One of my thermo professor friends has a joke, “The first law of laboratory space is that it must be conserved, at all costs.” It’s only partly a joke — laboratory space is as serious of an issue as it comes to research faculty. We make decisions to come to a university, and stay or go, based on lab space. There is never enough space for everyone. Changes to policy result in changes… and there always seems to be someone who ends up unhappy.

So high up on the list of thankless jobs that people will hate you for is developing a policy for managing lab space allocation. Look around WSU and you won’t see many lists of guiding principles. My college has a couple of policies that allow the Dean or Department chair to re-allocate space due to lack of expenditures and/or a facilities need, but I’m not aware of a time that it has ever been invoked. So it becomes the challenge of any leader to create a system that inherently fosters the behavior that benefits us and our constituents so that we may avoid the draconian flip-side.

A different, layered approach to space

When I went looking for lab space management policies at other universities I found a lack of consistency. It seemed that university policies were at either extreme alluded to above; general guiding principle documents that are not tractable, or inflexible expenditure based equations. When faced with situations that seem like an unnecessary choice between two non-optimal extremes, I’ve found layering heuristics to fair well. Example, consider allocation of computational resources at a university — classic centralization versus decentralization dichotomy that will never be fully resolved. A series of layers to help decide between a centralized and decentralized resource, that regardless of the choice promotes effective management principles, tends to be where most universities evolve to.

A set of layers to breakdown the management of space allocation could be:

  1. Authority — Every faculty/staff member should have authority over a space, whether an office, classroom, or lab to call home. And every space should have a designated individual with authority and responsibility over the space. I have a lab space that had a vacant space next door. Random student projects would end up there, with no oversight or management, the space would routinely become a hazard. I’d bring this up with the administration who’d immediately ask who was responsible for the space. I’d say nobody. Then the conversation would die for 3 months until I brought it up again. The administration works through a chain of command. Space needs authority else succumbs to a tragedy of the commons. Note that this is not a statement of “a lab space for every PI” — this is simply saying that everyone will have authority over a space, sometimes spaces within a space.
  2. Legal Governance — Every space needs to follow a common set of rules. For example, a set of rules for allocating keys/cards for access to space, emergency contact information, mandatory safety protocols, procedures for making structural modifications to a space, and any specific rules customized for a space, etc. This set of rules should be posted inside the exit door to a space to quickly resolve any questions. WSU has a start to this with safety signage outside of labs, but the modifications, access list, etc are not coordinated with the safety signage. Awhile back we had a Provost require PIs to sign and post a sheet to the inside door of all lab spaces emphasizing our commitment to safety — this shouldn’t be a one time top-down decry that decayed with use. We should make it part of the physical infrastructure of every lab space that is updated annually.
  3. Performance — Metrics are needed for quantifying effective space utilization. The basic approach is to divide the expenditures by the square footage as a sort of utilization statistic. This approach can easily over-simplify the problem as not all fundings nor lab-spaces are created equal. Some of my ‘lab space’ has been in “managed decline” for multiple decades and we have to routinely remove animals that somehow wonder in, it doesn’t even have fire suppression. The very act of us being in the space is helping to maintain it; as a sort of service to campus. Clearly, the expenditures and utilization need to consider multiple factors:
    1. Expenditures should include: salaries/wages of personnel utilizing the spaces (including faculty/staff salaries, RAs, TAs, timeslip), research grant expenditures, service center expenditures, etc.
    2. Square footage should include: square footage of space, a divisor for the quality category of the building as designated by fac-ops known as the Facility Condition Index (FCI), and any landmark items that necessitate specific work in the space (e.g. a fume hood or a dedicated hydrogen vent to the roof).
  4. Community — It is incredibly challenging for any single PI to sustain the performance of a research group or area throughout a career. We can smooth the bumps along the way by developing a sustaining community. Key attributes of sustaining communities include:
    1. Diverse participants: multiple faculty/staff/student members utilizing and contributing to spaces in multiple ways.
    2. Diverse resources: multiple resource streams at multiple levels, from alumni donations, student projects, service center contracting, industry sponsored research, state and federal grants, and center/institute involvement.
    3. Minimization of waste: no equipment or space should go under-utilized and we need systems for ensuring full utilization of supplies, and transference to people who can continue to use those supplies until fully expended.
    4. Diverse spaces: Frequent collaboration and engagement foster the ideas that lead to future funding. Many of the spaces in VCEA at WSU have not collaboration spaces or places to get coffee or draw on a whiteboard. This was a key historical oversight that has held us back. As a result, we need to think of ways to carve out design and collaboration areas within traditional laboratory and teaching spaces. The space design book, “I wish I worked there!” reviewed the spaces of the top design firms in the world and found four common attributes: 1) space for work, 2) space for collaboration, 3) space for focus, and 4) space for play/fun. We’ve got work to do, especially on attributes 2 and 4.
  5. Systemic — Most realize very quickly that all of the above categories need to be in a proper balance at the proper time to sustain a system for effectively managing space allocation. Getting the timing right means that we have to work with the faculty tenure clock.
    1. Un-tenured faculty should be given their own spaces to develop their own labs independent of the space utilization metric above. This is critical to allow new and emerging concepts a critical incubation period to develop enough critical mass/momentum to influence the broader cultural milieu. New PIs should also be required to establish service centers for major equipment expenditures — this doesn’t require faculty to work with external folks, they can set the price for using the equipment at such a high mark that they will seldom get business. A service center also allows faculty to set aside funds for equipment repair at a later date. New PIs should also be required to setup a website (like this one) that advertises the space capabilities, not just for external engagement, but to promote internal collaboration and engagement. Multiple major equipment purchases have been made simply because we did not know the equipment was already available, and underutilized on campus.
    2. Tenured faculty are more subject to the space utilization performance metric above. If a tenured faculty member is highly successful and utilizing space very effectively, then no collaboration or partnering is necessary. If a tenured faculty member is not utilizing space effectively, then a timer should start (2-3 years?) for them to identify peers for collaborating towards higher space utilization. But it should be made clear via the metrics if they are not utilizing space effectively and how that could be holding others back.
    3. Departments should review this space utilization metric as a group and strive for continual improvement. This will promote bigger space changes, potentially multiple faculty groups at once. But should also promote more engagement with our constituents.
A work in progress

This is simply a start to a very complex process of continuous improvement — which is something we can all get better at. I didn’t explicitly specify many of the metrics above because they will need to be fit to departmental realities. Please feel free to send me your comments and suggestions: jacob.leachman<at>