These randomly scheduled missives will opine on a variety of topics, mostly intended to be germane to design, construction, capital program management, and other related issues.

For shorter trips through the countryside, take a look at our blog, also called Notes from the Road.
Notes from the Road

November 2015

Moderating in All Things?

Issues and Impacts: Southern New England Higher Education – That was the headline for the Professional Women in Construction Connecticut Chapter's recent after-dinner panel discussion. My assignment for the evening was to moderate, by doling out the questions, and moving things along.

In preparation, the six panelists - all experienced higher education facilities leaders - had agreed on what are the important issues of the day, and had come to the event with some prepared responses.

Here’s how it played out:

abacusQuestion 1: Capital Maintenance Budgets

Many sources recommend methods of calculating yearly budgets for Capital Maintenance, which are meant to be used to address the normal depreciation of campus buildings. It is rare, however, to find Colleges and Universities that fund Capital Maintenance at those recommended levels.

  • Would you agree with that observation?
  • What is the impact that current funding levels may have?

More often than not, when I ask Facilities Managers how they are budgeting and funding yearly Capital Maintenance needs, I get answers that are slightly off point. While this evening the answers were improved upon the norm, they still represented a bid of avoidance. More than one respondent conflated “Capital Maintenance” with “Deferred Maintenance” (see for definitions), failing to acknowledge the need to keep pace with the normal degradation of building systems. Many were pleased to point out the completion of Facilities Condition Assessments, and the subsequent funding of needed Capital improvements.

There was little discussion of the impact of regularly underfunding Capital Maintenance. My consulting work has regularly identified this as a defect in university budgets.

Question 2: Models of Routine Maintenance - Which Works Best?

Colleges and Universities continue to evaluate the merits of different models of providing routine facilities maintenance. The three most common models are: Complete in-house operation; In-house staff with out-sourced contract management; and Complete out-sourced Service Contract.

There has been some debate about the merits of performance-based service contracts, where quality standards and performance indicators are mandated. This contrasts with task-based contracts, where frequencies are specified.

  • Do you see any trends that favor one model over another, and does this vary based upon campus size or other factors?
  • Do you have experience with either of these agreement types, and which works better for your campus?

The answers to this question held some degree of surprise. Two of the panelists were from nearby medium-sized colleges. In both cases, they had some degree of outsourcing, with the balance of the work being done by in-house staff. These colleges might well have considered migrating to full out-sourced operations, but that was definitely not part of their plans. This counters the trend I have seen for small to medium sized colleges and universities.

There was general concurrence, however, on the value of performance-based contracts over task-based contracts, where results are specified, not frequency of activities – with a few exceptions, such a signature performance spaces or other specialty facilities.

I was pleased to see the refined and sophisticated consideration of this option.

Question 3: Building and Design Trends on Campus

Over the past decade, we have seen a resurgence in the design and construction of new science facilities on higher education campuses. Student Centers and Dormitory complexes require renewal or replacement on a predictable schedule. A fair number of institutions now seem to be re-combining programs into STEM which can lead to replacing or renovating campus classroom and lab spaces.

Much of this was described in a recent New York Times Magazine article which referenced the example of the University of Cincinnati using a number of “Star-chitects” (their word, not mine) for new high profile buildings.

  • Can you share with us what is happening within the built environment on your campus?
  • Are you charting your own course, following regional or national trends - or some of both? Howe important is high design?

The advocacy of STEM-related (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) facilities appears to be an on-going trend. Residential Life projects, especially as they support STEM programs, also appear to be part of many plans. How these are designed, however, was open to some debate.

StarchitectWhen this question was first composed, there was some hesitation over use of the pejorative “Star-chitects”. The New York Times bypassed this concern by using the term in a Sunday Magazine devoted to College issues, so we tagged along.

In any event, there was little support at our table for the use of high profile design architects for their new capital projects. Only one campus was dabbling with this strategy, but had tempered their perceived risk by teaming the “Star” with a well-known, respected firm. Everybody else was guarded and cautious, recommending the retaining of architects well-versed in academic and fiscal concerns. There was little enthusiasm for “Star-cincture”.

