Starting Over: Resurrecting a Stalled Project

Resurrecting a stalled building project requires a close look at what circumstances have changed, and then changing the plan to match the current reality.

Few lives or livelihoods were untouched by the financial meltdown of 2008 and subsequent global recession. Private schools and institutions of higher learning weren’t immune – many took major hits to their endowments and their enrollments, and saw their donor base disappear overnight. Some closed their doors entirely.

For all, the recession disrupted years of campus planning. Building projects that were fully funded got built during that first uncertain post-crash year, and administrators on those campuses were able to breathe a sigh of relief and accept congratulations on their good timing. Others were not so lucky. In a sector wracked by existential fear, and with a donor base that had lost its disposable income (and schools’ interest in bringing on debt at zero), it was a struggle for some schools to make needed renovations or stay on top of their deferred maintenance, never mind build new. Projects on the drawing board, or those only partially funded, came to a full stop. For many institutions, it is only now, seven years later, that the ground seems solid enough to consider reviving their stalled projects.

The More Things Change

Major financial crashes are only the most dramatic way that building projects can be stalled. Projects can be brought to a halt due to deficient leadership on the institution’s planning team, when the anticipated dollars don’t appear or because a project’s first architect (or a series of architects) overdesigned it. The result is the same. On our first campus visit after being brought in by Tufts University to resurrect that institution’s recreation center project, the school’s vice president of operations said to the firm’s then-executive vice president, “Do you want to see the plans? They’re in the corner of my office.” Those plans, gathering dust, were the project’s third or fourth iteration – the project, such as it was, was in its 15th year.

Some institutions whose building projects have stalled are able to pick up where they left off when their financial outlook improves or other obstacles are overcome. Again, others are not so lucky. As many campus administrators have discovered, a lot can change in just a few years, in five key areas:

1. Families’ perspectives have changed.

Changes in the market tend to be gradual – for example, a region’s demographics don’t shift overnight. Administrators at many liberal arts colleges and preparatory schools found, however, that the five years after the onset of a severe recession was plenty of time to alter the value proposition associated with their institutions. College tuition nationally has outpaced inflation for decades, but the recession – both the impact on potential donors and on parents and students – served to bring the cost of education and families’ return on investment into sharper relief. At $47,000 a year (the annual full tuition at Sweet Briar College, which announced its closing in March), is the value there? If that question was asked before the recession, it wasn’t asked in quite the same way as it is now.

Depending on a school’s particular circumstances, this can alter the contours of its previous planning. It could prompt a major investment in a student recreation center, or a focus on upgrading dormitories in place of a student recreation center. Or, it could mean defining and articulating a new specialty. What before the recession might have been an aggressive push to upgrade student life facilities might now be a rededication to academic facilities more in tune with the future job market. This last point can’t be stressed

enough: In just a few years, colleges have gained a large number of competitors in the virtual world. Online learning and tech academies (give us eight weeks and we’ll get you a job), in some cases operated by existing or former bricks-and-mortar schools, have the potential to upend the fortunes of many small institutions. This is the time for institutions, even those itching to start building again, to consider how this shifting landscape will affect their campuses in the future.

2. The school’s financial reality has changed.

Perhaps the school has outstanding debt on previously completed projects. Perhaps the original budget for the stalled project was never realistic. Perhaps it was then, but it isn’t now, as the school’s donors believe the recession is still on. Whichever the case, a new plan – a new pitch to donors, a new funding strategy or a more cost-effective design and construction method – is necessary.

Stalled projects often suffer from donor fatigue, with some combination of the following said directly to administrators making their pitch or to other donors or trustees: “I’ve been hearing about this project for seven years, and it never got off the ground. I don’t believe the team is in place. I don’t believe they have their act together. I’m frustrated with the institution. Why would I donate money, now that I’m finally comfortable giving again, if this project isn’t going anywhere?”

Lack of confidence expressed by a skeptical donor base isn’t easily overcome by updated fundraising materials. What can get a stalled project back on track is offering a sense that something is different (changes to the school’s planning team) or proof that something is different – a change in the design team or the adoption of a construction delivery method that helps the project stay within budget (or even guarantees it).

