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Use it or Lose it – Understanding School Utilization

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(and the need for 20 year old scratch ‘n sniff stickers)

As I tour existing schools everyone asks for classroom space but then I ask them if those cabinets full of holiday decorations are a necessity.  Do they need 42 chairs in the room if there are only 23 students?  Are the filing cabinets full of 20-year-old scratch ‘n sniff stickers still needed?  I don’t make many friends on these tours, but my goal is to raise awareness. 

“Why should you care about Utilization?”
Maybe you hear that the band room is too small or you need more academic rooms. Is it possible to use a different space during the one week you need to fit 120 band students?  Can the room used one period per day be used for something else the rest of the day? 

To help clients plan for the future, we like to start by analyzing the utilization of the existing schools.  The tool we use is a rather simple spreadsheet that looks at each educational space for its size, several capacity calculations, and how many students are in the space for each period of the day.  The result reveals two very important numbers:

  1. The actual number of students per room vs how many the space is sized for
  2. The percentage of room use during the day

Without fail we find our clients are surprised to see the results because the data removes emotion from the equation.  Principals too often think of rooms as being associated to a specific teacher and not how the rooms are actually being used.  Core subject classrooms (math, social studies, science, and language arts) are often filled near capacity and used 80% of the day or more.  It’s all of the other rooms that tell the real story.

  • If the room is over capacity but only occupied two periods per day, maybe that subject should move to a more appropriately sized room.
  • If the room consistently has 15 fewer students than it’s sized for, could a smaller room be used?
  • If the room sits empty six periods of the day because the teacher travels between buildings, is there a shared use for that room?
  • If an exploratory subject (family and consumer education, technical education, agriculture, etc.) has a consistently low student population and room usage, should the subject be offered or is there a way to make the subject matter more attractive to students?

Many times we have found there is a true need for more space, and this analysis provides a calculated and visual proof of the need. I often challenge our clients to consider a combination of being more efficient with the space they have and strategically add what is really necessary. So the next time you hear about the lack of space in a school, consider taking a closer look at the building utilization. You may find there are simple and creative solutions that could benefit everyone. And those 20-year-old scratch ‘n sniff stickers can be recycled (I think).

Eric Dufek, RA, LEED AP
Senior Design Architect : Principal

Eric, RA, LEED AP, is a Senior Design Architect and Principal with the Learning Environments Studio working out of EUA's Milwaukee office.


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