A well-conceived master plan is both visionary and feasible. It is an essential tool for shaping a school's physical evolution and advancement in concert with its strategic aspirations. Master planning is essential for establishing short- and long-term goals for a school's facilities. A well-crafted master plan will establish priorities, set a framework from which decisions flow, and specify funding parameters so that building development is advanced in a thoughtful, comprehensive and cohesive manner. Buildings — especially aging academic facilities — invariably will succumb to wear and tear. A master plan can organize and analyze future construction projects while addressing and prioritizing deferred-maintenance issues.

School programs continually are evolving. Teaching methodologies and coursework trends change in relationship to new technology and pedagogical research. Changes in student population may lead to scheduling changes — more after-school programs, for example, or the incorporation of year-round study. Because of the multitude of possibilities for change in a relatively short time span, a master plan should be revisited and updated every five years. Even if a plan is imbued with extraordinary flexibility, it cannot, and should not try to, plan for every possibility.

An updated master plan also should respond to regulatory influences — updates in agency and municipality regulations and legal requirements, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act or Title IX. It also can correct any flaws uncovered in reviewing the initial process. Invariably, not all the goals set forth in the original master plan will be realized; many planned projects will be outdated or inadequate five years later. The lifespan of a school's physical plant also may necessitate additional projects not foreseen earlier. Planning does not end when the master-planning document is delivered.

Formulating strategies for the future also allows schools to function responsibly. The environment is in jeopardy, and addressing this issue in a school's mission and planning process provides an unprecedented means to demonstrate environmental responsibility. By incorporating “green” design into the planning process, a school can extend the lifespan of its facilities and enhance the health, well-being and education of its students, staff and community. The school facilities can become tools for teaching students about their responsibility to the environment.

An often invisible benefit of undergoing an effective master-planning process is the reinforcement of the school community. By involving students, staff, administration, parents and neighbors, a school can foster constructive dialogue and a sense of ownership. Rather than a forum to confirm already conceived assumptions, the planning process is a chance to explore fresh ideas from a variety of participants. The value of this collaboration extends far beyond the pages of the master plan.

It's all relative

Architect Eliel Saarinen once said, “Always design a thing by considering it in its next larger context — a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.”

The most effective master-planning processes embrace this broader, linked thinking. This was the approach used in creating a master plan for The Spence School in New York City.

The Spence School is an independent K-12 girls' school. Its 10-story building, designed by John Russell Pope, was built in 1929 as a traditional girls' boarding school. In the 1950s, the upper-floor residential rooms were converted to classrooms and program spaces, creating a distinct Lower School.

In 1987, the school decided to build a five-story addition on an adjacent lot. The design of the addition was preceded by a comprehensive analysis of existing spaces, the school's goals, and the projections of future needs. The resulting master plan looked beyond defining the uses and character of the addition. It also planned for optimal uses within the existing building. With the addition, the school pursued a strategy of creating “centers” of identity within the school. The new structure created a distinct space and identity for the Upper School.

Three years ago, the school freed up space in its original building by acquiring a nearby building to house the Lower School. This enabled the school to realize some of the goals in the original master plan: gaining more scheduling flexibility through the addition of more classrooms; providing better special program spaces; and creating more “centers” for programs and student activities. The designer and a core group of faculty, students and administrators began revising the master plan for the Middle and Upper Schools to incorporate earlier thinking with new requirements.

Among the 2000 master plan goals were creating a distinctive Middle School identity; enhancing the Upper School identity; improving faculty and administrative offices and meeting spaces; and expanding the special program spaces into defined centers. The plan analyzed how to recognize the classic character of the building while updating it to current standards. The planning process had four distinct phases: program establishment, option testing, layout and finish standards establishment, and cost and schedule estimation. The plan established clear milestones and review points, with each phase effectively informing the next.

The result of the process is a workable master plan with a detailed phasing strategy. The Middle School, originally sandwiched among administrative and specialty spaces, was transferred to the eighth and ninth floors. The larger footprint of the eighth floor made way for a central open space — a distinctive Middle School commons area. The strategic relocation of the Middle School to the top of the building created clearer building stacking; shared special-purpose and administrative spaces are situated directly between the Upper and Middle Schools.

At the outset of the planning process, the school's original wish list contained 20,000 square feet more than was available. Through compromise, creative thinking and an organizing vision, the design was able to incorporate all but 2,500 square feet. As an example, the plan increased the number of general-purpose classrooms from 18 to 28 and created enough flexibility for the spaces to double as administrative conference rooms.

The clear, inclusive process encouraged by the master plan resulted in a comprehensive framework that is guiding the work now underway.

The principles that guided The Spence School's master plan are applicable to other schools, including colleges and universities. A sustainable future for educational institutions requires clear leadership, a forum for open ideas, collaboration, and a clear vision of an institution's unique ideals.

Smith, AIA, is principal of the New York City-based Fox & Fowle Architects and directs the firm's award-winning Educational and Cultural Studio. The firm worked on the Spence School projects.