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Business Officer Magazine

Off-the-Shelf Facilities Plans

If your institution wants to develop a relevant, usable, long-term master facilities document rather than a static showpiece, following certain guidelines may keep the plan off the shelf.

By Ronald Rhames, Mark D’Amico, and Marcia Medway

With unpredictable revenue streams, state-supported institutions in particular often have little means of meeting expectations established within a typical project-oriented master plan. The traditional method of articulating the kind of grand vision that many elected officials, governing boards, and lead administrators want to see for an institution involves illustrations and mock-ups of new buildings with timelines for completion. However, funding issues and approval processes make most master plans obsolete before they are ever printed.

There is a way to bring plans to fruition. Creating a master facilities plan that articulates opportunities instead of projects allows institutions to match available resources with annual priorities and provides a usable reference for years to come.

The Midlands Model

Midlands Technical College is a four-campus, comprehensive community college in South Carolina with a credit enrollment of more than 15,000 and a continuing education enrollment of 30,000. The intent behind our 2004-24 master facilities plan was to create a document that could survive the unexpected challenges the college would face during the next 20 years and the advantage of unexpected opportunities. With a new campus already in development and many buildings on one of our main campuses past their prime, the college’s governing board and administrative leaders felt the time was right to examine current facilities and explore our potential for expansion.

At the outset of our planning efforts, faculty and staff at Midlands Technical College considered the educational direction of the college to better assess the physical forms required to meet the community’s learning needs. With these learning goals in mind, we embraced the “form follows function” credo to create a plan that would ultimately address the college’s vision in light of potential projects and opportunities.

We organized a master facilities plan committee comprised of a cross-section of college associates, including representatives from faculty and staff councils. Our master plan committee formed two subcommittees. The education subcommittee collected and assembled information pertaining to education goals and trends, while the learning environment (facilities) subcommittee gathered information regarding the college’s physical resources. The subcommittees—comprised of members of the full committee and other representatives of the college community—brought specific expertise to the process. Master plan committee and subcommittee leaders shared findings with the faculty, staff, students, and governing board throughout the process to provide information, solicit input, broaden the committee’s perspective, and gain support for the plan, which the college’s governing board ultimately approved. Throughout the process, committee and subcommittee members battled obsolescence by resisting the temptation to develop a typical projects-oriented plan.

Battling Obsolescence

Five steps followed by Midlands Technical College can help any educational institution create a dynamic, long-term master facilities plan.

Step 1: Decide between an internal or external approach. Early in the process, our master facilities plan committee discussed whether the plan should become an internal project or be conducted by an external consultant. By involving campus constituents, we determined that an in-house process would capture the institutional culture and provide a customized report that would better serve the needs of the college. One additional factor steering us toward an in-house approach was cost. Based on our institution’s size, using an external consultant for our master planning efforts could have cost in excess of $100,000.

Figure 1 Master Planning Process

Master Planning Process Diagram

Step 2: Tie the plan to the institution’s strategic direction. During our most recent strategic planning process, the college conducted an environmental scan to identify future trends in higher education. This comprehensive process involved soliciting input from many faculty, staff, students, and board members as well as from business, community, and higher education leaders. As a result, the college created a document that presents a long-term forecast for the institution. Our strategic plan identifies major areas that will command the attention and resources of the college. The master facilities plan committee used the information from this research as the foundation for developing its plan. The master planning process (see Figure 1) conceptualizes the relationship among education needs (derived from the college’s overall strategic planning process); resource acquisition; and the construction, commissioning, and occupancy process. This framework provides for continuous feedback and development.

Step 3: Pursue relevance, involvement, and innovation. To be relevant, any master plan should be a living document. If form follows function, then it is logical to conclude that a facility plan must evolve with the educational needs of a community. In our case, the need for flexibility stems from the mission of community colleges to be responsive and proactive when considering workforce needs. Our involvement of a cross-section of faculty and staff in the planning process allowed Midlands Technical College to consider its needs at the ground level. Since this kind of interaction often brings out diverse viewpoints, it is especially important to create a forum for sharing information.

