Proactive Approaches to
Deferred Maintenance

Many institutions of higher education are being squeezed between two pressures: a growing deferred maintenance backlog and increasing needs for capital expansion as they compete for students, faculty, and research dollars. For a number of years, the majority of campuses have remained focused on short-term planning for facilities investments, deferring maintenance needs until a later date (but often without reliable data on facilities condition). This continued deferral of maintenance needs is placing greater strains by the year on already limited budgets for facilities management.

It's critical to develop a sustainable model for funding facilities replacement and renewal. To learn from successful models currently in place at two very different institutions, we turned to Faramarz Vakili, the University of Wisconsin-Madison's associate director of the physical plant, and Kathie Shafer, the vice president for operations at Messiah College. These models are both creative in their approaches to funding maintenance needs and forward-thinking in their prioritization of facilities projects.

"No one wants to fund repairs for HVAC or roofing. It's not sexy. There's no pizazz in it. But we need to prioritize this. We need to think about our long-term costs."
Kathie Shafer, Messiah College

Starting with Energy Savings

Nearly two decades ago, the University of Wisconsin-Madison established CURB (Concentrated Upgrade and Repair of Buildings), an initiative to achieve long-term savings in facilities repair and renovation by using energy and water savings garnered through efficiency projects (most of which saw a four- to five-year payback) to fund maintenance efforts. Faramarz Vakili, UW-Madison's associate director of the physical plant and the head of the project, recognized that energy savings represented a significant and untapped source of funding that could be leveraged to both carve into the deferred maintenance backlog and fund further sustainability efforts. In short, he generated savings that could be used to tackle a longstanding and expensive campus problem; the average cost of CURB was $4.62/GSF, compared to $200/GSF for new construction.

"We needed to change from a reactive mode of operation to a proactive one," Vakili notes. "To reverse the facilities deterioration trends on campus, a systematic approach to reconditioning facilities was a must. We had to bring the facilities to a desirable condition before increased preventive maintenance activities could prove beneficial."

For institutions hoping to replicate the approach, Vakili advises concentrating on one building at a time; this both makes the effort manageable in scope and allows you to build support and scale up in a phased effort.

Here's how it works. For each building on campus:

  • Identify and document all deferred maintenance needs of a building and investigate all energy and water conservation opportunities for that building
  • Allocate concentrated maintenance resources to repair and upgrade what you can in-house (in other words, assign a percentage of maintenance personnel to the project)
  • Document and prioritize the remaining problems for future external funding
  • Follow up and execute effective preventive maintenance procedures to maintain the upgraded buildings in good condition in the future

Besides the financial benefits of the effort, a building-by-building green upgrade and recommissioning -- bringing each facility to a desirable state -- also contributes to the occupants' pride in their campus, and allows for you to make a powerful case for a culture of facilities stewardship and energy conservation. "When I go to a building where I did this project," Vakili remarks, "I talk with the deans, the faculty, and the staff with my head up. I tell them: 'You now have a well-maintained facility, you have state-of-the-art air control in the labs, new fume hoods, a new coat of paint on the wall. Now let's talk about how to change behavior. You can wrestle with that thermostat all day long, but if you don't understand how your HVAC system works, it won't do you any good.'"

"Educate occupants about how to live in the newly renovated facilities. They have to see that you care about this, and that you are working hard to create a sustainable and attractive environment."
Faramarz Vakili, University of Wisconsin-Madison

"Celebrate your successes," Vakili suggests. "Solve one problem at a time, be proud of it, and don't be shy about telling the story."

Developing a Reserve Maintenance Fund

At the much smaller, liberal arts institution Messiah College (with an undergraduate enrollment of 2,850), Kathie Shafer has relied on a similar philosophy to develop both a reserve maintenance fund and a long-term maintenance plan funded out of energy savings.

During Shafer's nearly seven years as Messiah College's vice president for operations, she has begun developing a comprehensive database to track facilities condition and maintenance needs, and has secured an allotment of $2.5 million at the start of each fiscal year to devote toward reducing the institution's deferred maintenance backlog. Shafer has brought a unique perspective to her position; her background in events planning for Messiah College has given her a very concrete sense of the impact of facilities condition on the usability of a space and the quality of the learning or knowledge-sharing that can occur in the space.

Among the replicable features of Shafer's model:

  • First, inventory your maintenance needs through a comprehensive facilities audit (rather than rely on an external consultant, Shafer assigned inventory tasks to various facilities and staff ground, sending them to investigate each campus facility over the course of one year)
  • Identify the highest-priority items in your maintenance needs inventory, and determine the annual cost of addressing these items; identify energy efficiency projects that can generate savings; advance a plan for an annual allotment for maintenance, funded in part from energy savings
  • Begin with energy efficiency projects to begin funding your maintenance needs
  • Bundle projects within one facility and complete as many projects within that facility as possible, at one time -- this saves on the overall costs of upgrading the facility, and also saves on overall project costs (for example, you can have one contractor doing multiple projects on the site, and save on expenses related to project management); as in the CURB approach at UW-Madison, bundling allows you to restore a given facility at one time to a high degree of quality and utility
  • Allocate your limited funds strategically; no matter how small the allotment, set aside a certain portion of it each year, creating a reserve fund that can help finance larger and more expensive projects, emergency maintenance needs, or safety/code improvements

Key to this model is planning several years ahead and scheduling large maintenance projects on a long-term calendar. For example, Messiah College allocates $2.5 million each year to maintenance needs (plus additional, variable funds), but budgets $2 million in maintenance each year; the remainder goes into the reserve fund. "Planning is your saving grace when you're a small college and the dollars aren't there," Shafer notes.

"When you have that planning in place, you've found a way to achieve many maintenance and replacement priorities with few dollars. You've found a way to provide a higher-quality physical campus for your faculty, staff, and students."
Kathie Shafer, Messiah College

Implications for the Capital Planning Process

Shafer notes that the other significant benefit of developing a thorough maintenance needs inventory or facilities database is that you will get to know your facilities well enough to propose significant savings on the front end -- during capital planning and design.

It's fast becoming an axiom that capital budgeting for new facilities needs to account for the life-cycle cost of the facility and the operational costs that will be associated with maintaining it. What Shafer adds is that a facilities manager armed with a solid inventory can develop a checklist of specific operational items to look for. "We can take that checklist to our capital planners and advocate for making strategic decisions to invest in something that has a better life cycle or a better operational payback," she notes. "For example, we can be more strategic in choosing systems and finishes. And we can make sure at the outset that the engineers provide a cost estimate that includes special investigation into key indicators of future operational costs. You pay a little more up front, but you increase the longevity and the quality of the facility while decreasing the maintenance and operations costs."

This approach produces a ripple effect in long-term cost savings. As you upgrade and repair your existing facilities, document where you are achieving or can achieve cost savings, and ensure that this information informs design of new facilities.