In an attempt to control costs, University officials say they have been focusing a great deal of attention on more effectively using classrooms. And a presentation at the University’s Board of Regents meeting yesterday appears to show that their work is really paying off.

Frances Mueller, project manager of the Space Utilization Initiative, gave an update on the steps she and campus leaders have been taking to more efficiently utilize existing space on campus sponsored by general fund revenue.

The plan is meant to be a more fiscally sound alternative to renting spaces or building new facilities.

The initiative — aimed at better using existing space, eliminating unnecessary construction, leveraging the University’s highest quality spaces and decreasing the University’s environmental impact — was launched in Feb. 2007 by University President Mary Sue Coleman, Provost Teresa Sullivan, Timothy Slottow, executive vice president and chief financial officer, and Stephen Forrest, vice president for research.

In an interview yesterday morning before the regents meeting, Mueller said new construction on campus paid for by the general fund has fallen drastically since the initiative was launched, saving the University $185 million in new construction costs.

Additionally, Mueller said the University has been able to save $7.5 million in annual operating costs by cutting back on new construction projects.

Though these savings do not factor into the $100 million Coleman has called for to be eliminated from the University’s budget over the next two years, there have been realized cost reductions that will count toward the $100 million goal.

Mueller reported that to date, $10 million in energy savings have been realized as part of the initiative and that $1 million in recurring lease expenses have also been eliminated.

In an interview last spring, Sullivan said classroom spaces are only used, on average, 50-60 percent of the time between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. The goal set forth in the Space Utilization Initiative would to have the 527 general purpose classrooms on campus used 70 percent of the time between those hours, with each use utilizing 65 percent of the seats in the classroom.

One of the biggest obstacles in improving space utilization has come in the form of rallying departments and units to work together to share their spaces with each other, Mueller said.

“There’s kind of been a reluctance to maybe share space on this campus because we’re so decentralized,” Mueller said. “I think there’s just been a belief that once space got allocated to (departments or units) it was theirs indefinitely and this is changing the culture and the mindset to make everyone realize that whatever space your using … it doesn’t belong to you, it belongs to the institution.”

In the face of this reality, efforts are underway to change the culture on campus and how units think about their space, as opposed to the space of other units.

“I think we’ve made a lot of progress,” Sullivan said. “There is this sense of territoriality that departments and schools have about space adjacent to them. Well, we’re trying a new concept now — that room belongs to the University.”

Mueller echoed Sullivan’s statement, saying at this point she thinks most people understand the reasoning behind the collaborative initiative.

“Some people may not be happy with all the things we’re doing, but I think they understand at a fundamental level why we’re doing it and why it’s important to do it,” Mueller said. “It’s just changing behaviors now.”

In an interview on Wednesday, Sullivan also stressed that efforts underway to centralize the allocation of classrooms would also be helpful for student groups, who may currently have difficulty securing a space.

“If you have a student group that wants to find a place to meet in the evening, how would you go about doing that?” Sullivan said in an interview on Wednesday. “Well, sometimes it amounts to knowing the secret handshake with somebody to get access to a room.”

Another major effort of the Space Utilization Initiative has been to centralize computer servers. Mueller said building server farms allows the University to save on space and energy required to house and maintain servers that have been previously spread across campus at each building or unit.

“We have a couple of parallel activities going on around computer machine rooms,” Mueller said. “A lot of schools and colleges have their own server rooms … so we’ve been working with units to get out of the mindset that they have to have their own machines in their own building in order to manage them, because a lot of that could be managed virtually.”

Other efforts are also underway to better use space on campus, including an effort to consolidate vivaria facilities — which house animals used for testing.

Renovations to repurpose space on campus are already underway, with plans to convert the fourth floor of Dennison Hall from classrooms to office space for several environmental programs. The renovations are scheduled to be completed during summer 2010, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said yesterday.

The initiative, which was started two and a half years ago, is expected to be fully implemented over the next two and a half years and Mueller said she expects the University to meet its utilization goals.

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