Early in our education subcommittee process, discussions ranged from classroom size and equipment needs to office furniture arrangement. Then a targeted discussion framework emerged embracing a broader perspective. The education subcommittee discovered that if it could answer three questions on six topics, the responses would inform future facilities decisions (see Figure 2). The subcommittee proceeded to assemble a comprehensive report using information from the strategic plan and by conducting additional research to answer these questions. In doing so, the subcommittee became a forum for innovation—an unforeseen byproduct.

Figure 2 Framework for the Plan's Education Portion

Questions Topics
What is the current status? Economic development and workforce needs
What are the key trends? Students
What are the future directions? Faculty and staff
  Instructional delivery
  Student services
  Educational offerings

Step 4: Embrace the learning environment. A significant part of the facilities planning process entails creating an environment that best supports the educational mission and enriches the lives of all who study and work for the institution. The main purpose of our learning environment subcommittee was to focus on three areas: 1) assessment of current facilities, 2) assessment of current land inventory, and 3) projection of future land and facility needs.

The learning environment itself can be divided into three primary categories, including the learning (teaching) space, learning support space, and landscape. Effective learning space is achieved in large part by following simple guidelines to classroom design and considering an institution’s mission to provide access to higher education.

Learning support space generally accommodates support services—especially frontline student support space—and presents unique challenges. As an institution expands, innovative measures are needed to minimize competition between learning space and learning support space. Most important from a facilities perspective is for learning support space to be inviting, comfortable, and functional.

Finally, an effective campus landscape translates into more than pathways between buildings. Successful landscape design must complement the function, safety, visual quality, and image of the institution. Done correctly, the careful use of these elements will enhance attitudes toward learning for existing students, parents, visitors, business and government leaders, and other institutional advocates.

Step 5: Consider resource acquisition and priority planning. In an environment of dwindling resources, many institutions are securing significantly less support from traditional sources. This limitation is even more critical as many colleges and universities remain under the regulatory arm of governments. Accordingly, institutions must prioritize facility decisions to maximize learning opportunities once resources become available. Major facility decisions can be divided into two categories: property acquisitions, and new construction and renovation.

The first step in prioritizing opportunities is to conduct a comprehensive inventory of land. An institution can determine its overall land needs based on research displaying enrollment growth, projected industry and community needs, and population growth. One upside is that because of today’s design and construction technologies, land use can be significantly more efficient than in previous years, resulting in more square feet housed on less acreage.

Mapping Outcomes and Criteria

At a time when industrial competitiveness hinges on a highly skilled workforce and when state allocations for higher education continue to wane, developing a usable long-term master facilities plan has become a critical component of effective resource management. At Midlands Technical College, this planning process has yielded significant efficiency outcomes and solid project criteria.

Plans Within a Plan

In campus facilities planning, a significant lag often exists between identifying a particular need and acquiring the necessary resources to convert a concept into an active project. Likewise, facilities priorities often are out of alignment with the dynamic environment in which an institution operates. A tiered approach to facilities planning can help an institution ensure that its facilities prioritization process remains dynamic and offers the greatest opportunity for matching current needs with available resources.

  • Annual plan: This plan, updated annually, identifies current, approved, and funded projects.
  • Five-year plan: The annual plan forms the first year of a five-year plan. This plan identifies mid-range projects and represents the institution’s highest priorities. While funding sources may be unknown at this time, active efforts are under way to acquire resources. This plan is updated at least once every two years.
  • Ten-year plan: This plan, which includes the annual and five-year plans, identifies long-range facility decisions and potential funding sources. Active solicitation of support may or may not be under way for projects beyond year five. This plan, updated periodically, is ideal for sharing with potential financial supporters.
  • Master facilities plan: This plan presents the long-range vision for the institution’s facilities by clearly identifying opportunities. It is general in nature and serves as a guide for developing the other three plans. This plan is updated during cyclical strategic and institutional effectiveness planning processes.

