What is a Master Plan?

A master plan is a long-term vision reflecting a strategic plan, and should be driven by a mission statement and a vision to clearly define what drives it.

A master plan for a campus – whether Higher Education, Healthcare, or Corporate – creates a long-term vision for facilities that reflects a strategic plan. We often help higher education clients through this process, but large corporations, religious organizations, or hospitals with multiple buildings and services can also benefit from master planning. For this blog, I’ll focus on the Higher Education master planning process.

A master plan is a long-term vision reflecting a strategic plan. All good master plans tie back into the visioning that’s been done outside of a building plan. The master plan should be driven by a mission statement and a vision to clearly define a strategic plan that drives the master plan. This makes the physical facility master planning process easier.
A master plan can also outline short-term, early phases reflecting current needs that blend with the long-term plan. In the short-term, immediate needs are met and issues are solved. For example, if a university is introducing a new degree option and doesn’t have a physical space for those students, we help them create that in the short-term. Short-term needs are generally 1-2 years, and the plans should coordinate with the long-term master plan. Aligning the short-term and long-term planning eliminates future waste or redundancy in function.
Master plans are flexible, allowing options for changes in trends, market place, and student needs. As changes occur, so should a master plan. It’s important to revisit a master plan every 3-5 years and confirm that the vision still supports current and future needs.

Master plans should be revisited every 3-5 years because the current market place changes quickly due to technology, outside influence, and economic influences. A university might consider these possible influences:
  • Are there more students enrolling at the school?
  • Has a new donor been cultivated?
  • How is the economy doing?
  • Is there grant funding that needs to be used by a certain date?

The best master plans are built from consensus. Stakeholders want and need to be heard, but it’s important that expectations are clear from the start. Everyone will not get all of their wants met, but all of their needs will be met. The earlier those conversations take place, the better to allow time to create an effective and thoughtful master plan.
Stakeholders should come from a large cross section of constituencies. This typically includes administration, faculty, students, student governance groups, facilities staff, alumni, donor groups, and neighbors.

This is dependent on the depth and level of collaboration and consensus building. If there’s one person driving the goal – for example, a university president – it can be done quickly. If the information gathering to decide a strategic direction hasn’t already been done, it could take up to a year. The number of people involved influences the length of time it takes to create a plan.
The length of time to develop a master plan is also dependent on the strength of the strategic plans, mission, and vision. It depends on how clearly defined the goal is ahead of time. If that fundamental exploration is part of the master planning process, it will likely take longer. Typically, the length is takes to create a master plan can be as short as 4 months, or as long as 12 months.
Key decisions that impact the master plan process and timeframe include:
  • Strategic plan and vision
  • Potential growth around the existing property. Are there spaces outside of the existing property that allow for growth?
  • How long will the plan be good?
  • Who is the audience? Sometimes internal and external plans exist for privacy, legality, etc.

You can’t ever over plan. It’s good to be prepared and anticipate what could happen. If there are short-term and long-term growth requirements, and if you’re looking to grow your programs and student population, you should plan your resources. Space utilization is part of a good master plan, too. For example, if you have one million square feet on campus and are only effectively using 800,000, a good plan will help you better utilize your space. This doesn’t necessarily mean growth like buildings and additions.

A master planning team will help you set goals, guiding principles, and expectations of the process. The first meeting or exploration should focus on learning the guiding principles of a client and understanding their main goals. The process starts with due diligence and data collection – an absorption of everything we’ve discussed in this blog so far. This includes space utilization, growth, trends, immediate needs, long term strategic planning, etc.
There should be multiple options for discussion and brainstorming. A master plan starts with multiple options and narrows down to the best possible solution. The master planning team presents material to the stakeholder team and the conversation begins. The ultimate master plan is usually some blend of those initial options.
Your master planning team should help you put high level costs to different portions of the master plan and align them with the potential phases of implementation. They should also lead you through a discussion of annual budgeting impact of the master plan. There’s typically an intermediate presentation to a board or governing body about 75% of the way through the process. Using that feedback, the design team makes final changes and creates the final master plan for review.
The last step is to create a timeline for re-evaluation of the master plan over the following years.  Ideally the master planning team is re-engaged to help guide and direct these revisions.

The process should be comprehensive, research-based, inclusive of a variety of stakeholders including leadership, and – if done correctly – maybe even a little fun! Like any plan, master plans should be responsive to changing needs, but it’s much easier to reach your destination when you know where you are going.

Ron Dick AIA
Principal, Registered Architect