Tale of Three Planners

Rod Sutton discusses the process of selecting a facilities planner for his local high school's renovation project.

April 30, 2000
Rod Sutton, Editor-in-Chief


We’re preparing to spend between $10 million and $13 million on a renovation project, including a 75,000-square-foot addition. No, it’s not a house we’re renovating; we’re updating our high school.

Yet the process of selecting a facilities planner has so far mirrored the process many consumers use today in selecting a remodeler. As a member of the school board’s finance committee, I’ve helped recommend and do initial research on planners we think can help us build the high school that meets the local needs of our community. What we’ve experienced in interviews, however, are three entirely different presentations.

The first company took 30 minutes to tell us how it would handle a project like ours, and then answered our specific questions. The second made its presentation in five minutes, and then answered questions. The first quoted a flat fee for the project; the second deferred to the company’s principal owner, who wasn’t at the meeting. Needless to say, I was a bit frustrated at this point.

The sea appeared to change the next day with the third candidate. This company representative interviewed the committee for half an hour, asking for our budget within the first 10 minutes. He asked for our individual opinions on some key educational facilities issues. We carried on a conversation. The fee came up, too: a percentage of the budgeted project.

What struck me about the process was how I responded to the different techniques. I didn’t want to hear about day-long meetings where consultants gathered opinions and then reported those collected opinions to the board of education as a "plan." The board wanted expertise and insight into what was happening around the nation. Each of these companies treated the school district’s hired architect as the implementer of their plan. There wasn’t any indication of true collaboration. And, neither of these company representatives asked to walk the school building.

The third planner, on the other hand, told us he’d spend the first two days in the school, talking informally with staff, searching out the needs, requirements and desires. As the plan formulated itself, he would bring in his experiences to show how other high schools were meeting today’s educational needs. And the architect would be brought in from the beginning so that the design would flow from the planning process. In fact, this company rep said he’d walk the building with the architect.

I don’t know which of these three companies the board will hire. Unlike a home remodel, this is a group decision. But this experience shows just how important it is to connect with your clients and their dreams. And remember, you are the professional. Bring your expertise to bear in meeting their needs.


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