The master planning and programming phase of a project represents the first major step in the design process. It transforms a project from an idea to a more detailed and defined plan.

This phase includes a more detailed definition of the anticipated size of the project, the types of spaces that will be housed in the building, the relationships of these spaces within the building and an understanding of how the building will relate to the site.

During a typical master-planning phase, school officials explore, evaluate and refine many alternatives before proposing an acceptable solution. As these options are reviewed, one major element that helps focus the decision-making is a full understanding of the costs involved.

In many cases, these costs are developed using less sophisticated methods such as costs per square foot or historical costs from other projects. Although this method may prove to be successful for less complex projects, it has limited accuracy and could be a major stumbling block for the project later in design.

Defining the scope

So what is the best method to develop accurate budgets based on limited programming information? The first approach is to understand the anticipated scope of the project. At this early stage, the scope is still being developed, but should include information in some of the following areas:

  • Anticipated space types.

  • Net square footage for space types.

  • Gross building area.

  • Number of floors.

  • Relationships between spaces.

  • Building geometry/massing diagrams.

  • Narratives outlining quality of materials and anticipated building systems.

  • Site/civil/infrastructure.

For the purposes of establishing an accurate budget, the project scope is the foundation on which everything will be based. The best approach to determine the scope is through early communication between school officials and the design team of goals and expectations. This will allow the team to map out a realistic timeframe to prepare information and documentation.

This is not to say that the scope of the project can't or won't change as the design progresses. As in many projects, the school's needs, overall goals and expectations may change. However, by establishing the scope early and tying cost to that scope, the plan can provide a baseline that can help anticipate the impact of changes and improve decisionmaking.