Six Steps to Grounds Maintenance Master Planning

To Mike Van Yahres, the tasks of a landscape architect should involve more master planning than weeding, pruning and mowing; more thinking and less work; more long-term focus and less short-term spending. “I know of a college where the president regularly visited the grounds supervisor to point out areas of the campus that needed attention,” he says. “After 129 visits mentioning 129 areas of the campus, the president ended up with 129 flower beds and a huge annual maintenance bill.”

Eventually, the college called on Van Yahres’s Charlottesville, Va.-based landscape architecture firm, Van Yahres Associates, to reassert grounds control. A grounds maintenance plan fitted to the institution’s master plan was developed, with the goal of lowering maintenance costs and creating a campus of enduring beauty. Step one of the plan: dig up and sod over 84 of those flower beds.

A campus landscape must represent the mission and philosophy of the institution, says Van Yahres. In practical terms, a campus must provide a setting for view book photographs that will encourage students to enroll. “According to a Carnegie Institute study, 62 percent of enrolling freshman cite the appearance of the campus as the most important criterion in their final selection,” he says. In other words, once students have evaluated a number of schools, made a short list of three to five, applied to those schools and received acceptances to two or more, the final selection arises largely from their perception of the grounds.

Grounds Maintenance Master Planning

How does a college or university create a campus environment with that kind of appeal to prospective students? Master planning that incorporates grounds maintenance, answers Van Yahres. “Landscape generally conjures up images of grass and trees. At our firm, we use the term to mean placing the buildings; sketching the pathways for people and routes for vehicles; defining the utility runs; implementing the signage system; outlining where growth will occur in the near and distant future. We focus on everything except the physical buildings themselves.”

According to surveys conducted by the firm, 90 percent of colleges and universities have a grounds maintenance budget, but only 30 percent have a comprehensive grounds management plan. On average, campus grounds maintenance departments estimate the hours required for various tasks only 10 percent of the time. “Most colleges set annual budgets to manage the grounds, but few have a plan to control the way the budget is spent,” Van Yahres says.

Many campuses have programs defining some of the tasks related to each of three grounds maintenance areas: trees, gardens and sod. “Seventy-five percent of campuses have a turf management program; 25 percent have an ornamental horticulture program; and five percent have an arbor culture program,” Van Yahres says. “In terms of expertise, however, turf is the least demanding and arbor culture or tree maintenance is the most demanding. So most campuses focus planning on less important tasks.”

Laying Better Groundwork

By integrating grounds management into the master planning process, the grounds maintenance department can develop a more comprehensive and probably less expensive grounds maintenance program.

Such an approach makes grounds maintenance simpler by eliminating subjective and ad hoc initiatives. The master plan sets goals, not the grounds maintenance department. “When developing a master plan from this point of view, you look to the future, at landholdings and carrying capacity,” Van Yahres says. “You attempt to foresee what a campus can look like in 50 years and build a plan around that vision.”

A Six-Step Grounds Maintenance Plan

How to integrate grounds maintenance with master planning becomes clearer when viewed in context with Van Yahres’ six-step grounds maintenance plan.

1. Discuss the master plan with the staff. By defining their work as contributing to an institutional plan, cutting the grass, for example, becomes more important than a weekly chore.

2. ‘’Divide the campus into maintenance zones using two criteria,’’ Van Yahres says. “How visible the area is to the public and how much the area is used by the community. Rank these zones to set work priorities. For example, the campus center, usually somewhere near the student union, library and main administrative offices, generally receives the highest maintenance priority. Woodlands areas, perhaps with jogging trails and biking paths, probably rank lowest on the scale.”

Classroom zones, used by the community but rarely seen by the public, might receive a second-level priority. Residential areas might rank third.

High-priority areas receive the most attention from the grounds crew. Low-priority areas receive the least.

3. Quantify the tasks necessary to maintaining each zone. Specify, for example, how many times a year the grass must be cut in the administrative zone and in the field beside the lake. How many times must each zone be mulched? How often must the leaves be raked; the snow removed; the grass, shrubs and trees fertilized?

4. Develop standards and specifications for each of the quantified tasks. This is for use in house or by contract grounds maintenance companies. Mowing specifications might include the height of the grass, when to pick up clippings, uniform requirements, equipment safety and so on. “In the area of arbor-culture, use ANSI A300 specifications and require International Society of Arbor-culture certification,” Van Yahres says.

5. Develop schedules based on the amount of work required for the plan. If the grass in a zone must be mowed 30 times a year, on what day of the week and at what time will it be done? Break everything down into daily, weekly, monthly, seasonal and long-term schedules. Estimate the hours required for each.

6. Monitor and adjust performance. How many hours does it take to cut the grass? How many hours are in the estimate? “This information enables maintenance managers to discuss labor and equipment needs logically,” Van Yahres says. “It also makes it possible to factor in contingencies. You cannot have a fudge factor unless you have quantified routine tasks.”

In the end, this approach takes many cues from private campus grounds management. “In some ways, that’s true,” Van Yahres says. “I think the best approach lies between the tight, cost-driven systems used by private companies and looser, fatter institutional systems. Each can learn something from the other.”