A Growing Problem
- By Janet Wiens
- January 1st, 2010
Constructing new and efficient buildings on a college or university campus is cause for celebration. Unfortunately, there is not much celebrating when a parking deck is repaired, worn carpet is replaced, or a leaky faucet is fixed. Deferred maintenance is certainly not as glamorous as the opening of a new science building or the major renovation of a residence hall, but the need is just as great. However, there is simply not enough money for deferred maintenance in light of other institutional needs, and this challenging issue will not go away anytime soon.
“The University of Memphis, like many colleges and universities, grew tremendously in the 1960s,” said Jim Hellums, assistant vice president of Physical Plant. “We went from an enrollment of around 8,000 students at the beginning of the decade to 20,000 students in 1968.”
The increased enrollment necessitated a significant investment in new construction at the University. “Many of our buildings are 40 years old or more, and many haven’t had a major renovation since they opened,” Hellums said. “Deferred maintenance is a major issue for us, as it is at most public institutions.”
Hellums stated that the University of Memphis has $150M in deferred maintenance projects identified, and that $13M a year must be spent to keep that number from increasing. “We categorize projects as deferred maintenance or deferred modernization,” he said. “Deferred maintenance means that we correct deficiencies to original conditions. With deferred modernization, we bring a facility up to present-day needs. In either case, there isn’t as much money available as we would like.”
Communicating facility needs to all constituents — students, faculty, staff, and administrators — is more critical than ever before, in Hellums’ opinion. He noted that administrators must fully understand facility issues and requirements, so they can help secure funding for priority projects. Gaining advocates for green projects, such as energy-related work that will reduce operating costs as well as the University’s carbon footprint, is also important.
Hellums believes that the available pool of money for deferred maintenance will remain approximately the same for the next two to five years. This makes assessing building costs even more critical, including calculating paybacks for energy-related improvements or determining whether to renovate a building or to undertake new construction based on cost projections.
Deferred Maintenance Verses Renewal
Ronald Ripley, director of facility services at Marquette University in Milwaukee, said that they also differentiate between deferred maintenance and other projects. “Renewals are larger activities that extend the life of a building component, such as the HVAC system,” he said. “A lack of action on an identified renewal project will have a potential dramatic negative impact on a facility’s operations or safety provisions.”
Ripley and his staff invest a great deal of time in updating the list of deferred maintenance and renewal projects. This includes prioritizing needs based on University priorities. “The facility work that we do must reflect the needs of the University as a whole,” he said. “It is very important that we can articulate our needs based on other requirements at Marquette.”
Ripley does have a line item in his annual budget for road and sidewalk replacements that are not major in nature. Carpet with out-of-date colors or that is worn isn’t replaced with any regularity unless it becomes a trip hazard or has low aesthetic value. Rather, it will be replaced when a major building renovation is undertaken.
“Unfortunately, at many colleges and universities, the budgets for deferred maintenance become lower as the operating budget is decreased,” Ripley said. “We are fortunate that few of the projects that we identify as deferred maintenance are not funded. Some schools can address all of their deferred maintenance requirements, but that number is very small.”
A Team Approach
Ken Kramer, construction and maintenance manager at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, agrees with Hellums and Ripley that communicating and understanding university needs is critical. “Our administration understands that we cannot address all of our deferred maintenance requirements as we were able to in the past,” he said. “They have become important advocates in helping us to secure funding for major repairs. Their understanding of the issues that we face, and our understanding of the University’s needs as a whole, is very important.”
The University of Wisconsin-Whitewater campus involves 300-plus acres and 44 buildings that total 2.8M gross square feet. The University stays on a preventative maintenance schedule for some facility components, such as work on air handlers or HVAC systems.
“Part of our approach to deferred maintenance involves a just-in-time approach,” Kramer said. “We are also using technicians to do more work whenever possible, which saves us money.”
Kramer says that his staff of 50, which does not include custodial or grounds personnel, knows that more is expected of them and that they are respectful of the University’s situation. He notes that they have stepped up to the plate based on their understanding of decreased budgets for facility needs, such as deferred maintenance.
Unless there is an emergency status, Kramer often waits to undertake a project until it can be incorporated as part of a major capital improvement. Major repairs are funded by the state of Wisconsin, so this approach helps to stretch the budget. He does concede, however, that it also means that some deferred maintenance is put off much longer than is desirable.