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Space Scenario Planning Provides a Framework for the Future Amid Shifting Priorities

Strategic Space Study and Suitability Analyses Facilitate Informed Decision-Making
Published 8/23/2023
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After a comprehensive space analysis of its 6.2-million-gsf Flagstaff campus, followed by two rounds of scenario planning, Northern Arizona University (NAU) has still not determined exactly what will go into a new, much-needed STEM facility. A pause for Covid and the arrival of a new president put the design and programming of the building on hold. But the years-long planning effort was not in vain. On the contrary, it has built a strong foundation for the decision-making process as the priorities of the new university leadership solidify.

“There are lots of twists and turns when planning for the future,” says Tyler Patrick, principal, Sasaki Associates. “NAU’s new design and programming teams have to reevaluate everything that existed and was paused. They will have all the scenarios and interactive modeling to work with. These tools will enable them to understand and pull those different levers, depending on what the new leadership envisions.” 

Huge Space Deficit After Growth Spurt

The decade from 2008 to 2018 saw enrollment on the Flagstaff campus surge from 15,000 to 22,000 students. The rapid growth has since slowed, but it created what Valerie Barret, NAU manager of Planning and Space Management, describes as a “huge deficit of academic space” that demanded attention. In order to derive maximum benefit from proposed capital projects, Barret’s group worked with Sasaki to produce a full accounting of campus space inventory, program shortfalls, deferred maintenance, and underutilized space.

The detailed space use analysis showed that the natural sciences and related departments occupy approximately one-third of the 1.07 million asf of academic space. Many of the academic units are spread out across the campus; for example, the environmental college has occupants dispersed in 12 different buildings of disparate age and condition.

The comprehensive studies also revealed that the high-need areas tended to be not classrooms but labs, for both teaching and research, primarily in STEM and health sciences. (The conclusion was not surprising given the school’s desire at the time to be rated among the National Science Foundation’s top 200 research universities in the nation, a target it reached in 2018 when it ranked 196, and a goal that is now de-emphasized.) 

While a high priority, building a new STEM facility was only part of the solution to the space shortfall. Recognizing that one building couldn’t satisfy all needs, NAU’s forward-thinking leadership allocated $30 million of its $130 million capital budget to renovations and deferred maintenance in an overall effort to improve space utilization. New and updated facilities would be used to create a Science Corridor and revitalize an academic district. All these activities would take place in the context of campus-wide goals that include promoting equity and community, breaking down silos among departments, following best practices, and minimizing costs while maximizing results. 

Suitability Assessments and Downcycling 

A campus master plan several years back had identified the site for the new facility amid a cluster of 1960s-vintage science buildings. Most of the buildings required updating, not only in response to deferred maintenance but also to meet contemporary pedagogical needs—spaces that accommodate collaboration and put learning and research on display instead of behind closed doors. An important part of the planning process was assessing the suitability of the neighboring space to see how it could best be backfilled.

Patrick explains that planners traditionally look at facility condition to determine whether a building is worth renovating. Sasaki takes that one step further with a granular assessment of building suitability factors, from structure and MEP systems to circulation layout and special features. 

“A suitability study looks not just at a building’s condition but at its bones,” he says. “Stripping it back to its structural elements, we ask what the building is best used for today. It may no longer support its original function as a lab building, but that doesn’t mean it should be demolished. Instead, it could be downcycled to a less intense use, say for classrooms or administrative offices.”

Noting that it is difficult to upcycle to higher intensity, Patrick articulates the rule of thumb guiding Sasaki’s approach to the NAU campus plan: “Build new for higher intensity uses and renovate for the less intense.” 

Scenarios, Round 1

After collecting, tabulating, and scrutinizing all the data, the planning team arrived at specific assumptions on which to base STEM Phase 1 capital projects:

  1. The funding pot would be divided between $100 million for the new building and $30 million for renovation.
  2. There would be 75,000 to 120,000 asf (140,000 to 200,000 gsf) of new construction, and 35,000 to 65,000 asf (50,000 to 80,000 gsf) of renovation in the complex of 60-year old buildings.
  3. The new STEM building would have five or six floors, with 15,000 to 25,000 asf per floor.

But while the directive for new building was research, concerns surfaced about meeting the other goals set out in the study, especially improving the academic student experience through the combination of teaching, research, and learning. 

In response, Sasaki crafted three scenarios, one prioritizing research, one teaching, and one a balanced version, each with corresponding backfill configurations. The proposed design evolved into a five-story (plus penthouse) building with approximately 20,000 asf per floor. The one constant across all three scenarios was a collaboration hub on the ground floor. 