Why rethink the design team? While every institution that has a stalled project will have a different story to tell, the reality is that even if you can build, you may not be able to build in the same way as you’d planned to before. Your design team was hired to fit the vision (and budget) of seven years ago, and they may not culturally be the right fit for your new reality. It comes as no surprise that, against the backdrop of recessionary times, there has been a corresponding increase in interest in collaborative methods such as design-build and integrated project delivery (IPD) that get construction managers or design-build entities involved earlier in the planning process. More clients are requesting a more cost-efficient methodology, and more design firms are offering some strain of it – another reason to explore construction delivery options with firms that can show expertise in the building type in question. This can help address donor fatigue, too, either by being able to pitch a lower dollar figure or (within the design-build method employed) a guarantee against change orders.

3. The school’s team has changed.

Seven years is a long time, and the departure of key personnel on campus can have an outsize influence on how (or even whether) an institution proceeds with a stalled building project. It becomes challenging for many institutions to pick up the pieces of a project without the institutional knowledge around the decisions that were made the first time around. If you choose to work with the same design team, your architect may be able to provide the project knowledge your team lacks. This can be advantageous – or not. If relying on a professional who “knows” the plan means that design decisions based on old information go unchallenged, the result could be problematic.

A change in personnel can mean a fresh perspective. In a case where institutional leadership issues helped bring on the delay, a change can help ensure against a fairly common situation where the same dynamics repeat themselves once the project restarts. Just as you should scrutinize your previous design team, you should look closely at your internal team, too. Is there someone on the team who feels a sense of ownership of a previous plan, which could cloud the team’s judgment and not allow open-minded thinking, not just around reducing costs, but about matching up the plan with current needs?

Leadership in a school administration is critical to long-term success, but with regard to a stalled building project, it might be doubly important, whether the team leader is the school’s headmaster or president, its facilities manager or business officer. That person, who is counted on to have the vision to make the project happen, must be in a position to know what the real budget is for the project, and to proceed accordingly.

4. The school’s needs, or mission, have changed.

As noted above, a change in the overall market can spur a school to reassess its needs. A possible change brought on by the recession is a heightened need for multipurpose or interdisciplinary use of facilities. Administrators who see the opportunity to build after a long layoff will probably be looking to get the most bang for their buck out of their facility – something that might not have been deemed a requirement for the program in 2007.

But also, on each individual campus, gradual change is the norm as the student body transitions each year, as faculty turnover occurs and as other capital projects take place. Even during the recession, with larger capital projects stalled, immediate athletics needs might have spurred an institution to install relatively inexpensive synthetic turf fields. A three-year-old turf field laid on the site of the once-planned recreation complex is a substantial obstacle to simply dusting off the old plans.

It could be that, in seven years’ time, a particular department has gained considerably in prestige, changing the way a new facility for that department is conceived. Perhaps a fine arts facility, once imagined as bookending an existing quad, would be better sited up a hill from the quad, overlooking the campus. While the question of where to potentially place the fine arts facility may have been addressed years before in a master plan, for all the reasons listed above it is best to hold another discussion during the actual design process to ensure you are locating the building on the right site.

Especially if a change in school leadership has taken place in the intervening years, there may have been a new master plan performed to help embody the school’s mission. As alluded to previously, the plans on the shelf may be more grandiose than is appropriate to the current budget. More important, do they reflect what the institution is thinking about today? Buildings are statements about values. Does the previous building plan match the new values of the school?

5. Building codes have changed.

Your building project may have stalled, but building codes do not stall with it. If you had put a project on hold in 1990 and picked it up again in 1995, you might have been surprised by the changes (and additional dollars) that would be necessary to comply with the new Americans with Disabilities Act. Local building or fire codes, federal stormwater requirements – any number of updates to codes and standards will have to be reckoned with as you bring your project back to life.

Always Moving Forward

Often I’ve heard it said that people resist change. When it comes to stalled projects, it’s critical to understand that, like it or not, significant change has occurred in the intervening years – and your plans will likely change with it. A lengthy enough delay in the process essentially requires that the planning team be open to new approaches. The possibility of starting from square one can be frustrating and daunting, but it also offers the possibility of finishing the project successfully.

About the Author
Oliver Snider ( is vice president of business development for Stanmar Inc., a Wayland, Massachusetts-based design-build firm.