Five Starting Points for Updating Your College's Master Facilities Plan

By Mark Rocha

I begin with this extended and well-known excerpt from a speech President Eisenhower made in 1957:

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything. This is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of "emergency" is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning.

So, the first thing you do is to take all the plans off the top shelf and throw them out the window and start once more. But if you haven't been planning you can't start to work, intelligently at least.

That is the reason it is so important to plan, to keep yourselves steeped in the character of the problem that you may one day be called upon to solve--or to help to solve.

Eisenhower is calling our attention to two key points to remember for anyone who is responsible of participating in the planning of a master facilities plan for a college.

First, a master facilities is not a product but a continuous process, always already in the process of becoming.  Most colleges have master facilities plans and if your plan is more than an academic year old, it's out of date and needs an update.  More importantly, you need to engineer a process in which this planning process is continuous.

Second, a master facilities plan is inherently wrong the moment it is completed because when a college is planning for the future, the unexpected will render any plan of limited value. If your college library was built in the 20th century consider that it was planned and built before the internet, the smart phone, online research databases and online education itself, to say nothing of the mapping of the genome and the advance of neuroscience that has upended common assumptions about learning.  A library has always been the heart and soul of a college.  Most often it is the centerpiece of the built environment, yet most of the functions for which your library were originally intended are no longer with us.  Not even the most prescient architect or administrator planning a college library in 1995 could have possibly anticipated the full implications of the information technology revolution.  So should we give up on master plans?  Eisenhower would say yes but quickly add that the planning process is crucially important.  What is needed now is a process of continuous planning that accommodates changing circumstances.  If, for example, you are currently planning an extreme makeover of your library and could use some inspiration, try this article, "The Future of the Library Will Probably Look Something Like This."

So, here are five starting points for pulling your facilities plan off the shelf immediately and re-submitting it to your planning process:

  1. PROCEED WITH HUMILITY.  Nobody knows for sure what education will look like in fifty years.  Not the architects, not the engineers, not the trustees, not the faculty, staff or students. But many people will speak as if they know.  Engineer a process that begins with asking stakeholders for "futures-thinking" questions rather than for input as to what they want.  Root the process in questioning rather than gathering and balancing what everyone says they currently need.
  2. WHAT WOULD YOUR CAMPUS PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT LOOK LIKE IF YOUR COLLEGE WAS REINVENTED AS AN INTERNET BUSINESS?  We can't know for sure what is ahead fifty years from now, but one lesson we have learned is that a fixed bricks-and-mortar environment is becoming less and less essential.  In fact for many businesses and already for a few private colleges, the costs of physical plant has been ruinous.  Your college is an internet business whether you fully realize it or not and this way of doing business must go beyond a new website.  You do not have to go out and spend big money on Silicon Valley consultants for this. You already have faculty and students operating at the cutting edge and they would love to redesign the college as an internet business like Amazon.  You'll learn a lot from this even if you don't buy their whole proposal.
  3. START WITH INFRASTRUCTURE AND A SUSTAINABLE UTILITIES DESIGN.  There is not much point in designing a LEED building if it is tied into an aging infrastructure.  Most of your time at the outset needs to be invested in developing an infrastructure plan that will achieve the goals of zero emissions and low utility and maintenance costs.  A related point is not to go cheap on infrastructure.  For example many new buildings today are still built without windows that open because they are usually more expensive to build.  Yet the research shows that even in warm weather people are happier and more productive if you set the thermostat high, open the windows and design in ceiling fans.
  4. THINK NO OFFICES, NO FIXED WALLS, NO MORE PARKING, NO ADDITIONAL CUSTODIAL STAFF. This is a radical exercise but the kind that should be part of a "futures-thinking" master planning process.  Unfortunately, such an exercise will immediately bump into campus political realities in which everyone needs a private office and a reserved parking spot nearby.  But it is worth taking some time to imagine spaces that are entirely open, where even the president's office is in full view (talk about transparency!), where no additional footprint was given to asphalt parking or parking structures but rather there was a large drop off/pick up area for Uber and Lyft.  From a risk management perspective, fixed wall design guarantees you will be wrong.  Just ask your facilities staff how many costly renovations they have had to do and how many await. Finally, be sensitive to the burden that your custodial and maintenance staff face: cleaning and caring for more and more square footage with little expectation that budget will allow staff to be increased accordingly.  Explore the innovative building designs and robotics equipment that enable a space to clean itself.
  5. YOU GET WHAT YOU PAY FOR.  State and local building codes and public agency procurement regulations offer clear guidelines for managing and executing master plans.  A college must obviously stay well within these boundaries, especially since leadership is responsible for external oversight and audits.  This makes it all the more important at the outset to put time effort and funding into an RFP that will identify the programming architect and construction program manager that will move the process from development to ribbon-cutting.  A doctor of mine once said that if you seek someone to do a given surgical procedure, find the surgeon who has done  five hundred of them.  Well, you may not find firms who have done even a hundred "futures-thinking" master plans, but you can find five. Start by talking to them. 

There you have it.  Like any conversation, this is meant as a starting point and not the final word.  Please do let me know if you have thoughts or contributions based on your own experience.  Thanks!

--Mark Rocha