Campus Space Planning During COVID-19 and Beyond

As you reconfigure campus space, now is the perfect time to consider longer-term implications of campus space management.

Jul 1, 2020

By Theresa Duncan and Larry Eighmy, The Stone House Group

Right now your business office is most likely working diligently to prepare your campus for new health and social distancing guidelines come fall. These short-term solutions may include reconfiguring spaces, de-densifying classrooms and offices, and developing more rigorous cleaning and protective measures. As you think deeply about managing spaces in a new way, this is an ideal opportunity to consider longer-term implications of facilities operations that will play out regardless of where the pandemic leaves us.

The value of an independent school’s physical plant is, on average, about a magnitude larger than its fiscal endowment. Facilities that are managed haphazardly, without a cohesive plan, may become a burden instead of an asset. Creating a comprehensive plan that inventories current space, outlines strategies for future space use and renovations, and phases out deferred maintenance can provide a foundation to prosper in the post-pandemic world.

Space Rich or Space Poor?

Primary and secondary schools use benchmarking tools to justify budgets, enrollment, programming and endowments, among other things — so why not track and benchmark a school’s largest asset, its facilities? 

The graph below can help you quickly assess your school’s relative space capacity compared to peer institutions on a per student basis.

If your school falls on the left side of the graph and therefore appears “space rich,” consider whether this is due to more specialized use spaces, such as theaters, multiple gyms or indoor pools. If your school falls on the right side and appears “space poor,” consider whether it is due to a lower square footage of specialized spaces, or more effective use of existing space.

Inventory of Campus Space

Beyond a quick assessment, the first step to effectively managing the physical endowment is conducting a space inventory and facilities condition assessment to understand how much space is on campus and how it is utilized is. With the ongoing pandemic, the need to quantify and assess the quality of institutional space has become even more important. A space inventory database will help school leaders reconfigure campus spaces.

To understand the quantity of net assignable (i.e., programmatic) space versus gross space (i.e., total exterior footprint of buildings) and how much of net assignable space is currently dedicated to different types of programming, develop an inventory. Categorize spaces using the following column categories:

  • Number or distinct identifier (i.e. Room 202, theater, practice gymnasium, etc)
  • Dimensions and gross square footage (dimensions will be helpful with new tool below)
  • Typical use (academic instruction, office, faculty lounge, gymnasium, student lounge)
  • Maximum student capacity per typical furniture configuration
  • Type of furniture (flexible vs inflexible furniture, individual desks vs shared lab tables, etc)

Example inventory

If you have digital floor plans for campus buildings, software such as Adobe Acrobat Pro, Measure Square and Bluebeam offer fairly quick and accurate ways to get space dimensions and calculate square footages without needing to measure every room in person. Many of these software packages also come with free trials, if buying a subscription is cost prohibitive.

You can build an even more robust inventory by using the Department of Education’s sponsored Facilities Inventory and Classification Manual (FICM). Adopted primarily by higher education but adaptable to K12 use, the FICM helps differentiate programmatic spaces and integrates each state’s Department of Education guidelines for classroom sizes, student density and programming requirements.

Creating a robust space inventory with standardized codification methods will become the baseline for making future configuration modifications and renovation decisions.

Creating a robust space inventory with standardized codification methods will become the baseline for making future configuration modifications and renovation decisions. An institution may even find “hidden” spaces while creating the database that were previously forgotten and under-utilized, but now codified and measured, can be incorporated into reopening plans.

Student and Employee Densities

Schools will be modifying existing classrooms and gathering spaces to accommodate social distancing guidelines by de-densifying classrooms, setting up one way traffic or “lanes” in corridors and stairwells, and modifying larger gathering spaces, such as gyms, theaters and cafeterias for classes that cannot break into smaller sections or for other uses.

To help administrators quickly calculate new classroom densities, Rahel Rosner, chief strategist at St. Paul’s School in Maryland, and her son Ari Rosner developed an Excel-based tool spreadsheet that takes into account room size, size of each student’s “personal bubble” and walking paths between desks, and outputs the number of students permitted in the room with social distancing guidelines in place. The tool is a great starting point to understand the rough impact of de-densifying classrooms. Consider also, however, furniture in the space — tables, chairs, bookshelves, reading nooks, teacher desks — and the impact those items will have on allowable student density.

Another consideration is the relative location of each desk to the HVAC return vent. These vents are often located in the ceiling or upper wall of a space, and draw all circulating air through a relatively small opening to be re-conditioned and circulated back into the space. A study from a restaurant in Wuhan, China, has shown that proximity to a return vent could increase a person’s chance of getting infected if someone further “upstream” in the room is infected and releasing contaminated droplets into the air. We therefore recommend identifying the location of each return vent in a room and configuring the space so no one is seated directly below or next to that vent.

Figure from “COVID-19 outbreak associated with air conditioning in restaurant, Guangzhou, China, 2020” by J. Lu, J. Gu, K. Li, C. Xu, W. Su, Z. Lai, et al. in Emerging Infectious Diseases (July 2020).

Cleaning and Protective Measures

In addition to space reconfiguration, institutions should also consider more rigorous cleaning and protective measures. Although protocols are continuously changing as we learn more about the novel coronavirus and its lifespan on different materials, government agency guidelines, such those from the such those from the CDC and EPA, provide useful starting points for lists of effective cleaning products and best cleaning practices.

High touch surfaces, such as door knobs, light switches, faucets and shared whiteboard markers, should be wiped down throughout the course of the day, and where possible, converted to hands-free operation. This could include propping doors open more often, installing occupancy sensors in rooms, installing hands-free bathroom fixtures and even providing each student with a set of whiteboard markers if collaboration is unavoidable. Institutions should also consider deep cleaning surfaces, such as carpets, more frequently to help combat the spread of disease.

In places such as reception desks, cafeteria lunch lines and security check points where social distancing might not be attainable, plexiglass barriers and modified walls could help decrease the likelihood of disease transmission. Additionally, hand sanitizer stations with 70% alcohol solutions should be placed strategically around campus and be utilized frequently when soap and water are not readily available.

The short-term actions referenced above are often capital intensive, yet necessary to reopen campuses. These plans, especially space configurations to de-densify classrooms, should be closely tracked to understand the longer term implications of managing an institution’s largest asset — its facilities.

Taking the time to inventory space now and monitor how its use changes over the next year will help your school plan for the future. A piecemeal approach will only hurt a school already adjusting to a new normal, with longer operating hours, increased costs towards cleaning services and potentially lower enrollment. Creating a cohesive plan around changing facilities will enable school leaders to become better stewards of valuable facilities and prosper in the future.

Larry Eighmy is the managing principal at The Stone House Group, which facilitates “building stewardship.” Theresa Duncan is a space planner at the company.


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