A Feasibility Blueprint

Few puzzle pieces can threaten to undermine a campus project like a feasibility study. Yet many times the document serves as administrators’ lifeline — and you control which way the chips will fall.

But even the definition of a feasibility study is up for grabs. Some universities confuse it with a master plan, a study of the university’s needs, an evaluation of campus goals or a specific department’s needs. None of those completely encompass a real-world definition, says Donald Boyken, chairman and CEO of Boyken International, a development management company headquartered in Atlanta. He defines a feasibility study as a project that provides a valid basis or argument for a calculated need.

So if a master plan takes into consideration everything a campus or university needs to function, the feasibility study is the microscope trained on one particular speck.

Nor is the feasibility study necessarily the starting tool.“By the time you begin feasibility assessment, you really should understand what you’re going to build and why — information that comes out of the strategic and long-range institutional plans,” says Mark Spiro, vice president for administration at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York,.“There’s a flow of logic from mission and strategy and then competitive strategy to conceptual planning and then feasibility studies.” Practically speaking, Spiro reserves this option for major capital projects only — meaning building plans that carry at least a $10 million price tag. Colgate administrators handle less expensive requests in-house.

Omar Blaik, senior vice president for facilities and real estate services at the University of Pennsylvania, agrees. He certainly doesn’t bother to take this route for the chump change, $1-million to $3-million projects. “If we’re talking $30 million, of course,” he laughs.

Their reasoning is sound — feasibility studies have a way of morphing beyond their boundaries. “You have to define the feasibility study in very precise terms,” warns Spiro. “Architects will continue to work on your feasibility study, offering in a spirit of goodwill to deliver still more information. But frankly, they’ll charge you for that work, so it’s important to track the study’s progress and deliverables closely.” When it comes to calling it quits, the buck stops on his desk.

To make sure everyone stays on track, Spiro draws up a letter or understanding to start the feasibility study to spell out issues like

  • • Scope of the service and deliverables
  • • Number of visits and presentations
  • • The study’s budget, including a schedule of values (the hourly rate of the professionals and the number of hours the professionals will work on the project). Spiro knows the going rate for these documents is between 70 cents and $1.30 per gsf in his section of the country.
  • • Audiences for the study

Additionally, he throws in several discreet tasks, such as confirming the project’s conceptual objectives, design objectives, and applicable space programs.

Blaik’s upfront secret: “Eighty percent of the time, we don’t hire the same architects to do the feasibility study as we’ll hire to do the building itself,” he shares. For instance, if the situation is leaning toward a demolition and replacement, he hires a group with an engineering bent. For example, the University of Pennsylvania currently is exploring whether to build on a previous landfill. Here he seeks less mechanical backgrounds and more logistical thinkers.

Walking the Talk

Boyken and his team recommend college administrators apply this type of methodical detail to the entire process, breaking it into six essential steps:
1. Provide a valid basis argument for a calculated need. Sound familiar? A definition without substance only wastes space on paper. At this stage, the team should be exploring basic questions such as What do I need? When do I need it? What is the projected overall cost? Who needs to be involved I the process? What will it produce or provide for the university?

At the end of the process, you should walk away with not only answers, but a clear idea of who your user group or stakeholders the project now serves.

2. After building the framework, delve more deeply into these issues. Carol Orndorff, director of planning for Boyken International, uses this time to probe why the computer science department, for example, may want a new building. What are the current teaching practices? How does faculty see that changing – from all aspects ranging from teaching methods to research approach. How do those answers impact building configuration and size? Think of it as filling in the drywall.

“We’re seeing a lot of university projects now trying to incorporate the idea of distance learning,” she reports. “We have professors participating in a lecture t being sourced from another location.” Similarly, the trend for research buildings is to build in team-sharing as opposed to individual labs. But those aren’t automatic answers for everyone, as a feasibility study should reveal.

3. Examine how the feasibility study/evaluation fits the master plan. Specifically, does it require a new building or renovation of an existing building? Will you need to eliminate a new building to make room? “Usually a master plan looks out 10 to 20 years, saying we think there will be new space required, but we haven’t figured out exactly how that will happen, “ says Orndorff. “The feasibility study starts putting some definition to how you’ll accomplish that.”

This is also when your actual concept of the building begins to shape up. What will it need to match or complement the rest of the campus?

4. Time to crunch some numbers. What student, staff and administrative population sizes will use this facility over its lifetime? What type of income (if any) can this facility generate? Will you need specific security, technology or segregation requirements? And just which outside funding sources are available and how would that affect building use?

“We do a lot of work with M.D. Anderson, and many of their facilities are funded through grants,” she explains. “You have to build the research labs based on what those grants will pay for.” Personal gifts from alumni could also carry the same weight.

Before you sign off on the deal, really put those numbers through a strenuous workout. In this stage, you need to develop the total program budget: land, buildings, furniture, equipment, and costs to operate the building once it’s complete. “I can’t tell you how many times we’ve gotten with university planners and they’ve figured out all the different building components but forgot they had to buy furniture to put in there,” says Boyken.

Just keep in mind, this section has many audiences, and a good feasibility acknowledges each one. That’s one reason why Spiro likes his feasibility studies to:

5. Identify the project delivery system. This is a last call for faculty and staff to raise any scheduling issues – as in “unless I have my lab up to a certain level of proficiency by a certain date, I’ll lose my certification, which will really hurt the university’s recruitment.” This particular angle, Boyken says, often crops up too late. “But when you’re awake enough about it and ask the questions at this stage, you can accommodate these,” he adds.

This final section can determine the construction procurement approach as well, although it’s not mandatory.

Parting Shots

But no matter how carefully you adhere to these guidelines, you’re still vulnerable to one of the biggest hiccups of all, Boyken warns. Too many universities, he says, overlook the fact it might take five years to get the project funded after the feasibility study is completed. “So time elapses and things change,” he notes. “Presidents come and go, department heads move on, and the needs can change dramatically.” So while you’re in limbo, revisit and update the study, just as you periodically tweak the master plan.

And don’t forget to project the costs of these new parameters. After all, every move has its price — just make sure yours stay in budget.