DLA+ Anthony Lucarelli discussing university model during campus master planning session
Colleges and universities in the US are facing a precipitous decline in enrollment at a time when even public institutions are more dependent than ever on tuition to finance operations. Many are struggling to make ends meet while others, particularly among small private colleges, are shutting their doors permanently. This condition is a new paradigm for higher education. For several generations institutions enjoyed growth and prosperity in a landscape of high demand and robust government support resulting in campuses with infrastructure and facilities resembling that of a small city. Even with an unprecedented 25% rate of inflation in tuition costs, many colleges cannot keep up with the cost of operating and maintaining its facilities. This is a time when the routine cycle of facility master planning becomes anything but routine.
The campus master plan is often described as a roadmap to manage growth and change. In the current climate, perhaps describing the master plan as a roadmap for consolidation and change is more apropos. How do you deal with aging facilities and the drain on deferred maintenance budgets? Is there a surplus of space on Campus? What will COVID-19 teach us about the need for physical space as virtually every college student in America is attending class online? What is the nature of facilities that best adapt to abrupt changes in the higher education landscape? Comprehensive master planning will ask these questions. Sustainable operations and even the survival of colleges and universities depend on the answers.
Change is notoriously hard-won on campus for good reasons. Colleges are mission-driven; most with a legacy that has evolved successfully and independently, delivering on a promise of opportunity and achievement. Communities have formed with a distinct culture defined by the mission, which is just as important to a sustainable master plan as a manageable budget. The master plan process must therefore engage the campus community for consensus around a unified vision of success. So, given the hard decisions many campuses are confronting, transparent, efficient and effective stakeholder engagement becomes vital.
Building on the institutional strategic plan, and any fundamental adaptations to the mission and vision which may be in play, the campus master plan addresses the disposition of facilities and their suitability to support that mission and vision. As the process unfolds, stakeholders from finance to faculty and facilities must participate to decide what to do with existing buildings, how to optimize space utilization and how to allocate resources over time – or how to implement the master plan. These decisions will be informed by detailed studies, analyses and recommendations provided by the master planning design team which in addition to college representatives, typically includes architects, engineers and planners. Our master planning process has benefitted using certain tools which interpret and represent the findings and recommendations of the experts in ways that facilitate understanding and decision-making.
Assessment of buildings and their systems ranges from exhaustive life cycle analyses based on testing and performance history, to the more typical cursory analysis based on visual inspection of exposed existing conditions. Planning teams depend on the experience and judgement of senior professionals who can make reliable recommendations by assessing wear, the nature and condition of materials, the age of equipment, and the quality of products and systems. Recommendations usually come in the form of a lengthy technical report with photos. Ultimately, stakeholders need to know the relative condition of a building and its systems and how long they will last. We therefore ask our building assessment team to translate their observations as data inputs into an automated assessment tool whose output is a numerical ranking or “condition score” (poor, fair or good) and a predictive life expectancy for each system. Systems addressed include site, architectural, structural, mechanical, plumbing, electrical, telecommunications and life safety and security. These condition scores and the life expectancy of each system are aggregated to create a “building assessment score” which can be represented graphically. As a result, stakeholders can quickly ascertain the condition of numerous campus buildings at once and meaningfully contribute to decisions about the future of those buildings.
Space Utilization and Programming
Space utilization analysis for master planning usually starts with the existing space supply inventory maintained by the institution. Spaces are quantified by a space-use coding system which provides a standardized way of classifying space by type. The categories include classrooms, laboratories, office facilities, study facilities, general use, residential, support, etc. Systems vary slightly by institution and are based on nationally accepted standards. Using enrollment projections and schedules of classes, a comparison of space supply vs demand can be made quite readily, providing a macro view of the planning context. However, in a landscape wherein enrollment (demand) is declining, academic programs are being downsized or eliminated, and aging facilities are being decommissioned, a more comprehensive understanding of space utilization is needed for strategic facility planning. Each space needs to be understood relative to its location, size, configuration, condition, departmental ownership and suitability for the intended function.
This is where facility programming comes into play. Higher education design experts can work with stakeholders to identify space needs specific to departments and disciplines, evaluate existing space relative to those needs, right-size a program of spaces to suit the needs and recommend strategies for the master plan. Strategies can include renovating, relocating, consolidating, eliminating or building new space. This is a data-based exercise and needs a database tool to explore the permutations and facilitate understanding and decision-making by the stakeholders. Our higher education design experts utilize a programming database which enables us to rapidly generate reports as needed based on any number of qualitative and quantitative attributes assigned to a given space. Such a database program enriches the “space demand” calculation with information that will enable stakeholders to answer important questions in master planning: “Is the supply suitable for the demand?”, “Is renovation necessary?”, “Can one space serve multiple functions?”, “How and where should we consolidate space?”. Such a database can also be linked electronically to Facilities Management systems and BIM software to add important data to the inventory of existing space and provide graphical outputs to support space planning and design. Perhaps most importantly, the database quantifies the amount of renovated or new space needed (net and gross) which along with the assessments of existing buildings becomes the basis for estimating the costs to implement the master plan.
Master Plan Implementation
A campus master plan is ultimately a map of facilities projects (site, landscape and building) informed by data and the mission and programmatic priorities of the institution. The implementation plan is a schedule and a budget for executing the projects over time. However, although the master plan is a tool to manage change, everything about the master plan including its implementation needs to be flexible and adaptable to change. Some institutions have funding streams that allow for somewhat reliable, prioritized capital plans that can predict annual expenditures and when projects might come online. Others rely in unpredictable funding sources such as donors which may dictate the implementation of given projects. In addition, projects are sometimes dependent on one another for implementation in sequence; the dominoes must fall as planned. Flexible implementation plans will support multiple scenarios anticipating “swing space” and strategic incremental action to achieve longer term objectives. Again, we utilize a database tool which identifies every project in the plan, its likely duration of construction, its construction cost in today’s dollars, inflation formula and any required predecessors to its implementation. With this array of information, stakeholders have the data to understand and come to consensus on an ideal implementation plan, and readily explore adaptations to the plan as needed for changing circumstances. Opportunities will arise that require the plan be executed out of sequence from the ideal plan. An adaptable implementation plan reveals the consequences on cost, schedule and implications on other projects – with the means to make informed adjustments.
In this challenging time for colleges and universities, the campus master plan takes on significance beyond an aspirational vision: it will be a tool to navigate difficult and critical decisions in facility planning. Good planning under any circumstance will rely on the considerable expertise and experience that exists among staff, faculty and others across the campus community. The best outcomes arise when these experts are meaningfully engaged in the design process. Skilled facilitation with effective tools to support engagement will be key to creating consensus around a unified vision of a successful master plan.
For more on campus facilities planning, view the steps and considerations that should be taken in order to achieve the best ROI.Sign up for our newsletter to receive the latest industry trends and insights delivered straight to your inbox!