good utilisation rather than locating them in each department, unused for much of the time.

Occupiers fitted out buildings rather than fitting into them. They reduced status-driven allocations of space furniture. In the 1970s the University of Leeds was one of the first universities to carry out a full analysis of the departmental needs for lecture theatres concluding that if the lecture theatres were centrally grouped and the various departmental timetables restructured, (not an easy task in the early days of computers) a reduction of 50 per cent in space needs could be made.

Space was regularly reconfigured to suit the changing needs of teams; organisations became more dynamic, some achieving churn rates of 70 per cent or more, ie, more than 70 per cent of the floor area and staffing was reorganised each year.

Thus the ideas of permanence and territoriality were eroded. Departments became cost centres, and empire builders turned into models of functional efficiency as they divested themselves of unnecessary space and equipment. To the academic and educational community these ideas may seem alien: the immutable certainties of learning lie uncomfortably with continual states of flux, but the private sector, in response to the downturn in economic activity, has sought to reduce its space needs even further.

By exploiting the developing technologies - the fibre optic networks, the laptop PC, cellular telephone, wireless and infra-red connectivity, smart cards and electronic mail, there is an inevitable drive to smaller, high-quality working environments. In organisations where management or staff spend a lot of time away from the desk or out of the office, hot desks have already become common practice: for example, audit clerks often have desks allocated on a 1:5 basis, management consultants 1:3 and so on. Desk sharing relies on support from information technology to work successfully but a 10-20 per cent increase in occupancy or reduction in space can be achieved by a number of different strategies.

Desk sharing uses free or group address systems; desks are provided at the rate of 80 per cent - 85 per cent of total occupancy.

These desks are not "owned" by individuals but are treated like a table in a restaurant - there when you require it but available for others when you have no further use for it.

Via telephone or modem, or on arrival, arrangements are made to provide each individual with a desk space, their telephone, computer, email, text production facilities; "Hotelling" extends this principle by arranging, for example meeting rooms to be set up for specific needs and so on.

In the academic world desk sharing has been known for many years: in university and departmental libraries, for example, the principle of "carrells" is commonplace to the extent that they can be reserved or booked in advance. The basic problem in universities is that they are working in two independent criteria.

First, they appear to the general public to be offering undergraduate degree courses for which parents urge their offspring to register.

Second, to themselves they are undertaking research and spending a considerable effort in trying to improve their research rating in an ever increasingly competitive world.

These two aspirations only meet in trying to get enough good graduates to fill their research places. However, the Higher Education Funding Council for England, in trying to marry together comparative figures for the old and new universities, has come up with a set of relative space weightings for undergraduate teaching and research work.

By the time that this article is published the funding council will have just considered the results of the space weighting exercise. The older universities were used to space norms that were originally envisaged in the 1960s and 1970s for allocation of space for different academic subjects in new buildings.

They were not designed as a management tool for all space management thereinafter, but unfortunately they were so used.

Polytechnics and colleges followed in 1990 with a similar set of norms, (for example 10m2 per chemistry student.) The new weightings set a benchmark of a minimum teaching area subject, which turned out to be social studies, given a weighting of 1.

The 34 cost centre subjects have been condensed into 16 cognate groups of academic subjects with similar space needs. Thus the sciences, and engineering are, not surprisingly, the most space-intensive subjects, and appear to need about 4.5 times more space per undergraduate than does social studies.

Research space figures have also been evolved for the same cognate groups; obviously they are two to three times more space intensive than teaching work. It is not beyond the wit of academics with help from the commercial world to devise a set of performance indicators based on the above criteria and other data.

The net usable area of any universities is a declared value, and the number of students doing different subjects (taught or research) is also declared for funding purposes.

A simple combination of these figures would yield which universities were using space effectively and which were not. In a sector now extremely hard-pressed for capital money for new buildings it does not take much imagination to see which way various funding bodies will think in the future.

Paul Roebuck is an independent space management consultant. Peter Lyon and Frank Woods are partners at Austin-Smith:Lord, Architects.

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