Undertaking a Master Plan can be a daunting task; complicated by the bewildering array of objectives that a Master Plan might address and what the expected outcomes might be. Outcomes can range from strategic facilities plans that address outstanding and anticipated space problems, to marketing a future vision of what a campus might become to raise the profile of the institution in the community. In addition, the people who direct these plans on behalf of the institution must rely on the expertise of the consultants that they bring on board because they are likely not planners themselves.

In this short article, we will explore the various objectives of Master Plans. Hopefully the article will provide some guidance on which approach might be appropriate for your Institution. This will help inform the RFP content to ensure that you are asking the right people to provide the right information to help you with the task.

Types of Master Plans

Master Plans are not all the same. They can be varied in their content and their objectives. Master plans have a predominant character; however, no master plan sits exclusively in a single category, and they usually contain some elements from each category. However, some of the approaches we have observed in our experience over the last 25 years include:

  • The Master Plan as a visionary pathway to a future state.

    This is the most common style of master plan. This approach looks ahead at the disposition of buildings and landscapes and looks at how campus components interfaces with transportation, roads, pathways, and other components to construct an image of the campus, some decades into the future. These master plans are almost always focused on buildings and their disposition on the site or sites of the campus and they rely heavily on an architectural statement of building design and homogeneity. These plans can be useful in providing a high level understanding of campus structure and in providing the campus community and the public.

    The principal drawback of these plans is their focus on buildings and their composition on the site because one cannot predict the configurations of buildings ahead of time. This becomes particularly evident when sudden funding opportunities influence decisions made about buildings. These emerging opportunities very rarely resemble the indicative building solutions shown in a master plan. This is true for one simple reason: nothing is ever static at a successful university or college.

    Opportunities arise and follow the research opportunities and teaching missions of the institutions. Think of a campus as constantly changing and unpredictable. Master plans are supposed to inform these sorts of possibilities but are often not effective.

  • Master Plans as a marketing tool

    Master plans that are used as a marketing tool share the emphasis on the buildings and grounds like the previous plan, however, it is not intended to inform decisions around emerging facility changes. The intent is to relay a sense of the institution’s “brand” to the supporters, campus community, and to the public. The rendered plans and graphics illustrate what the campus is and might be and can be very impressive. They are meant to create excitement about the institution and convey its identity and vitality. The major issue with this style of master plan is determining if the recommendations of the plan will actually lead to such vitality.

  • Master Plans as strategic decision-making frameworks

    These plans have a more fundamental campus management objective. They are designed both to inform longer range decisions about the campus and still address the issues that every facilities person would be familiar with. Some examples may include constant requests for space that can push limits, require additions, require major renovations, and erode the overall quality of the campus by making many small incremental but poor decisions. For a Master Plan to work at this scale, it must be structured differently. It must draw heavily on data and confront the actual space use and intensity of the overall campus. This style of plan must allow for both bolder initiatives as well as the smaller decisions such as where a group might move to consolidate a fragmented department.

    The content in these plans tends to be more analytical and they require research into the use of space using a mathematical and statistical approach. Sometimes information is uncovered in the research that can be alarming. Anecdotal complaints about lack of space often turn out to be the result of preferential choices and singling out particular locations as opposed to an optimized distribution of use.

    Another difference of this style of master plan outlines recommendations that address processes as well outcomes. The plan acknowledges that desired outcomes can only occur if the structured process of evaluation, analysis, and action occurs over time.

    The vision of potential outcomes can be equally impressive in these plans, but the “how’s” in terms of getting there can be considerably different.


The answer to this question is really rooted in the core reason a master plan needs to be undertaken. In Canada, many provinces require their institutions (most of which are publicly funded) to submit plans for their intended capital projects over a period of time – usually 5 years. The provincial legislation governing post-secondary institutions will require a document that is explicitly referred to in the legislation such as a “Comprehensive Institutional Plan”. The plan addresses students, and programs but rarely addresses actual facilities and their optimal use. This often comes into play more visibly in the information that must be submitted as part of the justifications for additional space and capital funding.

To determine what is right for your institution, you must first ask “Who is the Master Plan for?” Is it for the funding agency, the Board of Governors, or the Community around the institution? Is for the students, the faculty, or is it a requirement of internal processes? Knowing the target audience can help you sort through the content that needs to be part of the plan. If the plan is a visioning document aimed at wide consumption, it can emphasize the qualities of the campus, campus life, athletics, and the stature of the academic programs, and illustrate how it might evolve into a grander and more lively campus environment. If, on the other hand, you intend to use the master plan as a decision-making tool, the content and information may require a great deal more context and differing mechanisms of implementation. One size does not fit all, so some thought directed to understanding the “who” and the “why” can save you a lot of money in consulting fees.


We have responded to many RFP’s for Master Planning that outline the time required for having a finished document in hand. They are almost always optimistic in the extreme, but plans of any quality take time. The process involves a great deal of consultation with stakeholder groups, students, faculty, staff, and administration. Time is required to conduct extensive research and to become familiar with the culture of the college or university, its history, and the changes that have occurred up to that point. In our experience, a plan of any quality cannot be done in a few months. The shortest time line we have worked to is somewhat longer than a year. The reality is that the process is likely to stretch to two years, particularly if the campuses is large and if intensive engagement sessions with stakeholders are required.

Of course, time is linked to costs. The time required can stretch from 900 to 2000 hours depending upon the scope of the plan. That equates to between approximately $120,000 and $270,000 in fees.

