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Council of Ontario Universities Space Guidelines

The Council of Ontario Universities space guidelines, (also known as the Building Blocks space standards) are the benchmarks routinely used within the Ontario university system to determine “space requirements” at a campus level. They consist of three components:

  • a space classification scheme that describes the wide range of facilities that make up a university’s physical plant
  • a series of input measures to serve as proxies for space demand and which are sensitive to changes in enrollments, numbers of faculty and staff and academic programs
  • space utilization factors that predict space requirements based on assumptions regarding target use and size of facilities.

These guidelines are particularly well suited for campus planning exercises as they take a holistic approach to a wide range of campus needs, from classrooms to offices, from library space to food services and they have been used to inform the planning process at the University of Toronto.

The COU conducts a survey of the physical facilities of Ontario Universities once every three years using this classification scheme and space formulae. The first triennial survey was published in 1978. (Thirteen  have been published since then with the most recent being prepared for 2019/20).

The Office of Campus & Facilities Planning and a standing COU Committee continue to conduct detailed reviews of the Building Blocks space guidelines and input measures, revising them where appropriate to reflect current teaching and research conditions, generally on a three year cycle to match the triennial reporting structure.

The COU space standards, although never used as part of a capital allocation funding formula as originally intended, have maintained a high profile with the Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities and have been used provincially to

  • calculate the distribution of the provincial government’s Facility Renewal Program since 1986/87
  • provide input to various task forces examining the impact of anticipated increases in undergraduate (double cohort and increased participation) and in graduate students within the Ontario system
  • monitor changing space needs to support capital funding requests for the university system as a whole

Externally, the significance of the COU Space Standards has been recognized by numerous jurisdictions. They have been adopted or incorporated by outside agencies and institutions (UBC, Dalhousie, government ministries in British Columbia and Saskatchewan, consultants planning University facilities in Canada and other countries). The Canadian University Reciprocal Insurance Exchange (CURIE) uses the COU space categories as a basis for determining the value of university facilities for insurance purposes. At the institutional level, the COU space classification scheme and standards are used for:

  • classifying space by user and type of use for an inventory of facilities (currently used for the U of T’s New Budget Model)
  • projecting overall space needs for a campus or a unit based on established space and utilization criteria
  • measuring efficiency of use of existing classrooms, teaching labs, offices, etc.
  • space programming standards for the planning of new or renovated facilities
  • planning standards for strategic and capital budget planning
  • benchmarks for comparing the physical resources of peer groups

At the University of Toronto, the approach has been taken to adopt and adapt the COU space standards. They are routinely used in all the ways outlined above but are always part of a responsive, objective process of analysis which is site specific and tailored to the individual unit being reviewed. The goal is to be standardized enough to provide not only a consistent but also an equitable approach to different types of facilities planning – whether for new construction, renovation or reallocation of facilities.

A few cautious comments should be made regarding what a “standard” is. Depending on the application the “space standard” may be seen as a target to be achieved, a minimum to be met, a maximum not to be exceeded, an optimum to strive for or a guideline to be used as a benchmark. The University uses elements of the standards in all these ways. The 34 hour per week utilization standard for classrooms is viewed as a desirable minimum by the university, and the 12 sq.m. allocation per office is viewed as a design guideline that may be exceeded for departmental chairs and adjusted down to 11 or 10 or even less where costs are critical or common sense on use dictates. In some applications, the bottom line is viewed as an envelope within which adjustments to space programs can be made to meet the needs of users.

And finally, a few limitations of the COU space standards. They identify space requirements in terms of quantity but do not measure the physical condition of existing space, the impact of age and deferred maintenance on the ability of the space to function properly, nor do they measure the functionality of a space for the activity housed within it. They do not address the demand for residential space nor the impact of the changing cost of scarce resources. As well, although most of the categories are reviewed on a continuing basis (classrooms, labs, offices, etc), others carry allowances that have not been subjected to as much detailed scrutiny (athletic space, food service, student clubs, etc.).

More information can be found on the COU website. The report is available at the following link: Inventory of Physical Facilities of Ontario Universities 2019-20 (Jan 2022)