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  • Writer's pictureCorey L. Wilson

The Living Facilities Master Plan: Is It Possible?

Updated: Nov 28, 2023



I have started to wonder something: Why do we engage in periodic facilities master planning efforts? The question is not why we do master plans. That is obvious. There are many important strategic reasons for doing these plans and they provide immense value to our institutions. The question is, why do we only do them periodically? To fuel my query, I have reflected on the evolution of facilities asset planning. For many years, facilities operations had adopted the notion of a periodic facilities condition assessment to help them plan for future capital needs. These assessments were typically done every 5 or 10 years. They would evaluate the assets and systems and attempt to forecast what would be needed between the time of the study and the evaluative horizon. Anything over that horizon was not included in the plan. Is there a way in which master planning can evolve from the periodic exercise that has become the standard and become more like life-cycle planning? Over time, some realities began to set in.

  • Doing a facilities condition assessment regularly was expensive. Campuses were spending hundreds of thousands if not millions every 5 or 10 years to have experts come and complete these studies.

  • As much as we don’t like to admit it, many times, these studies sat on a shelf for a couple of years before we got around to implementing those projects that seemed to have the most value for the institution while pushing the others to the backlog of deferred capital renewal.

  • They were incomplete. They didn’t have a full inventory of assets and often missed needs that were not apparent at the time of the study.

  • The update plans often were not done on time, creating a gap in needs assessments. That left facilities professionals scrambling to attend to the needs of those assets and systems that were just past the evaluative horizon but had now come due for renewal.

While they certainly do have their place and are valuable to our institutions, I’m sure all of us can recall challenges we have faced with the periodic facilities condition assessment. The answer to many of these challenges was the practice of life-cycle planning. Life-cycle planning resolved many of those issues and had several advantages:

  • A full inventory of managed assets and systems was only done once. Data was audited and updated, but the full inventory was typically a one-time activity.

  • Forecasts spanned 30 or 40 years, meaning there wasn’t typically anything “just over the horizon.”

  • Facilities condition assessments were still done, but now they were annual and were performed only on those assets that were coming due for renewal in the next year or two.

  • The life-cycle planning program was much more affordable. The initial survey was sometimes a considerable expense, but depending on campus resources, the annual process typically required minimal—if any—outside consultation efforts.

This new concept of life-cycle planning was strategic, dynamic, real-time, and affordable. Now for the big question: Is there a way in which master planning can evolve from the periodic exercise that has become the standard and become more like life-cycle planning—a living process that is renewed and refreshed annually but never sunsets, never expires, and never approaches that evaluative horizon? In order to consider this further, a review of some of the challenges with the periodic master planning effort should be conducted. Some of the more obvious challenges include:

  • A periodic master plan is expensive, and typically requires architects, engineers, planners, estimators, and other industry experts to complete.

  • It only includes those items that are presently known in the strategic plan and by the campus leadership. It cannot account for unknowns with academic programs, growth targets, or regulatory demands that may develop.

  • The average tenure of a college or university president is 6.5 years.1 During the term of a 10-year master plan, it is reasonable to expect that the president and at least some of the senior administration could turn over.

  • The evaluative horizon is limited. So many master plans have a title to the effect of “Campus Vision 2030.” While it is good to have a vision for what the campus will be like in 5 or 10 years, why does that vision have to be static?

