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As we begin to enter the endemic stage of COVID-19, the “new normal” is starting to feel more and more like the “old normal.” While that brings with it the joys and opportunities of seeing our students, faculty, and staff returning to college campuses across the country, it also means that the challenges that have had to take a back seat during the pandemic are now critical needs that must be addressed. One of these needs is the dreaded “deferred maintenance.” However, despite the return of this daunting challenge, we believe the higher education community has reasons to look towards the future with optimism, and we have already seen institutions beginning to take advantage of these new opportunities in solving our old problems.

 

Why Does this Matter to You? – The statistics are daunting.

Deferred maintenance costs in higher education in the U.S. were estimated to be around $100/gsf, or $1 trillion total in 2015. Now, as we emerge from two years of pandemic spending freezes at many universities, a recent report from a partnership between the Association of Physical Plant Administrators (APPA) and Gordian has estimated that deferred maintenance has grown by nearly $100 million more. Adding to the urgency is the fact that the increases in deferred maintenance have been met with nearly flat funding for renewal dollars across the industry. Meanwhile, pressure on capital improvements is projected to grow significantly over the coming decade. So why is this all so urgent? There have been waves of campus construction across the country, the first in the 1970s, and the most recent in the 2000s. These waves are caused by certain things throughout construction of campus buildings that have lifecycles of 25, 30, and 35 years that need to be updated near that duration of time. Since the last big milestone for many of these buildings’ lifecycles to need updating was in the 2000s, in 2022 we are quickly approaching another huge wave of maintenance needs in 2030. Some experts are calling this the perfect storm.

Wave
Wave

What’s the Good News? The backlog is resolvable.

Despite these statistics, DC believes there’s reason to be optimistic about solving this daunting problem. One resounding lesson that we’ve learned from the past two years is that the higher education community is resilient and adaptable. Sometimes seen as slow to change, the pandemic inspired evolutions in workplace flexibility, teaching methods, and interdepartmental collaboration. The academic community has never been more dynamic and active in reinventing itself, and for the first time at many institutions, facilities leaders now have a seat at the table with senior leadership. They’ve helped lead colleges’ responses to the pandemic and have had a key role in decisions about digital and physical campus upgrades. They’ve been key leaders in guiding their campuses through these challenging times, and they are now positioned to take advantage of their heightened influence on campus to lead them. What does this mean? You are now positioned to take on the looming deferred maintenance storm. Now how do you go about doing it?

Director in a Meeting
Director in a Meeting

How You Can Take Action: Follow a Process

Whether your institution is private or public, large or small, just knowing your backlog is not enough. Through our decades of experience, we have discovered and refined a process to achieve success:

Define the problem – The first step of solving any problem is understanding it. If you don’t have a comprehensive understanding of your campus’ facilities, consider starting with a Facilities Condition Assessment. This quick evaluation, which can be performed by a facilities team or design professionals such as DC, is focused on the condition and functionality of the building and its infrastructure. The methodology focuses on determining needs for renewal or replacement of key building systems (roof, heating/cooling, envelope, etc.) and is an invaluable tool in defining capital renewal and replacement priorities. DC typically uses the standards established by the Association of Physical Plant Administrators (APPA). Additional details can be found here.

Define the Problem
Define the Problem
Data

Use Data – Once key projects have been prioritized, organize your facilities data into a comprehensive list of maintenance projects. For example, with our clients we utilize our proprietary SMARTool™, which breaks the building into its major building systems, considers their impact on topics ranging from health and safety to student engagement and success, shows the order of your priorities, and holds links to key information often needed for funding, such as estimates for specific work and photographs of the physical conditions or spaces within the building. Regardless of the tool being utilized, it’s this data that creates the compelling statistics needed for annual budgeting and funding requests.

Data

Build your Constituency – Ever since the 1970s when the term “deferred maintenance” came into our vernacular, CFOs and facilities administrators have been fighting a losing battle against budget cuts. Meanwhile, donors continue to give to new health sciences buildings, campus centers, and athletics buildings. This could be because donors can see the direct impact of how these new projects impact students, faculty, and staff more so than the impacts of improvements to current facilities. The public has never been more aware of the impact of the air we breathe and the things we touch. We spend 90% of our time inside buildings. Those buildings have been shown to impact student and faculty cognitive abilities, health, and productivity. That means that the improvement of those building systems can have a greater impact on our student’s health and success than any other initiative on campus. With greater involvement of facilities leaders in campus planning that came from the pandemic, many facilities teams are realizing the potential of partnering with advancement to create campaigns around the transition of existing campus buildings into 21st century learning environments.

Constituency
Constituency
Maintenance Plan

Have a maintenance plan – As projects are completed, it’s critical to have an ongoing maintenance plan. That maintenance plan will include an inventory of existing conditions that gives facilities managers an operational framework for maintenance management to direct staff, materials, and contractors to appropriate priorities. A regularly updated maintenance plan will help to create a complete picture of needed funding requirements.

Maintenance Plan

A Positive Outlook Ahead: The landscape has shifted.

Higher education is poised to seize an extraordinary opportunity. The last two years have revealed the community’s ability to innovate and overcome. Evolutions in workplace flexibility, teaching methods, and interdepartmental collaboration have brought new voices to the table and helped institutions approach old problems with new and effective creativity. The academic community has never been more active in reinventing itself and it will take this collaborative, adaptable, and intense focus to wrestle with decisions around space demands, operating costs, and deferred maintenance issues facing most institutions. Through a data driven, collaborative process, and the consideration of revitalizing current facilities, the future of higher education looks promising.

If you would like to take steps towards being proactive about upcoming deferred maintenance needs, feel free to get in touch with our Facilities Assessments experts or our Education Studio Leader!

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