Questions 4: Cost of Higher Education

For many years, and for a variety of reasons, the cost of higher education has increased at rates well above inflation. Many point the finger at the facilities “Arms Race” as being a major factor in this escalation.

  • Would you agree with that appraisal? And. if not, what other factors are more to blame?

Perhaps given that all on the panel were facilities representatives, it was no surprise to see little acceptance of blame for rising tuitions.

the whole thingFor the public institutions, there were allusions to the need for more student tuition, given the reduced allocations coming from state budgets. For the private institutions, this was not available as a justification. However, across the board, there was an admission that buildings over the years have become increasingly complex, with higher capital improvement and maintenance costs. These resulting pressures on university budgets are undeniable. However, it seemed, the panel was implying the major causes may lie elsewhere.

Unrelated to the panel discussion, I might add that some have observed that North American colleges and universities have become substantially more expensive due to the administrative burden of many more academic and social programs, some very serious and some less substantial. Running the gamut from student rights protections, to social support, to recreation programs, each one has added staff and operation costs to university budgets. These may explain the cost increases that have far outpaced normal financial inflation.

Question 5: Budget Stress – from Every Direction!

With shrinking allocations from state budgets, pressure on endowments, heavy discounts on tuition, and changing demographics; many people wonder how so many colleges in the U.S. can afford to keep the doors open.

  • How does higher education stay viable given all of these pressures?

lightbulb houseOne of the more articulate and impassioned responses on this subject came from one of the small college representatives. The gist of the reply was very market-oriented, much like product sales. The advice was to offer something that makes a college stand apart from the crowd - a brand, an image, a curriculum, an ethic.

The public university representatives on the panel appeared to acknowledge some state legislature complicity by virtue on the lower levels of state funding, forcing the need for more tuition income. While all agreed the business of higher education was stressed, few seemed willing to jump on the pessimistic bandwagon that predicts the eventual closure or acquisition of colleges with financially-unsustainable business models.

No one seemed inclined to say that on-line teaching was a panacea.

Question 6: Words of Wisdom

We have all gathered here this evening - in no small part - because we are passionate about what we do, and we all work very hard to do the best job we possibly can. Clearly all of you on our panel this evening have succeeded.

  • So, before we conclude, can you share with us any words of wisdom about our industry, your own lessons learned, or advice that might help our audience members to serve your needs better?

The answers, by and large, were succinct and to the point. Some samples (paraphrased):

“Listen to us, your clients.”

“Be pointed and direct with your responses.”

“Don’t talk in jargon.”

“Look for responsible, economic solutions.”

confetti… And a good time was had by all

In the course of less than one hour, six panelists are not likely to dramatically alter the course of the moving ship of Higher Education Facilities Management. To be honest, that was not the goal for the evening. However good, useful information was disseminated. I think most people in the room left more informed than the were when they came. I know I was.

And the food was also good. Not a bad night.

Missed earlier newsletters? Find them here:

July 2015  “Alphabet City”
May 2015  “Acey Trey Trey Trey?”
January 2015  “Nature or Nurture?”
August 2014  “Acey Trey Trey?”
June 2014  “The Seven Deadly Sins”
March 2014  “Thar She Blows!”
November 2013  “Giving Thanks”
September 2013  “Back to School?”
June 2013  “What Time is It?”
March 2013  “Acey Deucey?”
January 2013  “A Swamp Full of Alligators”
October 2012  “Plan to Live Forever, Part Deux”
July 2012  “A Midsummer Dream”
May 2012  “Are you Virtually Working?”
March 2012  “Your Huddled Masses”
January 2012  “Observing Observations”
October 2011  “I Want What I Want”
August 2011  “A Beach Read”
May 2011  “NeoLuddite or Technophile?”
March 2011  “Do Your Silos Leak?”
January 2011  “Plan to Live Forever!”
November 2010  “May I Have A Plan, Master?”
September 2010  “How do we choose?”
July 2010  “Good People Behaving Badly”
May 2010  “LEED: LEADing or Dead Weight?”
March 2010  “Why does it cost so much?”
January 2010 “Design/Builders show us your softer side.”
November 2009 “What the Facilities?”
September 2009 “Why Do Architects Make Good Owner’s Reps?”

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