Northwest Association of College & University Housing Officers

Master Plan Decision Making

By Mike Porritt, Ed.D.

“I think we need a Master Plan – Now what? “:  Suggestions from a Consultant’s Perspective who has Been in Your Shoes

Deciding whether or not to pursue a master plan is among the most significant and impactful decisions a housing operation can make.  If done well, this will lead your decision-making and mission for a decade or more.  The cost can be significant and the scope will be broad in the best of circumstances.  Narrowing the scope with advanced planning can be a cost-saver to the institution as well as providing the opportunity to narrow the scope of the RFP and receive better bids from consultants.  As you can imagine, any responsible consultant will want to provide each client/campus with the best possible service because they want to do well for you.  They want to develop a long-term and positive relationship even if no other work is ever done.  The positive reference from a job well done is incredibly valuable for future work with other institutions.

Before the RFP:

Some of the most important items you can address BEFORE getting to a master plan decision are these:

  • Identify a few possible consultants that have worked with your colleagues and talk to them. You can gather advice (free of charge) about options and some things to consider specific to your situation.  Talking to at least two consultants will give different perspectives and you can identify similarities and differences that most connect to your situation.  Creating an RFP without talking to some of the potential consultants is an opportunity missed.  Consultants can also identify other institutions that are similar to your situation providing you more good resources.

Doing some pre-shopping and discussions about what is available will allow you to write a bid that is requesting exactly what you want.  Any good consultant will want to talk to you.  Of course, part of that desire is the consultant wanting to get your business and learn about what projects may be coming.  In addition, building positive relationships and being helpful matters to good consultants.  If they can help you to design a better proposal that will leave you happier with the resulting work, that is a positive for the consultant.  A good consultant does not mind this discussion if you are coming from an honest place of getting feedback and ideas for a project proposal.  An honest consultant is not looking to skew their advice for their own purposes just as an housing professional is not looking to “stack the deck” in an RFP towards a particular consultant but wanting to write the best RFP to get the best work.

  • Identify colleagues that have undergone the process and discuss the lessons learned from their experience. This is less of a reference call about any particular consultant and more about the experience of planning and what they learned that may assist your project.

Knowing that your colleagues can be a fountain of information is no surprise.  The key is to contextualize their advice to your situation.  What worked best for them may be of high value to your situation or it may not apply at all.  Listen carefully for those items that connect with your situation and for the general lessons you can apply to your specific situation.  A consultant might be able to direct you to institutions that are very similar to your context and have done projects.

  • When considering a master plan, is increasing capacity and/or doing significant renovations a near certainty or just one of the questions you want to have answered? This is a key item for having a narrow scope of services for your master plan RFP.  If you are unsure about new construction or significant renovations then you may be better served by doing a smaller project first.  If you are certain about needing more capacity and/or significant renovations and are looking to find out how much and what type to build along with the visioning, planning processes, costing and financial options involved then an RFP for a “full” master plan from the start may be more applicable.

Most consultants will put together prices that reflect a volume discount of services for a large project.  This can lead one to think that doing a master plan as one project will save money and be more efficient.  This can be true.  However, if you are not in a place where you can write a narrowly scoped RFP for a master plan the consultants must propose in such a way as to cover potential issues that may come up and prepare pricing in such a way as not to be left in a position of doing more work than was priced.  Writing a narrowly focused scope will leave the institution with better bids and lower prices.  For this reason, doing a student housing market demand analysis of your own campus and the off campus market can be a valuable exercise to do first.  You will end up with a report about your competition in the local market and significant feedback from your students and campus stakeholders about the current situation with your housing including the demand for new or renovated housing broken down by cohort, unit types and price ranges.

When the institution has the demand information in advance, it allows for the writing of an RFP for a master plan or a capital renewal plan that can be very specific in scope related to the need or lack of need for new capacity, preferred elements and information about the competition.  That specificity will lead to more focused bids from consultants that will be priced lower than they likely would have been for more open language.  For a campus that is unsure about demand issues and the local market, doing the market and demand analysis first will provide valuable information to write a tight RFP for a master plan.

The impact on timeline of separating the items does not need to lengthen the entire process if it is well planned.  One can often receive advanced approval for moving forward with the post-demand study project and the ‘leg work’ can be done early so that the second RFP can be put out more quickly.

When a campus that knows it needs more housing based on the combination of enrolment history and projection as well as institutional mission, doing a market demand analysis separately becomes less important.  If you are thinking, “what if we don’t know what we need to do?” – don’t worry.  Figuring out mission and vision is always part of doing a master plan.  If you have figured out the demand situation in advance you will often find that you have a much better picture already and the master planning and visioning process will be that much more productive.

Final notes:  Working with your procurement office, it is often possible to pre-arrange the element of asking clarification questions to the proponents after reading the bids prior to the evaluations.  If this element of the review is not included in advance, you may not be able to include it.  Having the chance to question the bidders about their proposals will allow you to make a more accurate evaluation.  If you are reading the proposals and have questions that are not reflective of a poorly done bid, it is very important to ask rather than assume!  Be willing to question items before you do the final evaluation so that you get the team that will fit your campus and provide you with a plan that will carry you forward in creating the best possible situation for your campus and its future students.

Mike Porritt is the Director of Advisory Services for The Scion Group in Canada. Based out of the Toronto area, Mike’s office works across Canada and Scion also has offices in Chicago, IL; Irvine, CA and Dallas, TX. Mike’s background includes stints as the Senior Housing Officer at McGill University and Trent University in Canada and also Winona State University in Minnesota. Professionally, Mike served a term on the OACUHO Executive Board, 3 years as a co-chair of the Canadian Senior Housing Officer Network and was involved in committee work in SEAHO and UMR-ACUHO. You can reach Mike at mporritt@thesciongroup.com

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