Maintaining Your Facilities In Complex Times

Understanding the Condition of Your Facilities

Every institution, regardless of its size and location, engages in a constant battle identifying issues within their buildings, maintaining an accurate condition assessment of their buildings in real time, and integrating facility data with other institution department systems and platforms.

Identifying Facilities Issues

In most cases, the Facilities team starts this exercise through self-discovery, which occurs during maintenance repairs and emergency service calls. In an ideal scenario, the Facilities team is reviewing the annual building capital repair plan created when the building was initially constructed and came on-line.  The annual plan’s recommendations begin to fade as other Facility issues in the campus infrastructure become more pressing. The focus and/or interest in the building maintenance and capital repair plan begins to get reprioritized over time. In a paper plan cases, the documented needs may not be accessible to everyone on the team. Consequently, those team members start to rely more on physical inspections. Some institutions begin to capture the larger capital items in an excel spreadsheet and compare needs to their operations work order system.

Where does the data come from?

Visual Inspections – In some situations, the most trusted source of data and confidence in the data comes from the facility staff. They know the buildings intimately and experience negative (sometimes positive) feedback from the building occupants in real time. The weakness lies with building familiarity and specific components of the building. When internal staff sees the same space day in and day out, potential issues don’t always stand out the way they should. Additionally, tolerance for certain defects increases as the focus shifts to more pressing issues.  When internal staff becomes comfortable with buildings and their systems, sometimes the uniqueness or technical specifics of systems can be oversimplified. This oversimplification can accelerate the life cycle of the asset and require replacement of the item earlier than its expected useful life. Best practices and process for maintenance for building systems changes over time.  It is likely the staff will not be an expert in everything, and support from an independent third party can be beneficial. Another challenge is when staff turnover occurs and experienced staff leaves or retires, and new staff comes on board without institutional knowledge. Utilizing specialists can save the Institution time, manpower, and money.

Building Information and Industry Standards – Many institutions will refer to industry standards to recommend what needs to be addressed based on the building’s age or how much things cost to repair now or in the future. These standards are helpful in long-term planning. They provide an additional reference point when project expenses and replacement schedules are being assessed in-house and or using consultant reports.

Consultants – Many campuses will contract with consultants to assess a building or buildings in order to gain a baseline knowledge of the building’s condition. Consultants are hired for their expertise and thoroughness to document everything in the building (the good and the bad) to develop a capital replacement plan.  These types of assessments can bring a great depth in understanding what needs to be done immediately, in the short term, and in the long term. These reports can be an invaluable starting point, incorporating the facility staff perspective as well. The reports can also be used as part of the documentation to the institution’s administration for prioritizing funding for these projects. The downside to this process is that the reports can be extremely costly and if not budgeted correctly, difficult to fund.  A word of caution, the consultant’s report style may not be tailored to each institution’s reporting needs. Each consultant typically uses their own format and style for reports, which may require the institution to reformat or reinterpret the data to make it meaningful. It is beneficial to foster positive working relationships with these consultants, to ensure they understand the mandated Universities policies and regulations. Providing the consultant with a template and/or detailed guidelines will create a better outcome. It is vital to be on the same page when working with a consultant. The report produced will be viewed by many and referenced for years to come.

These three ways, visual inspections, use of industry guidelines and standards, and utilization of consultants are helpful individually, but much more effective when used together.  Certainly, if funds are limited or not available, consultant reports may be difficult to obtain or are limited to only address specialized systems or buildings that cannot be addressed by internal staff. Each Facility department has unique experiences and staff competencies, as well as budget and staffing constraints, that will dictate data collection.

How often is the data updated?

Maintaining updated building data is the next challenge facility departments face. Generating accurate building data is the first step.  Keeping information current by adjusting for what has been completed or removed, accounting for newly identified issues for repair or replacement since initial data collection and reviewing the recommended time frames to engage professional services are all key components to updating building data reports, based on each building type.

Generally speaking, high-use buildings like student housing, recreation centers, dining facilities, etc. may expect to have more frequent updates (3 to 5 years), while traditional academic classroom/office buildings may need updates every 5 to 7 years. Special purpose facilities like research buildings, stadiums, and parking decks may fall in between. The key, however, is to continuously document the building data based on visual inspections during maintenance work and preventative maintenance activities. If an institution has a robust and well-rounded experienced staff, the need for third-party consultants may be limited, but it is advantageous to have formal reports periodically to provide an independent assessment of what issues the facility staff is identifying.

Maintaining Facility Conditions Data

In the end, maintaining the building facility data may be the most critical step in the process. Securing accurate data is the key, followed closely by having a way to update the building facility data as work is completed, and new issues are identified. The range of how institutions monitor this data varies from a hard copy consultant report and institutional notes stored in departmental files or building drawings and plans, to excel spreadsheets, or through proprietary IT solutions created by the institution.

Often, new priority lists may be generated from existing priority lists from previous years request, or different lists tracked by different staff in different departments. Priority lists are also created from special requests from the administration for funding needs or a summary of what funds have been spent on a building or building system type. It is very easy to miss important building information if the building data is not sourced from the same place or a database management system. As you can tell, depending on how the building data is stored, different results can be created for the same question at different times.

A well thought out database management system is critical to providing a way to accurately and consistently store data, track data, and generate future reports over time. While the “who” is often a person, the underlying process ideally is a system that has the flexibility to capture data across a wide spectrum of property type, systems, and report generation capabilities. In addition to report generation, if the data is collected and formatted in a way that can be transferred into financial, maintenance, BIM systems, and new opportunities to utilize this data in more dynamic ways is possible.

Integrating Data into Master Plan/Budget Cycle and Institution Systems

The next step in the process is to use this data to help advocate for current and future funding for projects identified in the data. Ideally, through the campus master plan and strategic planning initiatives of the institution, priorities of the University can be shaped by the underlying facility needs.

The challenge is that without well researched and reasoned facility priority lists, non-critical or non-priority issues can be moved to the top. Often, the “squeaky wheel gets oiled first” scenario takes precedent in facilities. The “squeak” at an institution can literally be a squeak from a piece of equipment, a leak in the roof, windows or bathrooms failing, or even a power outage event. But often it comes from an Academic Dean with an issue in their building, or a campus walk by the President with a Donor, or even a new institution priority for improving the freshmen experience. The “squeak” in some cases can move ahead of more pressing building(s) needs.

When the facility staff has not adequately documented the building needs in a format that can be easily communicated, the critical needs of today, next year or in future years, can be impacted by the “squeaky” wheel. Building data that has been well maintained over time to reflect the actual condition of the buildings, and stored in a well-documented and robust database, that be used to analyze buildings and building systems independently and collectively, can assist in facility staff in prioritizing what items need to be done and when, and how to allocate (request) resources to meet those priorities, even when emergencies occur.

Copyright @ 2018, by J. Mark Lawson

About J. Mark Lawson, Principal at Banyan Real Estate LLC:

Banyan Real Estate LLC serves institutional clients in Higher Education and Municipal sectors.

Mark has been involved in Higher Education Real Estate and Facility Management for 17 years, working for Georgia State University and Kennesaw State University in Real Estate and Facilities Management and working for a Student Housing Developer servicing institutions across the southeast.

He has extensive experience in strategic planning, master planning, program/facility management, capital planning, real estate development and finance, lease administration, asset management, community engagement and student housing.

Mark can be reached at 678-778-3532 or