Insight

The Evolution of the University Planner

by Katie E. Rodgers
It’s one thing to have someone who can assess building usage and mitigate expenditures; it’s another to have someone who can plan, organize, and even redistribute space in a way that enhances your institution’s learning experience and integrates its culture. 
 
Introducing the new university planner. 
 
Today, university planner roles can encompass space management and space planning, as well as aspects of design, construction, and furnishings. Beyond these responsibilities, university planners work diligently to align an institution’s mission with utilization and renovation of current facilities, and look beyond to the design and creation of brand new facilities. It can be difficult to think about the future of empty space or an existing building in terms of innovative new designs, functions, and utilizations all while in the midst of working with existing infrastructure. Not only that, but university planners work cohesively with energy and sustainability departments to address ongoing implementation of natural and renewable resources into an institution’s future building plans. 
 
So exactly how critical is it to have a space planner or even multiple space planners in-house? 
 
Well, it depends on what your institution is looking to accomplish. Helbling’s New England Managing Director, Jim Lord, explains, “Space Planners add significant value for colleges and universities in their ability to visualize a finished product and understand how to ensure the successful delivery of it, all the while planning and managing the process itself in such a way that it is a win-win for the institution, economically and otherwise. Planners are in a unique position, having to work with sustainability experts, end-users, and capital project managers, and bring them all together. They have to listen and respond to multiple, sometimes conflicting, goals between all parties, and negotiate compromises so that everyone wins in a way. The planner must provide the balance.” 
 
Most higher education institutions recognize the importance of university planners. But, make no mistake – it is difficult to find them. The primary reason for this is the talent pool is limited. Furthermore, some planners are geared towards facilities while others are geared towards space. Within the realm of space planning, there is a desire to specialize as there is a general understanding that, if you want top notch revenue-generating space, residential space, and lab/research space, you may need to find the best planner for each of those. 
 
Lord says, “There are so many end-users and many user groups that most institutions realize they need more planners, and better ones. Not to mention, end-users are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their needs and requirements for space, which bring challenges to the typical planner role. The struggle to find an individual who can do it all is a pain point we have heard in our day-to-day recruitment strategies.” The important thing is to find a planner who has the extreme focus and soft skills necessary to do their job well, such as:
 
  • Strong leadership traits
  • Ability to adapt strategies and approaches to changing trends and conditions
  • Strong negotiation and problem-solving skills
  • Analytical reasoning
  • Excellent communication skills (written, verbal, listening and persuasion)
  • Problem-solving ability
  • Strong attention to detail
“There is a 5-prong trajectory that we like to keep in the back of our minds during recruitment for a space planner,” Lord says. 
  1. Better space equals happier end-users.
  2. Happier end-users equals more funding.
  3. More funding means expanded research programs.
  4. Expanded research programs means better reputation and rank.
  5. Better reputation and rank equals more end-users.
And the cycle repeats. 
 
It is an exciting time for university planners. A facility’s appearance and functionality determine how it is and can be utilized by students and faculty. A building can bring together a diverse group of people collaborating on research activities, or it can be a waste of space and use up vital resources. Today’s planners think big, and incorporate significant ideas into master plans. Working alongside university architects and energy management professionals, the planner is customer-oriented and provides a unique perspective - one that today’s colleges and universities can’t be without.