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Ready to RFP for senior living master planning services? Avoid these 3 mistakes

Are you thinking about issuing a request for proposals for senior living master planning services? Before you move forward, watch out for three mistakes that could jeopardize your plans.
Senior living architect looking away from master planning documents while standing by table at workplace

Creating a master plan to reposition senior housing assets is a hot topic for our clients. The importance of planning will always be a key ingredient to the long-term success of your community.

If you’re like our clients, you’re ready to refocus on how to position your organization in the market post-COVID-19. This, of course, gets everyone talking about kick-starting the master planning process for your community.

Do you think your community is ready to start the request for proposals (RFP) process for senior living master planning services? If so, pump the brakes for just a bit and make sure you avoid these three common mistakes that could jeopardize your plans.

Mistake #1: Moving forward without executive leadership and board alignment

Alignment between the leadership and the board of any community is the most crucial step in the master planning process, and it must come first. Without alignment, making decisions will be impossible.

Like a couple arguing about whether to buy a three-bedroom or a four-bedroom house after dinner every night, they need to decide on which they need and can afford before they call the realtor and start spending time and money looking at five-bedroom houses with pools they don’t need just because the realtor sold one to the last couple.

As senior living development advisors, we’ve been engaged to assist with board education and alignment as part of strategic planning and master planning services for clients around the country. What we’ve found is that the best outcomes come about when both parties understand their roles in the decision-making process, come to a single consensus about the future of their organization, and stay transparent during implementation to keep each other accountable to the common goal. A terrible feeling for any CEO or board is to get a million dollars into the design development process for a $16 million project just to be told the organization can only support an $8 million project.

Bottom line: Don’t engage a senior living architect without executive leadership and board alignment first. If there is no common goal, or the goal isn’t the same for the board and management, then all the effort for master planning will be useless. All it will do is waste time, money, and emotional investment in a project that will either be scrapped or struggle the entire way through the design and development process.

Bottom line: Don’t engage a senior living architect without leadership and board alignment first.

Mistake #2: Misrepresenting the scope of work

Before you request proposals for senior living master planning services, your organization needs to determine what exactly the architect should be hired to develop in the master plan. Three important pieces of information, used together, define an accurate scope of work in the master planning services RFP:

  1. Market study.
    A market study analyzes the demand for and supply of senior living in a defined market area, helping you determine how much and what product to offer. Without that information, you can’t tell what the market will support, make decisions around repositioning your assets, or tell your senior living architect what to design in the master plan. Your master plan may look quite different if you know there is demand for 100 more independent living units in your market versus 50 or none.
  2. Financial analysis.
    A debt capacity and financial analysis quantifies your organization’s ability to raise funds to pay for and implement the master plan. Used in conjunction with other planning tools, like the market study, the financial analysis caps the scope defined within your master plan services RFP. If the market supports 80 assisted living units, but you can only afford 20, that’s a different RFP. You’ll need this information to engage with all your development partners: architect, lender, contractor, owner’s representative, etc. It is also important to realize that we are no longer in a “rinse and repeat world.” Project feasibility has changed drastically with construction cost, staffing cost, and interest rate increases. Just because a project was feasible in 2018 doesn’t mean it will be now.
  3. Property condition assessment.
    Facility assessments allow you to understand current capital needs at an existing campus, a critical part of any senior living master plan. Although you’ve identified the new product in a market study and know how much you can afford to build from your financial analysis, you need to decide how much of that development budget will be reinvested in the existing product (to maintain or enhance) and how much can go toward the new product (to grow). It won’t do you any good to build 20 new apartments if the amenity spaces look like they’re from 2010 and your roads have potholes like the Pennsylvania Turnpike in the spring.

Mistake #3: Starting the senior living master planning RFP process too soon

Many executive leaders and boards think that hiring a senior living architect is the first step to master planning their campus. This is a costly mistake that we’ve seen happen repeatedly.

Before you engage an architect to bring your vision to life in a master plan, you first need to have that vision documented in a strategic business plan or what we call master programming. Here’s how it all comes together:

  • A strategic plan describes how the organization wants to grow, sets business goals, and defines what’s important to the organization for the next five to 10 years.
  • The master programming (business plan) describes in more detail the types of services, living units, amenities, square feet, site usage, and budgets to set the guardrails of a financially feasible project(s), which should be based on an appropriate scope based on the hard financial and market data.
  • The master plan, on the other hand, is to bring more detail and validate the master program. This becomes the road map describing how and when to carry out those goals. It describes what to build or renovate, where new products should go, and how that growth will be phased out.

To make the best decisions, the leadership team and board must not start the master plan process before confirming the strategic plan and master program are complete, and again, agreed upon. Architects need this master program to guide the master plan and ensure the drawings created conform to your goals and budget.

Your architect needs the master program to guide the master plan and ensure the drawings created conform to your goals and budget.

When your management team spends six months coordinating with the architect to design a master plan, sacrificing time from the normal day-to-day activities of running the organization, only to find out your plans must be redrawn because they aren’t in line with the overall strategic plan or master program — it’s heartbreaking. The emotional toll is very real for everyone involved, from marketing and HR to operations and facilities staff to management. We have seen all too often the leadership team lose trust and engagement with staff, residents, and the board when this happens. Add into that the wasted dollars and time … the risk is clear.


With a data-driven master program that includes a clear scope of work and budget founded on a clear strategy by board and leadership alignment, you’ll have the guardrails you need to create a clear and effective master planning services RFP. Without it, the project will falter as you backtrack to find the information the architect needs or cut out the things you can’t afford … and realize along the way that you missed key details that could make your investment into master planning a waste of money, energy, time, and trust.

Need help navigating these steps? Plante Moran Living Forward is a full-service development advisor who will keep your organization from making these and other mistakes during the master planning RFP process. We usually provide a return on investment when engaged during the planning stages of development.

Give us a call to talk about how we can help with property condition assessments, market research, financial analysis, and capital planning, master programming (business plan) development, and RFP coordination services.

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