The Long and the Cost of It

Seatbelts and airbags; the auto industry once argued that these features would make a vehicle too expensive. Now we can’t imagine buying a car without them. Can the same be said for life-cycle costing? It’s common knowledge that schools need to spend more dollars upfront on a project in order to save money over the life of a facility, but current economic realities may send this line of thinking to the back burner. Are schools forsaking long-term savings and strictly focusing on the here and now?

 “No, not at all,” answered Rich Robben, executive director for Plant Operations, University of Michigan. “If anything, we are deciding to delay a project or maybe eliminate it, but there is no move to build more cheaply. If anything, we are looking for better ways to build our buildings to minimize operating costs.”

Arthur Lidsky, president, Dober, Lidsky, Craig and Associates, agrees. “Colleges and universities demand a longer life out of their projects,” he said. “Commercial developers may want to get their payback out of a site quicker, but schools remain concerned with the long term.”

Taking a Closer Look
They are, however, vetting the jobs more carefully. “We are having more life-cycle conversations at the front of a project now,” explained Mary Beth McGrew, associate vice president, Finance-Planning + Design + Construction, University of Cincinnati. “It would certainly be hard to hold an engineer to a tight BTU range, for example, but I think it’s important to insert energy use into the equation before we get into the heart of the design. It’s just another way to inform the design and shape of a building.”

According to McGrew, some international firms are already working this way. Far from limiting creativity, the process opens new doors and shatters some pre-conceived notions. For instance, prevailing wisdom dictates that atria use too much energy. Yet they don’t need to. “We have a building that features a seven-story atrium that is cooled with fresh air and isn’t heated, so it doesn’t consume a lot of resources,” said McGrew.

Old standbys and no-brainers should also be re-examined. For instance, in a renovation project for Cal State, James Matson, associate vice president and director of higher education for the Los Angeles office of HGA Architects and Engineers, called for replacing an existing curtain-wall system with higher-performing glass. “It turns out that the payback would take an enormously long time,” he admitted. “So we just replaced the hot walls.”

Sometimes a Second Look Is Needed
Matson also pointed out that the reverse might be true as well. One project, slated for LEED Platinum rating, was to use an energy recovery wheel. This relatively new and expensive piece of equipment wrings out the last bit of energy from the exhaust air, and comes with a hefty price tag. “The payback period turns out to be between two to four years,” he reported. “We really need to religiously do our calculations and not just assume things. Careful life-cycle assessments can be surprising.”

Life-cycle assessments also have schools thinking regionally. “We are trying to utilize space as efficiently as possible,” said Eric Albert, manager of plant mechanical and energy engineering, University of Michigan. “And we are employing things like a centralized chilled water plant.”

“There is always in interplay between finish and mechanical choices,” said Robben. “Optimizing the final product is an ongoing process.” Yet Robben, along with his colleagues, surely agree that systems take up the bulk of the construction costs. “I would say that mechanical, plumbing, and electrical eat up 40 to 50 percent of construction costs.”

Big-Ticket Considerations
Another big-ticket item that designers and architects may want to rethink is specified technology. “As technology refreshes every 18 months, it pays to wait until the last minute to specify items,” said Lidsky. “It’s a smart way to get the most out of your tech budget.”

Built-in flexibility is another feature that colleges continue to demand. Gone are the days of the academic building dedicated for a specific department as today’s building stretch to do more over their lifetimes. But isn’t this flexibility more expensive in the onset of a project? “Yes, there is a slight price increase to include flexibility now, but schools know that they will be happier with it down the road,” insisted Lidsky.

Funding Sources
Where is any budget money coming from now? As colleges scramble for construction dollars, one likely source that has everyone talking is the economic stimulus package. “We’re all trying to find ways to take advantage of that new government program,” reported Matson. “For instance, I think there is NIH money out there now for research lab construction and renovation. Schools should be on the lookout for it.”

“The biggest challenge right now is trying to figure out the stimulus package,” agreed Lidsky. “There should definitely be monies for renovation and maybe new construction. Either way, despite the economy, it’s a great time to build now.” 

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