Cultivating a no-growth master plan

The process of plotting the future of a college campus can conclude with a plan that doesn’t involve adding physical space—and that’s ok, experts say.

The idea of campus master planning seems to go hand in hand with growth, but a desire for environmental sustainability and a need for fiscal sustainability can also equate to a master plan that optimizes what’s already there and expansion that’s virtual rather than physical.

As he completed the master planning process with one state’s college and university system a few years ago, architect and strategic advisor Mike Aziz says that some institutions, mainly community colleges, “ended up with no net new space.”

But that doesn’t mean the colleges are in trouble. “It wasn’t that they weren’t evolving as an institution,” explains Aziz, AIA and LEED AP, who is a partner at the New York City-based firm Cooper Robertson. “Evolution is fundamental to higher education. It’s where ingenuity is born in many ways.” But an objective look at enrollment projections led officials to realize they don’t need more space.

Still, such an institution may need different space. “We started to do a string of maser plans where there was no net new space, largely renovations,” says Aziz. Plans like these may be referred to as no-growth master plans.

“Zero growth doesn’t mean you’re not replacing things,” says Christiana Moss, principal of Phoenix-based Studio Ma and an American Institute of Architects fellow. Rather than adding new buildings, the institution is more likely to replace existing ones.

And that’s a green approach. “No growth goes hand in hand with carbon neutrality,” Moss says. “This is a moment where universities can do things more strategically and work within the confines of what has historically been done. It doesn’t mean that they don’t have needs to adapt or change.”

Pandemic-era master planning

In the age of COVID, colleges and universities have had to “optimize what’s already there,” Moss says. The question may be: “How can we do the most with the least?”

The shutdown also taught higher ed leaders that they can expand growth virtually instead of physically. “The virtual can outpace the physical,” she explains. “It’s critical to make the most out of what this experience has provided, the ability to provide many different ways to deliver education.”

When working with colleges on master planning this summer, Aziz says one challenge was campus officials needing to triage plans for the next few semesters—plans with space implications—while aligning those actions with what may be needed in the long-term. “What’s kind of ironic is that in the short term you need more space,” he says, to ensure social distancing and have spots for those in quarantine. But what’s needed for the short-term should still “tie to a cohesive vision of the campus that’s for the long-term,” he adds.

Framing no-growth planning

Rather than touting a plan using words such as zero growth, institutional officials and advisors such as Aziz can position it as being “about reusing resources and being judicious with investments. Think about it from the standpoint of stewardship of one’s land and resources,” he explains. “What it also suggests and what we’ve seen is that you start to see more interesting opportunities for commercial and shared public interest in research space, in enterprise space, where universities aren’t the sole equity in the building but are actually partnering—such as with the research park model that was very hot.”

Aziz believes projects on master plans not involving additional space can be just as tout-able as more traditional plans that call for new growth. In fact, in his experience some of the most exciting university building projects, he says, have been those where historic buildings have been reimagined.

Melissa Ezarik is senior managing editor of UB.

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