Planning for Success

Substantial obstacles met during the planning process can be overcome - or, if you begin by putting the right people in charge of the process, avoided entirely.

Capital projects on a college campus get their start in many different ways: A donor appears with a large gift, the campus planning committee or board of trustees makes a recommendation, or the president calls a meeting. What happens after that, however, can vary dramatically.

Administrators form a committee to begin the planning process, or an owner’s representative is hired to handle or oversee it. Or, an architect who designed the school’s fine arts building is brought in to design its field house.

The committee hires an owner’s rep, who recommends an architect, who brings in a sports facility planning specialist, who recommends a contractor.

Many hands will touch a building plan as it moves forward, but the hands that set this whole process in motion will have an outsized impact on the project. Charged with getting the ball rolling, the school’s administrators (or their first hire) will set it rolling in a particular direction, sometimes even before the administrators know precisely where they’re trying to go. This is an obvious oversimplification, but once that rolling ball gathers momentum, choosing a different path becomes more difficult, unless the ball is stopped by some substantial obstacle.

As many program administrators find out the hard way, substantial obstacles are not all that uncommon. Some people’s buildings fall behind schedule and go over budget. Others go through several designers before getting built, and some get shelved indefinitely.

Often, the culprit is a preliminary building plan that, for any number of reasons, doesn’t match up with the institution’s budget. This is a problem that can be fixed well along in the process, but one that could also have been prevented at the very beginning. The key is for an institution to understand its own set of values and goals for a project – and, only then, to hire accordingly.

Natural Selection

Assuming a college has its funding sorted out, and it is ready to put together its design team, it will ordinarily start the planning process by gathering a number of people into a room. Leaving aside the cases where a familiar firm serves the institution as a de facto campus architect, this “selection committee” will begin by developing a list of potential architecture firms or what is variably called an RFP (request for proposals).

This committee – on smaller campuses in particular, the committee might consist of the board of trustees, and at some schools, the president might form a committee of one – will ultimately be responsible for reviewing the qualifications of and materials submitted by design firms; some of its members will eventually become part of the project’s planning committee.

Most colleges begin with a list of potential firms that runs the gamut – it includes firms that are geographically close by, firms whose work has appeared in national publications and is admired by one or more of the committee members, firms that have been recommended by colleagues, and so on.

While a common-sense approach, calling out names of designers is a surprisingly informal start to a process that, after all, is intended to determine who will lead this $15 million to $40 million (or more) enterprise.

For the universities that quickly settle on a design firm, the process can seem orderly and safe. For the schools that end up with the building they wanted for the price they expected, it is. For others, it quickly becomes clear that they lack the knowledge, or the time it would take to acquire the knowledge, of how to proceed. Some may decide to hire an owner’s representative, who is often a practicing architect, to develop an RFP and draw up an appropriate list of design firms to receive it. This can be a positive step for a school or committee simply overwhelmed by the tasks ahead, but it does have the practical effect of substituting the biases of the committee members with the biases of the owner’s rep. By winnowing the list of firms, or even by tailoring the RFP toward certain firms or styles of architecture, the owner’s rep can exert tremendous influence over the process.

Ceding control early in the process, in other words, whether to an owner’s rep or an architect, is not without its risks. For a lot of clients, the risk involved only becomes apparent much later, once their project has hit the proverbial wall. What happened? Could it have gone differently?

The Building You Need

Projects become troubled for a variety of reasons. In some cases, the colleges themselves must accept much of the blame, with the program (and budget) continuing to expand as each potential user group demands more space, and administrators are unable to get the process under control. But in others, administrators find that the school and the architect have been speaking a different language from the beginning. Although the problem sometimes is a designer whose vision for the building is bigger and grander than the client’s vision, just as often, the school either hasn’t prioritized its goals for the project and/or hasn’t successfully communicated its priorities.

This leaves clients vulnerable to a classic situation in design-bid-build architecture, in which the client and the architect, both of whom are well-meaning, collaborate in producing a design that the client can’t afford.

We were recently called in to bid on one such project that had reached a serious impasse. The client, who was planning a new student wellness center, had competing needs: to stay within its allocated budget, but also to build a “transformational” facility. The resulting design, which included an indoor water feature that probably was unique to this building type, sailed over the original budget by more than 50 percent. By all accounts, the client loved the water feature. By our estimation (and, apparently, the school’s), they’d love having their wellness center constructed even more.

A school administrator has three options once the process reaches this point: raise more money for, and commit more money to, the project; bring in a new designer; or submit the existing design to the process of value engineering. To design-bid-build architecture firms, value engineering-keeping the purely functional aspects of the design, while cutting away aspects deemed too costly-can be seen as an act of necessary compromise. To design-build firms, which provide a design that is guaranteed to meet the client’s budget the first time around, value engineering is a time-consuming exercise that might have been avoided from the outset if the client made clear that maintaining the budget was a high priority.

It is easy to sympathize with clients caught in this bind. If you read between the lines of a design-bid-build architect’s unveiling of your new building’s design documents, you might hear something like this: We’ve listened to your team, talked with students, and what we’ve come up with is the best embodiment of your vision.

This design incorporates your needs for now and the future, and fits your campus aesthetic. We’ve benchmarked you against your competition, and this is the building you need. However – you let us know if you can afford it. If you can’t, we can value engineer the building to make it work for you.

Every administration is going to want the right building for its school, in an amorphous sense. It takes a strong leader, or committee, to understand that the right building is one that meets the campus’ needs now and in the future, fits the campus aesthetic and is one that they can afford to build.

Clarity First

Being clear on your university’s values is the surest way to avoid value engineering, both internally and with the first professionals you bring in to consult on the project. Doing so makes it more likely that you will hire a firm that shares your values, or at least understands them and will approach the project accordingly.

Ultimately, the selection process is about finding the right fit for your school. A school that prioritizes “making a statement” above all other aspects of the project, including the project budget, need never fear an architect’s vision or the potential cost overruns that might come with it.

Universities that approach capital projects as business decisions, on the other hand, should be looking to link up with a firm with demonstrated success in producing quality buildings within budget, and that defines a successful building as one that has the best possible mix of program, budget and aesthetics.

About the Author
Oliver Snider ( is vice president of business development for Stanmar Inc., a Wayland, Massachusetts-based design-build firm.