A building crisis
‘What we are faced with is really quite dangerous’
By Dan Heuchert
The members of the Board of Visitors’ Buildings and Grounds Committee seemed to be in the holiday spirit at their December meeting, approving a long list of new building projects, including a Center for the Arts, two parking facilities, a Nursing School expansion and a drama building at U.Va.’s College at Wise. One could almost see visions of architectural drawings and ribbon-cuttings dance in their heads.
Then came reality, in the form of a presentation on the University’s growing maintenance backlog.
The visions of gleaming new spaces abruptly shifted to a more alarming reality: leaky roofs, balky elevators, crumbling facades, antiquated electrical systems, a building inventory rated in “poor” condition and an estimate of $144 million to round them back into shape — an estimate alarming yet unrealistically conservative, perhaps by a factor of 10, officials admitted.
Budget cuts behind backlog
U.Va.’s funding for deferred maintenance — defined as “maintenance work that has been deferred on a planned or unplanned basis to a future budget cycle or postponed until funds are available” — took a major hit during the state budget squeeze of 2002. After years of steady growth in state allocations had begun chipping into the backlog, the state’s contribution for the 2000-2002 biennium was slashed from $13.4 million to $10 million. During the following biennium, the payment was further hacked to just $3.1 million — the lowest level in nearly two decades.
The current two-year appropriation is just under $5 million.
The effects were immediate and severe, said Robert P. Dillman, the University’s chief facilities officer. Big-ticket projects, such as building renovations, were shelved indefinitely, and routine maintenance was slashed to near emergency-only levels.
Recovery isn’t simply a matter of “pouring money on it” and picking up where you left off, Dillman said. Plans drawn four years ago must be updated, some redrawn completely. Sequencing must be carefully planned to allow for use of limited swing space. And state budget rules mandate that 85 percent of allocations be spent in the budget year or they are forfeited, so a huge appropriation without firm plans on how to spend it could lead to a whole lot of expensive Band-Aids, he said.
As an example of the effects of the state cuts, Dillman cited an electrical equipment breakdown in Zehmer Hall last fall. Though the equipment dated back to 1952 and could have been expected to fail at some point, there was no visible warning that failure was imminent. Instead, it simply gave out in a storm of black smoke, cutting power to the building and forcing evacuation.
Facilities Management workers jerry-built a bypass to restore power and ordered a replacement part from Texas, which had to be flown in at great cost. Then a crew worked all weekend to make a repair so the system would be up and running by the start of a new work week.
Under a more planned and thoughtful maintenance program, that piece of equipment — and similar pieces around it from the same era — would all have been replaced as part of a planned cycle, Dillman said. If necessary, alternate arrangements would have been made for the building’s users, and the parts could have been shipped at normal delivery rates.
It’s the difference between reacting and being proactive, he said, and that distinction is crucial.
“It’s one thing to fix things that are broken or are about to break,” he said, “and another to renew a building. We want to renew buildings.”
Before the budget cuts, Facilities Management officials compiled a target list of about a dozen buildings that it planned to renovate, including Zehmer, Brooks, Cobb, Maury, Old Cabell, Kerchoff, Randall and Carruthers halls, and the Birdwood estate, Dillman said.
The problems are not limited to those buildings, however. Some of the
University’s highest profile buildings have serious renovation needs.
Signature structures in disrepair
The Rotunda was featured prominently in the December presentation to the board members. It was last gussied up for the American Bicentennial in 1976; now the roof needs replacing and some of the terrace is propped up with supports, Vice President for Management and Budget Colete Sheehy told the committee. The custom-made elevator that provides the only handicapped access to the upper floors is in such bad shape that a repair technician is summoned every time an event is scheduled in the Dome Room.
“We have a list that is $3.5 million long for the Rotunda, and that’s probably not all of it,” Dillman said.
Meanwhile, nine of the 10 pavilions on the Lawn require major renovation, he said, the only exception being Pavilion VII, the home of the Colonnade Club, which was renewed before the budget cuts. The others lack sprinkler systems and need work on their electrical and mechanical systems, floors, stairwells and plumbing, said Dillman, who added that he dreads he’ll get a late-night phone call alerting him that a historic structure is going up in flames.
The big picture
The actual size of the deferred maintenance problem is open to debate, but it’s almost certainly greater than officially recognized.
The University owns about 13 million square feet of buildings, half of which is designated for educational and general uses. Most of the rest is assigned to the Medical Center.
Half of the educational and general buildings are more than 25 years old — the age at which much original infrastructure should be replaced — with an assigned total value of $1.4 billion. Recent routine inspections have turned up $144 million in readily identifiable maintenance needs — an all-time high.
Dividing the amount of the maintenance deficiencies by the buildings’ value yields a “facility condition index” of 10.4 percent; the state’s goal for higher education buildings is 5 percent. Anything between 5 percent and 10 percent is rated “fair”; anything above 10 percent is rated “poor.”
Dillman, however, told the committee that the $144 million figure is unrealistic. “This number is about 10 percent of what it really is,” he said.
Board member William G. Crutchfield Jr. suggested scrapping the $144 million figure altogether. “I think we’re kidding ourselves when we start throwing around numbers that we all know are deflated,” he said.
Cultural change needed
Behind the state cutbacks lies a cultural factor. Officials with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia have warned schools of the perils of focusing on new construction while turning a blind eye to maintaining older structures, Sheehy said.
“We are as guilty as anybody on that,” she said. “It’s just not as attractive to renovate an existing building as it is to build a new one.”
Addressing the backlog is going to take major planning, Dillman said.
There is good news, however: the board members appeared truly alarmed at December’s presentation — and ready to take action.
“I think we know what we are faced with, and what we are faced with is really quite dangerous,” said Gordon F. Rainey Jr., the University rector. He directed that the board’s Finance Committee formulate a plan for addressing the backlog.
“We need to get on this,” he said.
SCHEV has recommended boosting the statewide higher education maintenance reserve allocation from $31.9 million to $150 million per biennium for the next 10 years, which would boost the University’s share from the current $5 million to $33.6 million, a proposal that most BOV members dismissed as unrealistic.
Facilities Management currently has a budget of $11.5 million annually to cover what Dillman called “easy maintenance” — projects of $25,000 or less. “We think we’re short there,” he said, suggesting that the budget needs to be bumped to $15 million.
In addition, he would like to see another $10 million allotted annually for building renewals.
In the long run, Dillman advocates raising additional funds for a maintenance endowment as part of the cost of each new building. It would require tremendous fiscal discipline, he acknowledged; a building that would cost $20 million to build would likely require an additional $20 million for a perpetual maintenance endowment, he estimated.
“I think it requires a change in whole thought processes,” he said. “It has to come from the top. It has to come from the Board of Visitors and the president.”
It’s not a new idea, said Leonard W. Sandridge, executive vice president and chief operating officer, of building maintenance endowments. But, “we have not delivered on one that I can think of,” he said. “Not one.”
He agreed that more discipline in the system would be a good thing.
“We can fix this thing together,” Sandridge told the board.