3 Common Pitfalls of the Campus Master Planning Process

The campus master planning process is commonly viewed by colleges and universities as an opportunity to engage researchers and campus and community leaders in a strategic discourse about the future. To inform this conversation, when an institution’s administration decides they need a master plan, they often turn to outside planners or designers as their first resource. These professionals can provide the insitution’s planning team with critical information, including campus maps, details on campus size, and the age and function of each piece of property. The designer might ask campus leadership to identify programmatic priorities or the levels of functional distress within existing spaces. This information is often used to drive design.

However, this typical campus master planning process has its pitfalls. Let’s explore three of them.

1. Overemphasis on the Biases of Institutional Governance or Consulting Faculty

A master plan with strong internal stakeholder biases and deficient facilities information is likely to overemphasize the preferences of leadership or consulting faculty, potentially to the exclusion of important insights. If a college or university president’s focus is building a legacy that includes strengthening certain academic programs, for example, the master plan might ignore the importance of modernizing the residence halls as a tool for student recruitment.

While including stakeholder desires is not inherently misguided, without proper facilities data the likelihood that important needs will be excluded or abandoned for personal priorities rises. Without credible data and a strategy that balances investment priorities, institutional bias can infiltrate the campus master planning process and create a plan rooted in subjectivity and not evidence-based decision making.

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2. Overadherence to the Planning Team’s Preferred Strategy

Author Esther Jno-Charles is credited with penning the insight that “what you focus on expands.” This is apt wisdom for campus master planning.

Like institutional leaders and consulting faculty, professional planners have their preferences. If the planning team focuses on designing new buildings, then new buildings will become the linchpin of the plan. But getting too attached to any plan in the early phases is a serious misstep.

A strategy with momentum is difficult to slow down, even if said strategy is detrimental to the future success of the campus. Adhering too rigidly to any one strategy compromises the plan’s capacity to adapt to changing conditions or emerging opportunities. Balancing adaptability with prevailing directives is a pivotal characteristic of a sustainable master plan.


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3. Overfocus on New Construction

The allure of adding a new building is often greater than the desire to renovate a structure that has existed for years. Additionally, people are generally more comfortable talking about new solutions rather than coping with old problems, particularly problems that aren’t clearly documented. Thus, the campus master planning process often becomes a wide-eyed discussion about erecting new facilities that are sure to attract the best and brightest students from around the world, and draw in donations from alumni and business partners.

But focusing on the new doesn’t make old facilities problems disappear. In fact, as financing is poured into new construction, it may remove resources that could be used to update buildings that must be renovated or demolish buildings that should be abandoned. Further, given that the average building is occupied only 60% of available time, building new is hardly an iron-clad strategy for long-term viability.

What to Do in the Event of a Campus Master Planning Pitfall

For instititions that have experienced one or all of these pitfalls, an examination of the plan’s potential exposures does not have to wait until the next master planning cycle. You might consider updating your plan to account for a reassessment of priorities and their associated costs, and to address portions of the plan that aren’t performing or perhaps weren’t included at the onset of the planning process.

Waiting to address your master planning problems means losing time to put financing solutions in place, allowing facility conditions to further deteriorate or pursuing a course of action that will add to increasingly unmanageable maintenance and operational costs.

Whether you’re initiating or updating a campus master plan, now is the time to take a fresh, data-driven approach to this major strategic effort. Gordian has decades of experience helping campus leaders collect and assess facilities performance data to inform and assemble a sustainable campus master plan that sets the course for a successful future.

About Gordian

Gordian is the leader in facility and construction cost data, software and services for all phases of the building lifecycle. A pioneer of Job Order Contracting, Gordian’s solutions also include proprietary RSMeans data construction costs and Facility Intelligence Solutions. From planning to design, to procurement, construction and operations, Gordian’s solutions help clients maximize efficiency, optimize cost savings and increase building quality.