Designing for the Care and Maintenance of Buildings

Nov. 1, 2007
When design choices are made without the maintenance point of view, the result can be a facility that is expensive (or difficult) to maintain

By Stephen Schrag, Karen Smith, and Brett Stollenwerk 

New buildings are often beautiful - they meet required energy standards and are functional for occupants. The designers/architects have done a very good job, and the mayor or city manager is pleased, as this new building meets the community's needs and is state of the art. But, behind the scenes, building managers and their technicians (who must maintain the building for the next 30 to 40 years) may see things differently. They often ask, "How are we going to maintain this building?" The true question, however, should be: "How can those involved with the project bring the designers' viewpoint and the needs of the community in line with the long-term practicality and functionality that is necessary for building maintenance professionals?"

Over the past few years, a group of facilities managers in the San Francisco Bay Silicon Valley area meets periodically to discuss common goals, successes, failures, problems, and solutions. One of the most common problems shared is the inability to maintain some components of new or remodeled buildings.

Therefore, it is the purpose of this article to allow the various stakeholders involved in the design and construction of community facilities (such as architects, engineers, maintenance professionals, and occupants) to better understand each other's perspectives and to achieve an improved project outcome. There is no intent to pinpoint specific building deficiencies, but to illustrate - in general terms - past deficiencies and to encourage thought as to how these and other deficiencies can be reduced.

From the maintenance standpoint, an ideal building is one in which all stakeholders' needs are met vs. a design showcase that cannot be sustained over the life of the building. There exists a middle ground that takes into account customer requirements, energy efficiency of the facility, reputation of the design firm, maintainability of the facility, reputation of officials responsible for approving design, and costs of the facility - and many other aspects. There are no perfect buildings - either by design, maintainability, customer need, or a corporate culture point of view. Everyone is in the mix together; those who must live in, use, pay for, and maintain the building over its life are the ones most impacted by building deficiencies.

Life-Cycle Costing and Standardization
There are several factors in the design process that do not necessarily complement each other: budgets and timetables to meet, customers to satisfy, reputations to be maintained, and myriad other requirements. In the design and construction stages, where budgets are sometimes strained, value engineering is often used. Value engineering, at one time, used to refer to design with long-term costs taken into account; recently, however, it appears that value engineering refers to simply cutting costs.

Life-cycle costing is a more inclusive method of determining costs and can influence design decisions to minimize the total expense over the lifetime of the facility. It is the amortized annual cost of a product (in this case, a building) that includes capital costs, installation costs, and operation and maintenance costs over its life. In fact, maintenance costs alone over the life of the facility will be significant, as will the cost of operation (energy and personnel). Using this method will provide valuable input into the process, especially for the customer/owner who will be responsible for the costs throughout the life of a facility.

Building maintenance professionals often try to use standardization as a method of using "tried-and-true" products to save long-term dollars for the organization. Standardizing on a product, where logical and cost effective, reduces the number of product lines inventoried and purchased. Standardization can include many items, such as an equipment manufacturer selected for quality of product, repair response times, and local parts availability; maintenance manual requirements; online maintenance manuals; and many other items that are important to the organization. Some items for standardization include HVAC equipment, pumps, fans, switches/receptacles, circuit breakers, paint type and color standardization, restroom fixtures, flooring, lighting fixtures and lamps, doors and door hardware, roofing slopes (try to eliminate flat roofs) and materials, and many other items found to be ideal that are important to the longevity of the building. Standardization can result in lower inventory costs, reduced training needs, and less need for multiple maintenance procedures. The overall effect is a facility that is easier and less costly to maintain. This is not to say that the customer and maintenance staff will not be open to new and improved products and ideas, but these new items should have a good track record and should be supported with life-cycle costing. Granted, all this has to fall in line with a budget, but long-term costing can be a tremendous influence - even though initial costs may be higher than anticipated. It is imperative that standardization be discussed early with the architect/designer.

Why Buildings Fail
As facilities are completed, the owner's maintenance responsibilities increase. (And, even though the need for maintenance services increases with the addition of new buildings, for many government agencies, manpower and budgets have often been frozen or reduced, compounding the problem.) It is not the responsibility of the architect/designer to maintain the facility, and this aspect may not be fully considered during the design process.

