These randomly scheduled missives will opine on a variety of topics, mostly intended to be germane to design, construction, capital program management, and other related issues.

For shorter trips through the countryside, take a look at our blog, also called Notes from the Road.
Notes from the Road

November 2010
May I Have A Plan, Master?

manOrganizations which have ambitions for the future of facilities routinely consider their capital plans. Colleges, Universities, Medical Centers, Corporations, Manufacturers, Retailers — you name it. All users are candidates for Master Plans. Perhaps by default, the vast majority of these products are produced by Architects and Landscape Architects as the prime consultants.

Are these the best people to do this kind of work? Well, sure. Who else knows what to do? But how well is it done? That depends.

Visual Thinkers.

Most Architects and Landscape Architects relate quite well to the solid and negative elements of the built environment (forms and spaces). They absorb and comprehend the practical needs of their clients: function, linkage, special requirements, and the hundreds of factors which enable usefulness and enjoyment of facilities and their environs. The most adept practitioners can create stunning images of the ideal future campus. The blend of science and art by the truly gifted is inspiring.

blueprintsHowever, what else makes for a good Master Plan? What are the common elements which warrant incorporation? And what are the typical pitfalls to be avoided? Key components follow:

Facilities Condition Assessments

Truth be told: no good Master Plan of an existing facility or campus can ignore the obvious — what’s there now. Thorough documentation is crucial, along with intelligent analysis of building suitability for current and future uses.

abacusYet, a risk inherent in the detailed documentation of the condition of buildings and grounds is that the Master Plan becomes ‘Facilities-based’. While this may be warranted for a simple view of institution or corporate needs, it may be at the expense of a more nuanced proactive vision for the mission of the organization. A good plan may be based on the realities of the current situation, but it should not do so in a way that frustrates evolution of the fundamental needs of the users.

A good Master Plan is ‘Needs-based’.


Things like:

  • Academic Planning
  • Market Strategies
  • Manufacturing Methods
  • Retailing Fashions
  • Evolving Demographics
  • Global Progressions
  • Environmental Imperatives

An informed perspective of what’s needed to accommodate the larger forces at play in the world, with the creativity to mold designs for the built environment, is key to a quality Master Plan. A well-composed planning team with knowledge of the mandatory and discretionary tactics and strategies affecting the business of the client is essential — a sign that they have their full wits about them.

“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…” In 1623, John Donne had his head in the right place.

Conflict Resolution

My mother used to say “I want doesn’t always get.” A good planner will, of course, accurately record all users’ requests, typically resulting in a compiled wish-list filled with contradictions and over-reaching expectations. Invariably, all the ‘wants’ can’t be ‘gotten’.

The job of reconciliation can be quite scary — not for the faint of heart. Departmental infighting and the jousting for power and influence can inflict collateral damage on the facilitators and bystanders. Nevertheless, in a plan rightly done, the planner will insist upon and enable a process that incorporates all stakeholders and decision-makers. Failure to reach consensus (whether ‘top-down’ or ‘bottom-up’ driven) leaves any resulting Master Plan open to disavowal and sabotage by the unsatisfied.

A war story:

As a young designer, I had the Principal of a High School describe the negotiation over shop space between two instructors: “I put the two of them in a room, and watched as they fought. I can tell you that it was a fair fight and the winner was …”. While telling the tale, the two combatants sat with me, nodding pleasantly in agreement. Good job, Princie!


The year of windfall profits. The unexpected generous gift. The commitment to a new program with a unique funding stream. The discovery of a lucrative invention or product.

cash registerWhen any of these happen, and a capital improvement is essential, does the Master Plan have a mechanism to adapt? Are there ways to calculate and enumerate the consequences of inclusion or exclusion? Where does this new thing belong? What might be the legitimate advantages of bypassing the opportunity? What are the ongoing expenses instigated by the development.

A good plan defines a method for accommodating the unexpected. It’s one of the reasons why many designers have migrated away from ‘Master’ Plans, and are now producing ‘Framework’ plans (a new buzz-phrase). Plan for surprise.


The almighty dollar rules — usually. Funding sources, timing of expenditures, analysis of cash flow, absorption and retirement of debt, accounting for regular and cyclical obligatory expenses.

Good planners comprehend the sometimes complex fiscal drivers behind institutional or corporate long-term financial planning. The better ones become comfortable with the validity of the exercise, and are (at least) superficially fluent in the jargon of controllers, investment bankers and financial analysts.

The best Planners, however, willingly embrace expert money-people as active contributing consultants in the planning process. Cost and value (two different things) are accounted for.

Another war story:

A planner was recommending replacement of a very large, increasingly obsolete building with a totally new facility. Problem: the enormous expense of this new building would have sapped the client’s capital budget, forcing all other plans off the table. Only the Owner's intervention redirected the program into a staged series of feasible renovations. Good planners know how to manage money. CHANGE I once had a client who insisted planning was a pointless activity.

His narrative:

  • Planning requires the ability to accurately predict future needs and developments.
  • Planning requires the ability to correctly design solutions to the predicted need.
  • Planning requires the results of the future events to, in fact, align with the predictions.

With none of these items being reasonably assured, planning was pointless. Needless to say, I don't concur.

It’s true that things don’t always go as planned (like, never). The trick is to design an approach which accommodates variation. This is where the firm commitment to the visual plans of some planners often breaks down.

Good Planners acknowledge their creations cannot be frozen, immutable works of art. Done properly, they include recourse for what to do when things don’t pan out as predicted. Another asset of ‘Framework Plans’.


Master Planning is a process typically executed primarily by hired consultants. This means that the organization doing the hiring has to put in place the mechanisms to retain, collaborate with, and validate the efforts of the planning team. The client does well to get organized.

maze reachedIn-house planning is only marginally different. Usually there is a ‘Planning’ group, and a separate ‘User’ group. Either way, for those challenged by the process, there are consultants out there who can help in the facilitation. Talk about niche services. Planning is good, but not all plans are good.

Missed earlier newsletters? Find them here:
September 2010  “How do we choose?”
July 2010  “Good People Behaving Badly”
May 2010  “LEED: LEADing or Dead Weight?”
March 2010  “Why does it cost so much?”
January 2010 “Design/Builders show us your softer side.”
November 2009 “What the Facilities?”
September 2009 “Why Do Architects Make Good Owner’s Reps?”

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