joe spence at NSU plaza

Joe Spence, Class of 2004
Director of Facilities Management at Northeastern State University

Little more than a decade ago, Joe Spence, a self-proclaimed frustrated builder, came across an article about the opening of the Urban Design Studio at the University of Oklahoma's Tulsa campus. Joe had to make the difficult decision to head back to school after more than 20 years. While pursuing a Master's of Science in Architecture at the Urban Design Studio, Joe tended to his construction business. After graduation, an advertisement for assistant director and project planner at Northeastern State University caught his eye. After accepting the job, he began planning projects and overseeing building plans. Unknown to Joe, his boss, the director was eight months away from retirement, leaving Joe next in the line of succession.
For the last six years, Joe Spence has been the Director of Facilities Management at Northeastern State University, overseeing 150 employees at all three campuses. He is responsible for all construction projects, the entire campus grounds and building maintenance. He describes it as his perfect job, melding all of his previous experiences: including maintenance and management skills he learned in the Marine Corps, business and construction skills developed at his own company and planning and design abilities honed at the Urban Design Studio.
During our interview, Joe explained how maintaining a campus over 160 years old has its challenges. Referring to the 90 buildings he is in charge of, "they're kind of like cars. Sometimes, in the mornings they just don't start." Watching over the collection of new and old facilities, Joe is accountable for over $75 million in improvements since he took over as director. Doing what ever it takes to keep the "great machine of education" running; he has spent over $20 million in renovations ranging from full remodels to switching out blackboards for smartboards.
Since it is impossible to know how a building is going to be used now, let alone years from now, versatility is incredibly important. You have to look at what is "right for the moment, as well as the 50 years from now. The Urban Design Studio teaches you to look at the big picture." His job is about making the right decision and constructing the right building in the right place and for the right purpose.
Making the right decisions can be hard and there is a balance between emotional decisions and what is financially viable. An aging dormitory, Wilson Hall, was built in 1939 and has hosted 100 students a year every year since. With no air conditioning, steam heat and little accommodations for the disabled, the dormitory is long overdue for renovation. It will cost about twice as much to renovate than it would to bulldoze and start from scratch. Yet, this building is historically significant to the campus and the alumni. Joe said that these are the same hard decisions faced by any university.
Setting goals over the past few years, Joe worked with the Urban Design Studio to create a campus plan. With recommendations from the plan, Joe is actively trying to eliminate impervious parking lots and as much concrete as possible from the center of campus, replacing them with green space. "Sustainable design is common sense, we have already removed two parking lots and are in the process of creating new quads.” Joe would like to simplify contracts and do more projects in-house. With all projects done internally, the university will be able to streamline the design and construction process and potentially save money. Joe says that he has a great job and a "fun challenge everyday, with designing, building, maintaining, fixing and gardening."
The Urban Design Studio is proud to showcase Joe Spence, Director of Facilities Management at Northeastern University, an outstanding alumnus, and we hope he continues planning for what he knows is right for now and right for the next 50 years.


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