To go along with the evaluative horizon, needs are rapidly changing. The “Age of Accelerations” we are now living through has caused a dramatic shift in the way we plan for and manage our facilities. According to Thomas Friedman’s book Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, the rate of technological advancement has quickened exponentially. When the book was published in 2016, the time between disruptive technological advancements was only 5 to 7 years. This means that, during the 10-year term of a facilities master plan, the industry could experience two or three disruptive advancements in technological development. As technological innovation continues to accelerate, that frequency is sure to hasten. Considering Albert Einstein’s observation that “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it,” how can we possibly be expected to solve challenges we will face as a campus community in the out-years of the master plan when so much change occurs along the way? Back to my question: Is there a way to make master planning more of a living process and make it more responsive, strategic, and real-time? I believe there is. But how? Let’s start with the basic elements of a master plan. Every master plan is different and may include more or less components than these, but this summary should cover some of the more common elements. How would they work as a living plan? Institutional Strategic Plan In order to be successful, the facilities master plan needs to be tied back to the institutional strategic plan. Otherwise, the master plan will be a rogue effort and any strategic goals alignment will be purely coincidental. Here is the first hurdle: Most strategic plans have a similar 5- or 10-year term. How can we tie into the strategic plan and evolve with the campus’s needs at the same time? Just because the strategic plan has a 10-year term doesn’t mean that the resources and methods required to carry it out need to be the same as they were when the plan was adopted. In fact, as time goes on, complex strategic objectives may become simpler through the advent of new technologies or paradigm shifts in the industry. While it is important to hold to the institution’s strategic objectives, being creative in responding to those needs can be helpful in this situation. Institutions have started to notice the challenge with fulfilling a 10-year strategic plan while simultaneously dealing with the accelerating rate of global change. To accommodate this, the concept of a rolling strategic plan has emerged.2 In a nutshell, the aim of a rolling strategic plan is to combine the guidance and cohesion of an institutional strategic plan with the flexibility that this changing world demands. This is a new concept and is still being worked out, but it is an interesting paradigm shift we are seeing that coincides beautifully with the idea of a living master plan. Facilities Condition Assessment and Total Cost of Ownership This could be the most straightforward part of the effort to adopt a living master plan. As described earlier, shifting to a life-cycle program with annual, targeted condition assessments would be a great addition to the living master plan effort. To take this a step further, adopting the new standard on total cost of ownership (TCO) modeling (APPA 1000) will provide additional clarity in total costs now and in the future.3 APPA’s TCO model not only considers life cycle and recapitalization, but also includes project delivery, operations and maintenance, utilities, and end-of-use costs forecast for decades. Actively maintaining and updating the elements of the TCO model could not only help provide the facilities condition elements of the living master plan, but also inform strategies regarding energy, sustainability, and operations and maintenance. Space Utilization and Growth Plan One key element of master plans is the space utilization plan. A multitude of questions about space are addressed in the master plan. Additionally, considering the rate of change in our institutions, it gives further credence to the notion of a living master plan. Can we really expect the planners to be able to foresee all the needs of the students, faculty, staff, and academic programs for the next 10 years? There are a few tools already in existence that can help us make the space utilization elements of the master plan more dynamic. One in particular is the Asset Comprehensive Plan as laid out in Part 1 of the TCO standard. Principle 3.3.10 of APPA 1000 details this concept.4 When utilized properly, this plan will help forecast the needs of academic programs, assets, staffing growth, property acquisition or contraction, and many other elements key to space utilization and planning. Architectural Plan This is possibly one of the more challenging areas to adopt as a living plan. What most people think of when they hear “master plan” is the architectural master plan. It contains schematic block diagrams, renderings, and other architectural elements to help visualize and sell the plan to the administration and board. I would suggest that if the analytical efforts to develop this plan are undertaken properly, the architectural plan may simply be a graphical representation of the current thinking on those outputs and would help avoid projects of opportunity. That being said, it is okay if the plan changes from year to year. Adjustments based on strategic shifts and evolving conditions are what make it a living plan. If we rigidly hold to the schematic block diagram because “that is what is in the master plan,” then we are not allowing ourselves to course correct for the latest needs of the campus community. Implementation Plan The implementation plan of any master plan is critical. Without knowing what to do, when to do it, and how much it will cost, the plan is just a pretty set of pictures depicting our wish list. Adapting an implementation plan to a living master plan can be a challenge. It is not wise to be changing the plan just prior to starting the project delivery process. Thus, some form of protocol or process regarding when updates can be made and what part of the plan is “locked” will be essential. For example, if you are a state institution that requires 2 or 3 years to get capital projects funded and off the ground, perhaps that is your static plan term. That would mean that everything in your living master plan for the next 3 years is locked, but everything starting in year 4 is open. This approach will also help the planning, design, and construction group adequately prepare, and avoid the risk that their efforts will go to waste because of a last-minute change. As we read and reflect upon these ideas, I want to emphasize that I offer these thoughts as a way of starting a conversation. You probably have a lot of questions. While there are some ideas presented here, I would be the first to admit that I don’t have this all figured out. Furthermore, as with every aspect of facilities management, this concept would play out very differently from campus to campus, and each operation would need to take their unique circumstances into consideration. The point of this article is to explore the “art of the possible” and to see if as a collective community, we can start thinking in more dynamic terms when it comes to facilities master planning. The world is changing more every year, and as the last 24 months have taught us, accurately predicting the future is futile. Charles Darwin wrote: “The species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.” If we hope to not only survive—but thrive—in delivering quality academic experiences to our campus communities during this age of exponential acceleration, we need to consider the possibility that periodic facilities master plans could eventually become outmoded and that we may need to adopt a more flexible model of long-range master planning. Might that be the living master plan? I look forward to exploring this together. Article content is courtesy of Cameron Christensen, CEFP, FMP from APPA's July/August 2022 issue of Facilities Manager.


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