Reflecting scenario A’s research priority, all four floors of the new building would be devoted to research labs, with teaching labs accommodated in the renovations. “They would be nicer than what they had, but they weren’t going to transform the student experience significantly,” comments Patrick. 

Scenario B called for three floors of teaching and learning space topped by one floor of research, which would be prioritized in the backfill. The idea was to create a heart for student learning while exposing undergraduate students to a research environment, building on the synergy of teaching, research, and learning.

“That meant we would be able to attract some new faculty with the state-of-the-art research space, but we would also be renovating for research space,” says Patrick. 

Scenario C represented a middle ground, with research getting 2.5 floors and teaching 1.5 floors. Backfill would be balanced between future teaching and research needs.

Sasaki’s suitability analysis supported all three scenarios, but each proposal had opportunities and challenges. For example, scenario A’s state-of-the-art research building would attract new faculty, but their offices would have to be elsewhere. Scenario C balanced immediate needs for teaching labs and research growth, but the space might not be adequate for longer term faculty growth. 

Feedback and Decisions

The three scenarios were fed into an evaluation matrix that allowed comparisons according to research impact, student experience impact, cost implications, science corridor space use, and space moves to unlock backfill. That information was then distributed to NAU’s steering committee, including its president and provost and faculty representatives. 

“We held lots of listening sessions, department meetings, and tours,” says Barret. “Reaching out and letting people be heard is very important for our campus. It helps with synergy and morale.”

“It is rare to have so much leadership participation, but it was really critical when standing behind decisions of this magnitude,” adds Patrick. 

Ultimately, scenario C, the balanced approach, was chosen for four key reasons: 

  • It provides high-quality research space to attract top-tier faculty. 
  • It does not rely on satisfying all research faculty hires on day one to fill the building. 
  • It demonstrates NAU’s dual commitment to high-quality teaching and research. 
  • It supports the creation of a mixed-use district along the entire science corridor. 

Scenarios, Round 2 

Even with the “Goldilocks” decision to balance research and teaching considering how much space to allocate to each, the architects hired to design the new building needed more information on potential users and their needs before proceeding with the project. 

“The first round of scenario planning was high level, looking at big moves district-wide and how to downcycle,” says Patrick. “The new architects needed another round to determine the right program mix for the new building and how it would inform a backfill strategy. What program demands could be accommodated where?” 

“A big part was also the connectivity piece—breaking down silos to facilitate more interdisciplinary-type work,” adds Barret. “We wanted the new building to be connected and accessible to all the other buildings in the area.”

The planning team met with 11 departments to understand what the most critical teaching lab shortages were and how new construction could optimize utilization to meet current demand. The ensuing analysis calculated the net needs for each discipline based on 20- and 30-hour weekly utilization rates.

“NAU already had a very high teaching lab utilization rate—30 hours of room use, compared to typical rates around 20 hours,” explains Patrick. “We didn’t want to hold them to a lower standard than what they were already achieving.” 

The concept for the second round of scenarios was predicated on a four-story building (plus penthouse) with a first-floor collaboration hub. Biology, environmental science, and physics and astronomy were identified as the three disciplines with the most pressing space needs. 

This time, Sasaki came up with four options, with varying quantities of 2,000-asf teaching labs per discipline and overall research space ranging from 10,000 to 38,000 asf.  

“We were able to work with the architects to program these spaces, to see what the trade-offs and backfill implications were, which rooms specifically could be backfilled for what—office, classroom, collaboration, and so on.” 

In the end, NAU selected the first of the four new options, scenario A, which satisfied the minimum net need of six teaching labs, solely for biology, while providing the maximum amount of space—38,000 asf—for research. 

“This was perhaps not my preferred direction, but NAU felt that it was the most important configuration in order to recruit the faculty that they needed,” says Patrick. “The six new biology labs with shared support space allow more flexibility, and that was a win. And because they are more efficient, some existing biology labs can be repurposed and given to other high-demand departments. It was a solution that hit all the pieces that needed to be hit.”

And Then… 

Further work on the project was paused during the pandemic, a fortuitous turn of events as NAU’s new president, installed in June 2021, has placed a higher priority on the student experience than on research. 

Still, planners have the critical data in hand for programing the new building.   

“The number of faculty hires and researchers may change, but we developed a typology of space demands related to the PI level,” says Patrick. “For example, if NAU hires 25 PIs instead of 50, they can calculate what those space needs will be. They have the tools to accommodate whatever change they need.”

“The scenario planning yielded a highly resilient and flexible framework that can accommodate, in varying degrees, the principles and goals that emerged from our planning process,” confirms Barret. “The data, the analysis, and the overall approach have made the university more adaptable to change, able to go with the flow. That’s the value of scenario planning.”  

By Nicole Zaro Stahl