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“I think we need a Master Plan – Now what?”

Suggestions from a Consultant’s Perspective

The decision to get into a relationship with a consultant for any planning exercise or operational review is a significant one. There are issues of control, cost, justification, and scope to address before the RFP ever gets written. From the campus level, you want to have the narrowest scope possible to end up with bids that are well-written and focused on providing you with what you need. From the consultant perspective, the same is true. The narrower and tighter the language of the RFP, the better the consultant(s) can propose the work and the team that will most benefit you. As you can imagine, any responsible consultant is going to 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 and every good consultant wants to have the feeling that they did well for their client and that the work will help the client. Any consultant worth their salt wants to provide you with the best possible work and the more specific you can be about what you want, the better.

Before the RFP

Some of the most important items you can address BEFORE getting to a “master plan or not” decision:

  • Identify a few possible consultants that have worked with your colleagues and talk to them. You can gather some significant advice (free of charge) about the options you have and some of the best things to consider that may be specific to your situation. Talking to at least two potential consultants will give you some different perspectives and you can identify the similarities and differences that most connect to you. Creating an RFP without talking to some of the potential consultants is an opportunity missed. Do not be shy about asking for some sample reports to review or at least to request this in the RFP. Consultants can also identify other institutions that have been in your situation and are like your situation providing you more good resources from which to draw information.
  • Identify a few colleagues that have undergone the process and discuss the lessons learned from their experience. This is less of a reference call about any consultant they used and more about the experience and what they learned that may assist your project.
  • When considering a master plan, is increasing capacity 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 RFP. If you are unsure about new construction or significant renovations, then you may be much 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 proposing the “full” master plan from the start may be more applicable.

Related to the first point, just as you have probably done for furniture specifications, 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 is going to want to talk to you about your potential project. Of course, part of that desire is the consultant wanting to get your business and learn about what projects may be coming available. In addition, building positive relationships and being helpful matters to good consultants. If they can help you to design a better proposal that will ultimately leave you happier with the resulting work, that is a positive for the consultant. I have had chats about projects that I knew we might bid on as well as projects where I knew we would not likely be suited to what the institution wanted but I did know about the issue in general and could give some quality advice. A good consultant does not mind this type of discussion if you are coming from an honest place of getting feedback and ideas for a project proposal. Any honest consultant is not looking to skew their advice for their own purposes just as any honest 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.

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.

The last point is a somewhat controversial one for people. In general, most consultants will put together prices that reflect somewhat of a volume discount of services for a large project and this would lead one to think that doing a master plan in 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 to not be left in a position of doing more work that was priced. Writing a narrowly focused scope will leave the institution with better bids and lower prices. For this reason, doing a 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 this 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. That specificity will lead to more focused bids from consultants that will be priced lower than it would be 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 give a better ultimate result. The impact on timeline of separating the items does not need to lengthen the entire process if the planning is done in advance. One can often receive advanced approval for moving forward with the post-demand study project and much of the ‘leg work’ can be done early so that the 2nd RFP can be put out more quickly than if starting from scratch. Of course, for 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 one knows of a need for more capacity or significant renovations one can still write a RFP with a narrow scope to get the most appropriate bids. When the scope is written narrowly because you know new housing will be needed, including the market demand analysis in the master plan RFP will still result in properly focused bids.

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 and 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

As you all know from other RFPs and evaluation process, creating a scoring system that makes sense for what you value most is a key element. Perhaps more important, especially for a project as significant as a master planning exercise is including the element of asking questions about the bids. By 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 before the evaluations are done. If this element of the review is not included in advance, you may not be able to include it. Since you probably have not done a residence master planning exercise before, having the chance to question the bidders about their proposals for clarification items 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! You are deciding about the future direction of your department for the next decade (at least) and likely more. 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

Mike Porritt, Ed.D., is Vice President - International, Advisory Services of The Scion Group

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