For education institutions looking for ways to expand, there is good news: they already may have the space they need, right on campus.

Limited financial resources are inspiring education institutions to be more creative by enlisting the help of architects to re-examine existing built assets. By thinking differently about space—the space within their own buildings—institutions are renovating and reprogramming instead of building new, and saving hundreds of millions of dollars in the process.

Analyzing use

According to the U.S. Department of Education, between 1997 and 2007, student enrollment at degree-granting institutions increased by 26 percent. Many universities, however, are unable to devote the financial resources necessary to build new structures to accommodate increased enrollment. Spending on education construction decreased 11 percent from January 2010 to January 2011, as shown by recent U.S. Census Bureau economic indicators.

Underutilized space within existing buildings can appear in many forms: underprogrammed space or inefficient layouts. These are common because campuses often grow incrementally. In most cases, opportunities for replanning are revealed only through analysis; namely, examining how a building is used throughout the day and evening, and whether it can be reorganized. Strategies for reusing existing space can entail changing only selected areas to dramatically improve the efficiency of the entire building.

Areas that are used only at night, or during special events, can form new links between spaces that already are very active, affecting an entire building. For instance, in a library, sections can be reorganized or relocated to free up space for other uses, such as prefunction event space. Furniture can be specified that is flexible and able to be stacked easily.

Reasons for replanning are varied: New requirements or technologies may have evolved or emerged since the building was designed; or the faculty’s needs and goals may have shifted. The most basic reason is increased enrollment.

Once redesigned, these new "found" spaces within the building can be identified and linked to existing spaces through the creation of new centers or nodes of activity. These can become new destinations unto themselves, and their adjacencies to active spaces can create synergies between new and old construction.

Taking the time to brainstorm about new uses can help education institutions plan for expansion, even if administrators do not yet have a specific intended use for the space. Careful planning can set the stage for incremental work to be carried out. Education institutions can control the amount of financial resources allotted and also schedule work to avoid shutting down existing facilities during times of heavy use.

Many education institutions have underutilized facilities, and it often is possible to satisfy needs by reconfiguring existing space, which saves more than 50 to 60 percent of the cost of construction. However, replanning a building also can benefit institutions in other ways that are beyond the financial.

Reorganizing the circulation of students or incorporating a new cafe or learning space in an area that previously was empty can bring vibrancy to a building, and increase the density of activity. Activating and changing relationships between different components can bring a fresh, modern feel to an entire building, creating a new place without having to build one from the ground up.