Rethinking the Building Committee

You know the adage, “When you’re a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” There’s a fair amount of truth to that, even when it comes to a school’s governance structure, particularly the “building committee.” Independent schools need a different approach.

We’re in an era of eye-popping growth and change, where simultaneous revolutions in mobility and connectivity are bumping hard against our sense of place and identity.

Think about it. The name, “building committee,” alone suggests its mandate — a predictable set of working processes and outcomes — and often drives the skill sets of the members making up the committee itself. We suggest rethinking the “building committee” in favor of a “planning committee.” While this may sound like mere semantics, it represents a more fundamental shift.

Preparing a Board of Trustees for campus planning, planning for planning, has become an increasingly important dimension of our work. This upfront effort recognizes we’re in an era of eye-popping growth and change, where simultaneous revolutions in mobility and connectivity are bumping hard against our sense of place and identity. In addition, we’ve gotten a sneak peek into the learning behaviors of the future generation of students and their expectations for a broader portfolio of experiences.

Consider this challenge through the simple time/change chart below. The rate of facility change, traditionally the purview of the building committee, is a slow incline. That’s simply the nature of the institutional process, an incremental activity that usually proceeds only when building is close at hand.

Contrast that with the rate of change in the student experience, which is exponential on a mature campus. We have moved well beyond reading, writing, and arithmetic to futures more difficult to define.

If you compare the rate of change in the student experience to the rate of facility change, you see a considerable and ever-expanding gap. Managing this gap is a continuous process, a challenge and an opportunity for forward-thinking schools. It does however require a different mindset, a more fully developed point of view, in short a different approach.

As an example, we recently had a conversation with a building committee around the idea of a wellness center, in their minds defined largely as a place for counseling activities. The building committee had hired an architect, visited similar facilities, and staked out a location for new offices and associated spaces. Basically, they arrived at their solution through what we call “pattern matching” — copying what other institutions had previously built. While pattern matching might reflect some lessons learned, it rarely provides a forward-looking solution. Bear in mind, when you see a newly built facility, the thinking behind it is already four to six years old. The answer here isn’t necessarily a faster delivery process, but rather a more informed conception.

Contrast that approach with the thinking of a peer institution, whose planning committee routinely uses a persona created by the admissions office, a fictional student of the future named “Mary,” to iterate options around various campus development initiatives. Mary lives a life in flow, a transparent existence, with 24/7, 365, on-demand everything, and she is perfectly comfortable with, and even prefers, online interactions.

Around the issue of wellness, the planning committee understood that while Mary has never been to a counselor’s office, she nevertheless consults her counselor weekly. This understanding led to a number of ideas about how the activity of wellness could become part of the institutional culture. Where space was necessary, a number of unique ideas bubbled up around how it might be accommodated within the campus setting.

Short-term successes are nice while they last, but institutions that want to remain viable into the future must balance stability and innovation. Campus planning and subsequent campus development need to reinforce the balancing act between maintaining a clear focus on the fundamentals and the creativity to explore new opportunities.

So, to overcome these strategic shortcomings, we often suggest “rethinking the building committee” in favor of a planning committee with no mandate to build. Yes, this may be viewed as a subtle distinction in the near-term, but over time this planning committee will move beyond one-off architectural exercises into a mindset of constant evaluation — a perpetual state of thinking about the disposition of space, facilities, and land uses in the context of a rapidly maturing student experience.

How will they do that? Forgo the traditional pattern matching and single-source vision; both are near-sighted. Champion process; fill the room with the school’s best and brightest; invite broad, differentiated points of view; define problems before racing to solutions; focus on impacts not features; demand data every step of the way; dig deep and disrupt the boundaries of today’s initiatives with the often hard to get to “what ifs” and create a shared, authentic understanding of what success looks like for institutional change. In short, steering over aiming. If that change requires building, create an ad-hoc committee with the requisite skill sets to oversee the execution.

This isn’t a radical idea. To keep pace in an ever-changing world, schools are expanding their regular Board conversations to include a constant process of strategic thinking, enabling richer outcomes than through the more traditional decision-making cycle. Planning the future of the campus setting and all it embodies is a significant dimension of institutional strategy and ongoing stewardship. In an era of constant change, the idea of a building committee, with its mandate, focus, and composition is just a hammer looking for a nail — independent schools need a different approach.