Scope is Critical

Because costs can increase quickly, it is critical to identify the actual scope at the RFP stage. We have encountered RFP’s that requested Master Planning services when what they really needed was a an analysis of the spatial needs and allocations of space within an institution. It was discovered after much time was wasted on discussions that this was essentially a facilities and space management problem. Arriving at that understanding of the problem required considerable client discussion to determine the exact issues they were concerned about. Yes, the plan did impinge on the entire institution, but strictly speaking, was not a Master Plan. It would be more accurate to characterize it as a set of protocols that worked with the Master plan. In fact, for the times we have encountered this problem, two streams of work emerged, the first addressing the facility management and space issues and the other addressing the overall Master Plan for the campus. They work in a coordinated and interlocking fashion.

Minimizing the project cost requires a clear understanding of how to properly frame the problem in the RFP so it is clearly understood by the proponents. Not doing so will return a wide variety of responses with a wide variety of fees and you may not end up with what you were needing or expecting.


We are rarely involved in Master Plans that solely address design issues on campus. We do address these issues in our plans, but they are placed in a context of a campus structure that addresses:

  • Utilization of space
  • Data driven growth projections
  • “Image Mapping” of existing campus structures and use Identifying gaps in the “Image Map” and suggestions to correct them
  • Engagement of students to understand their daily use habits
  • Develop potential diagrams and calculations that represent the maximum developable densities and site coverage available.
  • Identification and indicative design of the “Campus Core Backbone” (the core elements of horizontal space that must be coherently designed and maintained over time, and into which no buildings will be built )
  • Short, medium, and long-term projects and their cost impacts including construction escalation
  • Optimization of available space
  • How to create the GOLD student experience
The Campus Core Backbone

When one looks at a city from the air, they see buildings, roads, parks, greenways, bodies of water, railway lines, and other components sitting on the surface. You rarely see what lies , buried underground; the sewers, drainage lines, gas piping, water service lines, and electrical lines of every description. The reality is that both the above ground and the underground are EQUALLY considered infrastructure. Every street, park, open space, and the like are all infrastructure components. The same is true of all the lighting, traffic lights, sidewalks, and other myriad elements that occupy those spaces. These are all one thing and can be DESIGNED to be coherent. Unfortunately, most cities do not see things in such an integrated manner. Instead there are “city department” silos that, more often than not, simply do not communicate. The typical result is what we see in most cities, a jumble of elements that simply compete for the same space.

Similarly, in cities we see buildings interfacing this structure of streets, parks, and other space. Zoning and development controls rarely address the street, but they have many rules about how a building is to be built on the adjacent land. There are exceptions to this approach, of course. One good example is the downtown area of Portland, Oregon. Streets, sidewalks, lighting, materials, shelters, and the integration of public transit light rail are designed as a unit and the result is startlingly fresh and interesting.

Many years ago, in Calgary, a downtown plan was developed that took an entirely different approach to development. It viewed everything outside the private parcel of land as infrastructure and advocated that the infrastructure needed to be designed at a high level of quality – purposely and in an integrated manner. It then argues that this is a public investment made by the citizens of the City of Calgary towards the continuous improvement in the quality of their downtown. The truly different approach here was the next argument – that all development control on private property had one objective, and one objective only, to protect that investment.

This approach was a completely different way of framing planning controls. It moved from the outside inward and did not depend on securing funding through levies to upgrade the quality of a street in front of a building when a new building was being constructed. Instead, it worked the other way around; the building became an extension of the street. This was easily understood by developers and planners. The city streets, parks and other infrastructure covered more than 50% of the land. Having the public infrastructure lead and not follow is not unreasonable. This approach meant that adjacent private lands can play into the system with minimal rules – those rules again based on the adjacent structure not undermining the public investment.

It is exactly this approach that we apply to the “Campus Core Backbone”. As we said previously, you cannot predict the future or the shape of a building as it is finally designed. But you CAN identify the campus equivalent of the public infrastructure: roads, walks, quads, parks, water features, open space, reserves, and other pieces. Once this is identified, it becomes the Campus Core Backbone. The land not identified an adjacent to the CCB becomes a development parcel, each with a target density, and site coverage. Each parcel can have edge conditions designed to enhance the CCB and not detract from it. Like a city, there is a play between the public space and the adjacent space. Unlike a city, the entire land bank is controlled by the same owner.

With the Campus Core Backbone, design guidelines and controls can operate within a context. In fact, there can be considerable variation of architectural treatments, yet the whole campus remains consistent because the entire backbone is designed as one integrating element and the buildings play into that.

Designing the Campus Core Backbone.

For this approach to be successful, there needs to be one design for the Campus Core Backbone that is consistent in surface treatments, lighting, infrastructure components, and wayfinding. Consistency in this ground plane integrates adjacent buildings quite effectively – even quite disparate architectural styles.

The design needs to be completed by the institution itself – not by the architects or landscape architects of one its buildings. It needs to consider the entire campus from the outset even though aspects of the backbone may not be implemented for some time. It is essentially a phased implementation of a single plan as opposed to being piecemeal bits built at differing times.

Design Guidelines

With the backbone designed, we will develop design guidelines for the adjacent development parcels that define how their edges interact with the backbone. In addition, there are guidelines for landscape treatments on the development parcels. This is intended to EXTEND the quality and consistency of the Core Backbone onto the individual site once a building footprint is determined.

Design guidelines give the Master Plan’s visual and spatial qualities structure, but also allows flexibility in handling details. The building configurations are not pre-conceived, but can respond to the issues of the day. It is the backbone and the accompanying rules of engagement that ensure consistency and that the investment on that piece of public infrastructure is not undermined by ill-considered tactical decisions.

This article has outlined approaches and types of Master plans and has given you some idea of how Thinkspace approaches this area of planning. We hope this is helpful. Please direct any questions or comments to its author:

Leonard Rodrigues Architect/Planner AIBC, AAA, FRAIC, MCIP, RPP

[email protected]


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