When decisions are made regarding design without the maintenance perspective, it can often lead to a facility that is more costly to maintain than necessary, or that has components that simply cannot be maintained. Following are some examples:

  • Ceiling lights installed that can only be accessed and changed out with scaffolding, requiring closure of the entrance to a facility for a week.
  • An air-conditioning unit installed above a drop ceiling in a restroom or office area with no room for a ladder to be properly set up. The unit can only be accessed by the technician if he or she stands on the restroom or office partition (not a good safety practice). The result: The unit will not be properly maintained and may need to be relocated.
  • Lights installed in new buildings that are not accessible at all; ultimately, these will be abandoned when the lamps fail.
  • Lights requiring an access panel to be cut into existing walls to access ballasts.
  • High-cost, custom lighting fixtures/lamps installed in parking garages. As they fail, these will be replaced with lower-cost fixtures.
  • Rooftop air-conditioning units with no elevator access to bring chemicals to the units (even small chemical containers weigh 50 pounds). A technician must carry chemicals up to the equipment (not a good practice for back safety).
  • Trees planted very close to new buildings. This is a common problem, which results in clogged downspouts during the rainy season and will lead to premature roofing failure.
  • Lack of enough telephone outlets, electrical outlets, and computer outlets/cables. It is far less expensive to install extra equipment when a building is being built than to add equipment after the building is in service. This often leads to exposed wiring, holes in finishes, and other degradations of a building's aesthetics.
  • Installing inferior-quality components to save up-front money. Carpet is a good example. For a small initial cost increase, the long-term cost is reduced dramatically. There are carpets that can be installed with 20- to 25-year non-prorated warranties.
  • Installing a large glass architectural structure in front of a new building, which then requires the purchase of a $1 million piece of equipment to facilitate cleaning the glass.
  • Installing exterior "uplights" (lights installed flat in concrete or the ground), which inherently fail due to moisture getting into the fixtures.
  • Equipment installed easily during construction that is nearly inaccessible after final walls and other appurtenances are completed.
  • Installation of high-maintenance security systems.
  • High-maintenance equipment installed with no local vendor support.

Helping Buildings Succeed
Given the maintenance issues that arise, what can be done to make our facilities more maintainable and, thus, less costly to operate during the building life? Consider the following:

  • There must be meaningful dialogue between engineers, architects, designers, customers, maintenance personnel, and, eventually, contractors when the job is awarded. The dialogue must start at the first meeting and carry throughout the project.
  • Just as the architectural or engineering firm uses its staff for quality control or a contractor for constructability review, the in-house maintenance group should also be considered a resource for design review. This group can point out items that may lead to long-term maintenance issues or increased maintenance costs.
  • One valuable input to the opening meetings and throughout the design process is the maintenance standards for the organization.
  • There must be close interaction throughout the design and construction phases, including input to and review of design drawings and specifications by maintenance personnel. Some organizations now assign a knowledgeable maintenance professional to be part of the design and build team, and reduce the routine maintenance burden on this individual during the project period - an excellent idea. In other organizations, maintenance staff will need to negotiate their involvement in the project.
  • Adequate time must be allowed for review of documents. Maintenance professionals need to assert the importance of their input to the organization and then schedule adequate time so the reviews are meaningful and input is well thought out. By being involved from the first meeting on, maintenance staff can possibly avoid last-minute reviews, which allow only a cursory review instead of the necessary in-depth reviews they deserve. After all, these decisions affect the maintenance workload and the agency's operational costs for decades to come.
  • There is no doubt that everyone in the design and build process has the same goal in mind: to build an attractive and functional facility that is pleasing for everyone to occupy and use. The final step is to also consider the maintenance requirements to keep it that way. 

Stephen Schrag ([email protected]) is building manager with the City of Santa Clara, CA; Karen Smith ([email protected]) is manager, facilities maintenance and projects with the City of Palo Alto, CA; and Brett Stollenwerk ([email protected]) is facilities maintenance manager with the City of Campbell, CA.

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