Three Facilities Master Planning Pitfalls

You’ve probably heard that there’s power in writing down your goals. Universities across the country have lofty ones—top-tier nationwide recognition, visionary staff, strong campus identity and high enrollment growth for starters. Writing down aspirations and goals helps an institution establish its vision and mission. To get on the right path, achieve institutional mission and meet the goals that guide the way, you’ll need a master plan.

For facilities management, an effective master plan should serve as a strategic roadmap that guides a university toward aligning its physical campus with long-term goals. Rather than relying on subjective impressions or outdated knowledge of current campus conditions, the master planning process must start with a rigorous data analysis that objectively identifies key priorities and greatest areas of present and future needs.

However, it’s typical for an institutions’ administration to turn to a planner or designer as their first resource in the master planning process. Maybe they provide the designer with information about the institution, including a map and details on campus size, and the age and function of each piece of property. The designer might ask campus leadership questions about programmatic priorities, or programmatic and functional problems with existing spaces. Together, this information might drive the design. But what’s typical isn’t always optimal—just because everyone does it doesn’t make it a good idea. This popular process can lead to three common pitfalls in the master plan.

1. The HiPPO Effect

When the highest paid person’s opinion (HiPPO) is in the room, beware. These strong and intimidating opinions are likely to come from the most important stakeholders at your institution. Without objective and extensive reference data, there is room for opinions to override the lack of facts. A master plan with strong stakeholder biases and deficient concrete facilities information is likely to include preferences of leadership or consulting faculty.

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. For example, if the president’s focus is on a legacy that includes strengthening certain academic programs, their vision might exclude the importance of modernizing the residence halls as a tool for student recruitment. Without credible data and a strategy that balances investment priorities, institutional bias can infiltrate the master planning process and create a plan rooted in subjectivity and not evidence-based decision making.

2. Shiny New Things Syndrome

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. However, when you aren’t properly informed about the available space you have, the focus tends to be on growth through new construction. Given that the typical classroom is occupied less than 60% of available hours, building new isn’t always an ironclad strategy.

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. Before there is any discussion about adding new spaces, you should consider repurposing or retiring existing buildings.

3. Biased- or Preference-Guided Planning

Without an unbiased third party to provide strategic guidance, the resulting master plan may reflect the planning team’s preferences. If the planning team typically focuses on designing new buildings, that’s likely to be the focus of the plan. When the planning process focuses too much on the future wants of a campus without addressing the existing demands, the master plan becomes markedly more difficult to realize and will be constructed on a shaky foundation.

Gordian has learned from countless institutional engagements that most institutions have more property to care for than they have resources. These institutions must be judicious about decisions they make regarding adding to or supplementing their campus portfolio.

Unfortunately, the typical master planning process is susceptible to not fully accounting for existing needs — not willfully, but simply because of lack of information and knowledge. By getting a solid picture of where the institution is today, the innovation and ingenuity typical of the planning process can be channeled to create the most powerful and financially-responsible impact upon the campus.