Benchmarking Deferred Maintenance: A Recent Survey

"You have to be clear on the distinction between deferred maintenance and ignored maintenance, and ensure that your institution's leadership is clear on this. Intentionally deferring needed maintenance after a careful assessment of your facilities condition is a strategy. Ignoring maintenance is a problem."
Faramarz Vakili, Associate Director of the Physical Plant, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Historically, institutions of higher education have built new facilities without budgeting for life cycle operational costs, and have built up a significant backlog of "ignored" maintenance projects. But the past few years have seen growing awareness that this is not sustainable, and more institutions are looking for ways to take proactive, not just reactive, action on facilities maintenance and renewal.

In January - February 2012, Academic Impressions conducted a benchmarking survey of facilities managers at more than 75 institutions of higher education. While this is a small sample, the results were indicative. For example, the survey confirmed that addressing deferred maintenance has moved from a worry to a priority at the majority of institutions:

  • 68% of facilities managers indicated that addressing deferred maintenance was one of several top priorities this year
  • For 17%, deferred maintenance is their top priority
  • Only 13% responded that their investment in addressing deferred maintenance is limited to "a few minor projects" this year
  • Less than 2% responded that this isn't being addressed at all

When we dug deeper, we found facilities managers at a variety of stages in addressing the issue -- but they all feel the pressure. Some are making presentations to the board; some are proposing five-year or three-year plans for reducing the maintenance backlog. Some have succeeded in allocating a small annual budget for the purpose, and are now working to prioritize a campus's worth of maintenance needs.

What's Being Budgeted

We also asked facilities managers where those funds they are able to allocate to reducing the backlog are going:

  • 97% are funding campus infrastructure improvements -- roof repair, road/walkway repair, other essential building repair
  • 77% are funding projects to improve energy efficiency
  • 58% are prioritizing projects to ensure building code compliance
  • 19% are funding historical renovation

The fact that three-fourths of institutions responding are pairing investments in energy efficiency projects with infrastructure improvement is heartening. For a case study of how one institution has used an aggressive approach to generating energy efficiency savings to fund ongoing maintenance and renewal projects, read our article "Proactive Approaches to Deferred Maintenance."

Facilities Stewardship

Half of the facilities managers who responded indicated that if asked to give a letter grade to their institution's efforts to cultivate a culture of facilities stewardship, they would grade their institution with a "B." (Only 3% flunked their institution.)

However, there may be some averaging at work here. More than one respondent added the comment that while they would assign an "A" to the institution's level of spoken commitment, they might assign a "C" or "D" to the institution's actual funding of maintenance and renewal projects.

This is probably not unexpected -- but it does emphasize the importance of being able to tell the story of the institution's maintenance and renewal needs to your CFO, the provost, and ultimately the institution's president and board, in easily understood terms.

Analyzing the Challenges

We asked facilities managers for the most pressing questions on their minds. Overwhelmingly, our survey respondents told us that the biggest challenge they face is gathering the data they need and presenting it in such a way that they can make the case to the CFO and the institution's leadership for the level of investment needed. "How do we sell the concept of funding deferred maintenance to those making the financial decisions?" was a question numerous facilities managers asked us.

"Our respondents were able to identify what needs to be done at their institution, but it was clear they do not know how to communicate the importance of these projects in order to gain the high-level buy-in necessary to attain funding for these initiatives. In addition to this challenge, while our respondents were able to identify the most pressing projects at their institutions, not all of them had the appropriate data to support their case."
Erin Swietlik, Academic Impressions

For a couple of ideas for communicating proactively with senior institutional leaders about your institution's replacement, renewal, and maintenance needs, read our article "How Do You Make the Case for Funding Maintenance and Renewal for Campus Facilities?"