The Benefits of a Master Plan

As construction professionals, we all know matching the tool to the task is crucial to success. The master plan and the feasibility study are two great tools we have. As tools, they’re great for both sales and design and also offer substantial value for a customer with the right situation.

Although we sometimes use these terms interchangeably, the master plan and feasibility study are a little different from each other. A master plan is geared toward a large, multi-year, bigger budget project with two or more potential construction phases. A feasibility study typically is geared toward work that will all take place at once, but has some complexities or uncertainties. So, it’s time to focus on the benefits of implementing a master plan.

In large architecture firms, the master plan might be used for the purpose of developing a broad, long-range overview of, for example, a campus of buildings to be developed throughout a number of years. A client may have need or financing for only a portion of the project in the near term, but needs the broader scope, longer-term project outline. For much larger projects, this is called urban planning. For our firm, which specializes in residential additions and remodeling projects, the principle is the same but on a smaller scale.

If a prospective client comes to us with a number of planned household changes that he or she intends to phase in throughout a number of years, we will often propose a master plan study. The master plan helps the client visualize the finished product, and it informs both us and the client regarding the phasing of the work. Also, looking at the whole ensures each component of the design functions with the others. It also minimizes the amount of earlier work done that will need to be undone in later phases. Often, we’ll determine during the study that upgrades to the structure or mechanical, electrical and plumbing (MEP) upgrades will be necessary for a later phase, but make more sense to complete earlier in construction.

These upgrades typically are to structural and MEP systems. For example, think about what you would do differently if you knew that the customer may be adding a second and third level to that one-story addition you are designing now. The master plan also helps us put a much tighter budget range on the project.

From the client’s perspective, there are other advantages. It’s a great way to ease into the homeowner/architect relationship because the master plan costs a lot less than a full design process — like speed dating with AutoCAD. We structure the master plan costs at around 20 to 30 percent of our full design process cost.

For a reasonable investment, the client gets the value of a set of preliminary drawings for each phase, estimated construction costs, and a sense of what’s possible. During this period, the client can begin to develop a working relationship with and trust in the architect and vice versa.

We find we have the best success when we set expectations early and often. This is a great mantra for any aspect of dealing with customers and even better when it’s put into writing. As part of our master plan proposals, we always outline what our processes and costs will be for the full design. In these documents, we also try to limit the design deliverables to ensure that we don’t blow the limited budget we have to complete this work.

There are a few downsides to the abbreviated design process. Our fallout (jobs that don’t make it to construction) from master plan studies is higher than with our normal process. Clearly some of this is due to the tentative nature of many of these projects. We also find that master plan studies are likely to extend the total number of weeks a project spends in design.

If, as an architect or design/builder, you haven’t tried this tool, we highly recommend adding it to your repertoire and wish you the best of success.

Christopher K. Landis is a licensed architect in three states and partner in Landis Construction Corp., Washington, D.C.