C2AE's Tom Wiersma on Enterprise-Driven Design Thinking

Large or small, every campus project serves a larger enterprise purpose.  As a result, every project should ideally be managed to deliver the objectives of the enterprise. Unfortunately this doesn’t always happen.

Institutional leadership, the donor development team, and the facilities team aren’t always all that well aligned. This is most obvious on a private college campus. Some design and maintenance mistakes on a private higher education enterprise campus are made when a project is small and routine. This creates an environment where a planning shortcoming may be  overlooked the first time, may not seem  worth mentioning when it’s all said and done, and often are repeated in in one form or another in subsequent  projects. Work-arounds are a temporary solution – but accommodation is not an enterprise strategy.

When it comes to the college built environment, the facilities on campus designed and put up in the last 20 to 30 years were usually designed and built to a 50 year standard. That’s only a two-generation window. That is more than enough time for the “typically small” design error or deferred maintenance issue to get masked by the complexity of the enterprise. That’s when small design errors get accommodated and that’s how small deferred maintenance issues get institutionalized.

I’ve been meeting with private college Presidents and CFO’s for many years and attending many of the conferences they attend. They have an awful lot of enterprise-scale high priority stuff on their plate and on the surface, not much of it has to do with campus facilities, utilities, renovations, campus boundaries and deferred maintenance. All of our clients, regardless of market sector or practice area are enterprise-scale clients. And so our architectural, engineering and infrastructure design thinking deliverable needs to be enterprise-tuned as well as enterprise scale.

Maybe the word “enterprise” sounds too business-like on a private liberal arts campus. Or too commercial – “it’s always about the money.”

It doesn’t have to always be about the money if the funds to keep the enterprise fresh and vibrant had been dutifully appropriated in the first place. An enterprise as complex as a 10 to 50 building campus with hundreds to thousands of full-time students in a rural environment where utilities are sometimes at a premium, or in an urban environment where community users can sometimes compound the wear and tear of student areas is a demanding environment.

The only time it’s about the money is when the money’s not there.

The answer to these problems? Take master planning seriously. A master plan is more than a concept and it’s more than a campus map with aspirational highlights. Master planning needs to be more strategic, take a deeper dive, be more competitive, involve more campus brainpower/institutional memory, and be more rigorous.

Along with master planning, campuses must report on deferred maintenance and find the right metrics to report out. Insisting that each cabinet level stakeholder be involved in making decisions about deferred maintenance milestones is a must. Staff at the executive level should be involved and aware of the scale of deferred maintenance initiatives. The private, liberal arts, higher education enterprise is very complex. The needs of the physical institutional enterprise cannot be subject to preferences, programs, and pedagogical turf. Unspoken and undocumented programmatic aspirations and unofficial departmental hidden agendas are to be expected. But they need to be worked out away from the deferred maintenance budget.

In the private liberal arts higher education practice Areas we tune our design thinking to the institutional environment and leadership agendas of college presidents and CFO’s. They are the ones most often dealing with the overlapping priorities, competing program initiatives, donors with expectations, students with aspirations, buildings and grounds aging at different rates, societal trends, and government reporting and regulation. And that’s just the agenda for Monday’s cabinet meeting! For us and for them, enterprise scale matters. Aggressive collaboration and a productivity culture matter. And both parties should work harder to ensure that those things are done for the good of the campus enterprise, both short and long term. 


Thomas Wiersma is on the marketing and business development team at C2AE.