Student services priorities. Providing access to students is a foundation of our vision and values. With a fourth campus opening during the master facilities planning process, those involved weighed in regarding how best to provide services on each of the college’s four campuses. From a facility and a human resources perspective it would be cost-prohibitive to have four admissions offices or four counseling centers, so the committee recommended the use of highly trained service generalists who could work through many issues with students. Likewise, the use of technology, including document imaging and videoconferencing, could connect students and their important documents with staff from any location. While these recommendations mirrored ideas already being considered by the college’s administration, our process confirmed those ideas and ensured faculty and staff support of the concept. The resulting strategy is a new paradigm for service at the college as the campuses grow and illustrates the tangential benefits of end-user input into facility planning.

The education subcommittee determined that specific recommendations based on today’s educational needs would not meet our objective of battling obsolescence. In response, the subcommittee created a set of facility considerations for review prior to each construction or renovation project. These include

  • industry proximity, population trends, and programs relevant to campus development;
  • continued enrollment growth and the increased need for higher education;
  • student service needs on each campus;
  • emerging technologies and the need for specialized space;
  • flexibility;
  • space requirements for adjunct faculty and contract staff;
  • campus safety; and
  • continued input from end users.

While we intend to revisit the list every few years, the aim of the subcommittee was to create a timeless one that can survive the life of the plan.

Facilities assessments. The state of current facilities is a key driver of master planning, including decisions about facility renovation or replacement and land acquisition. These needs represent one instance of external involvement during our master planning process. The committee commissioned a professional architectural assessment to evaluate each existing facility and identify those not suitable for renovation. Each facility was assessed in nine areas: building aesthetics, code compliance, interior finishes, physical condition, building systems, site issues, technology systems, renovation potential, and expandability. The architectural reports provided useful information and recommendations not only to justify renovations and demolition but also to serve as utilization guidelines for each building.

Land acquisition requirements. Through our facility master planning process, Midlands Technical College established criteria for land acquisition. In each instance, at least one of these must be met:

  • The property should be at values well below market rates for the area or should be donated to the institution. However, when accepting property gifts, the college reserves the right of refusal based on hidden costs or other unfavorable circumstances such as environmental issues, land use restrictions, or projected development in the area.
  • The acquisition of new property will help protect campus views and ensure that neighbors complement the college’s mission.
  • The new property will meet an unforeseen need that cannot be met with existing property owned by the college.

For an institution with adequate land for current needs, adopting these guidelines should assist with future property acquisitions and better position the institution to make decisions regarding the support for new or existing physical resources.

Categories of opportunity. The culmination of the education portion of the plan and the architectural assessments outlines opportunities for construction, renovation, and demolition projects. In the final version of our master facilities plan, each building or plot of land is classified into one of the following categories:

  • Renovate when necessary: These facilities are newly constructed or recently received a major renovation.
  • Demolish and/or replace: These facilities have been determined unfit for renovation because their construction techniques, age, or other factors make significant improvements economically impossible. Additionally, renovation of these facilities would not materially increase the educational functionality.  When considering replacement facilities, the plan establishes parameters for the maximum square footage the site can accommodate, with considerations for parking, traffic, and other demographics.
  • Additions: These facilities are candidates for expansion based either on the quality of the structure or because of the site they occupy. Also, the financial considerations of a proposed addition may be reasonable for such projects. The plan outlines the maximum square footage that the site can accommodate, with considerations for parking, traffic, and other demographics.
  • New construction: In this category, the college’s undeveloped land is identified with total square footage that the site can accommodate, with considerations for parking, traffic, and other demographics.
  • To be determined: These facilities require academic planning or political considerations prior to demolition or major renovation. Potential issues include naming rights, funding sources, historical designations, and community perceptions.

In all instances, educational needs should drive priority identification. A flexible prioritization process is essential for the college to remain responsive to the changing environment and evolving needs of students, employees, businesses, and the larger community. Rather than gathering dust on an office shelf, Midlands Technical College’s master facilities plan is front and center in our facilities decision making. And because our plan is an active road map to opportunities rather than a rigid plan that merely names future construction projects, the institution is free to evolve naturally as resources become available.

Author Bios  Ronald Rhames is vice president of business affairs, Mark D’Amico is special assistant to the president, and Marcia Medway is director of support services and auditor at Midlands Technical College, Columbia, South Carolina.