Lessons of Architecture: The value of masterplanning

Masterplanning is an essential task for any project. Working mostly in education, most of my projects start with a masterplan. However, I’ve also used the same process on residential renovations, where the owner can’t afford to do it all at once. Successful architecture is not just about the short-term gain of function and shelter but about the long-term aspirations of living. And sometimes this means you can’t do everything at once. Investing in any new project is costly, and you want to make sure that each phase allows for as much future flexibility as possible.

So what is a masterplan? An effective masterplan incorporates what you know now, with how you want to live/work/function in the future. It is a document that sets an intention, and allows you to look objectively at what you want to achieve, and set in place steps to achieve your goals. A masterplan should consider the overall objectives of the site, what can be achieved and how best to utilise the building/s, the landscape, the functions, and most importantly the budget so you are realistic in your goals. But a masterplan is also much more than a plan, it is a set of aspirations for how you want to envisage your future.

Whether a house, a school or another community, these are some of the thoughts I go through when considering the masterplan for a project.

  1. The first question I always start with is: What do you value? What is important to you? And how does your whole environment (built and non-built) reflect your values? For housing, if you value family and friends, how will your home welcome and embrace visitors? If you value sustainability, how is your house carefully considered to be as efficient as possible? For a school I look at the school values or mission statements and reflect on how these can be interpreted through the architecture. If you value Equity, how are you ensuring all your spaces are equitable? If you value Wellbeing, how do your spaces encourage and promote this? Sometimes this might also lead you to think about whether your values, are actually your values! Which is of course, all part of the process.
  2. What do you want to do in your space? When masterplanning I try and stay out of the naming of spaces as long as I can. Once you decide ‘we need 20 classrooms’, the options become quite limited. But when you consider ‘we need eight spaces for 25 students, and four spaces for 15 students, and ten spaces for 8 students, and one big space for 100 students’, the options are quite different. In housing, this might be ‘we need a space to sit fifteen people once a year for Christmas dinner’ – this doesn’t necessarily mean you need a formal dining room all year round. So considering the activities, rather than the room names, helps to create more intentional spaces, and can lead to efficiencies in how the space is laid out.
  3. Once you know where you’re going, you can more intently analyse where you are. This should help identify the main gaps, so you can start to work on the bridges between them. When working with houses it helps to work with the existing plan to investigate how things might be altered. Just as in schools, sometimes a ‘room name’ doesn’t have to determine the function of the room. Just because a room was named ‘Dining Room’ on the advertising brochure, doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. A thorough investigation into all your existing spaces is critical to understanding where to move forward. This also allows you to consider the value in your existing infrastructure. There is a lot of embodied energy existing in any building, and throwing it all away for something similar is terribly wasteful. Looking at what you have now vs what you want to have, may help you reconsider how your architecture really aligns with your values.
  4. Is where you want to go, really where you want to go? Once you start looking critically at what you have and what you want, in alignment with your values, you might feel you want to re-assess your wants. Which is again, part of the process. When you take the time to look into what you aspire for and why, it can help set your intention for the spaces you really need, based on the activities you want to do in them.
  5. Think step by step. Of course we would all like to do the big move straight away and have the perfectly finished space from the beginning. But unfortunately real life (and real budgets) don’t always allow for that. In this case, projects will be staged, which means you need to be thinking a few steps ahead. It is costly to re-do work and wasteful to demolish work that was done out of order. (It is for this exact reason I just can’t watch The Block any more – so much waste, just for ratings drama! Do you know how much construction waste accounts for Australia’s total waste!!?? Its disgraceful… Anyway, that’s a post for another day…!) So a masterplan incorporates the steps to carefully manoeuvre along the way, reducing double-ups and waste where you can.
  6. Bite off the chunks you can chew. Breaking a project in to smaller pieces won’t necessarily save you money overall. (In fact there may be some additional costs in-between, like additional approval fees.) But, it can be much more manageable. For example at a school, they won’t be able to just knock down a teaching block and wait a year until a new one is built. But they might be able to accommodate a few temporary classes, demolish some classes while they build some new ones, and then move those in, demolish some more and build some more, and repeat… Similarly at home you might not have anywhere else to live for six months to a year for a full renovation. But you could shuffle things around to give up part of your house at a time, and get through the worst of it. (Not fun, but doable!!) The architectural process should be one that works for you, to achieve your best outcome in a way you are comfortable with.
  7. Any masterplan is not set in stone. These plans are designed to be assessed and re-analysed as your values, needs and functions change. For a school, these might be on a five or ten-year cycle, and a LOT changes in education in ten years. Consider your classrooms spaces compared to current ones – hopefully you are seeing a lot of change! Similarly your family and home values continually evolve and what you found so important a few years ago, may not be so important to you now. The masterplan is really just a guide to move you forward – a way of thinking ‘what am I actually trying to achieve’, not just ‘what do I want things to look like’. Like any goal, your masterplan can and should be re-assessed and updated when your life changes.

These are just some of my thoughts when I am masterplanning, which I think is a critical element of any architectural project. Bigger than a functional ‘how many rooms do I need’ thought process, masterplanning allows you to think broader than on the building, onto issues of sustainability, values and aspirations. This is why I consider it so critically important.

A quick case study below, for a couple who wanted to convert their 3 x 1 brick house into a 3 x 2 plus study/multipurpose space, allowing for future adaptation and getting better solar orientation into a desired open living / kitchen area. In the end, all stages might be able to be done at once. But by breaking it into chunks it also allows the owners to consider what will work for them as they go.

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