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Should you defer needed maintenance and repairs to building and equipment when they are beyond their lifecycle?

Clarence L. Wright, Jr.
Manager (retired)
Department of Recreation
City of Detroit, Michigan
Member, APWA Facilities & Grounds Committee

There is no easy answer to this subject. When I think of public facilities I try to relate them to my city—Detroit, Michigan. Detroit is an old city that reached its peak population of 1.8 million in 1950. Now the population is 900,000, but we still have an infrastructure for a population of two million to maintain.

The average age of Detroit public facilities is between 50-65 years, and most need serious repair. Many facility managers are astonished when they determine the cost of getting their aging buildings in shape. The national average exceeds $50 per square foot.

There is a need for lifecycle thinking as a primary approach to understanding the building and construction industry. What this means is that every action taken with respect to a building—purchasing decisions, using equipment or materials, or making investments—triggers a chain of events and impacts within the building, in the surrounding community, and beyond that has real consequences on the well-being of people, land, air and water, plants and animals, and generations to come.

One example of lifecycle thinking is comparing various types of products that offer the same service, e.g., a pump that uses a five horsepower electric motor which can be either a single-phase or a three-phase motor. The three-phase motor is more efficient because it utilizes less power.

Establishing repair costs refers to correcting current deficiencies. Deficiencies may include problems with building systems or engineering systems. It may include life- and fire-safety code violations, ADA non-compliance, or environmental problems. A facility manager also may choose to include upgrades, such as computer network cabling, as part of repair costs.

To determine the repair costs for a building, you must assess the building's condition. You must make an inventory of everything that is wrong with the facility; then you need to estimate the cost of repairing each of the inventoried deficiencies.

The Facility Condition Index (FCI) is a measure of a facility's condition. The FCI formula divides the cost of needed repairs by a facility's replacement value. Approximate the facility replacement value by looking at current buildings or by using other established guidelines. For instance, a building with a facility replacement value of $1 million and repair cost of $100,000 will have an FCI of 0.10.

Low FCIs are the goal. You can measure the performance of a deferred maintenance reduction plan by monitoring the FCI. You can calculate FCIs for individual buildings or for groups of buildings. The FCI can also help develop budgets and be tracked over time to measure the success of capital reinvestments.

Separating a building into its individual components is an effective way of forecasting future costs. You can approximate future repair costs by estimating the lifecycle of building systems (e.g., five years for painting, 15 years for carpet, 20 years for roofing) and calculating the cost (e.g., new painting, new carpeting or new roofing).

In closing, each community has its own charm as it relates to the following demography: area, population, age, income of residents, bond rating, budget and customers' expectation of service. Facility conditions are difficult to measure and financial requirements are difficult to demonstrate. One thing is certain—current budgets are not sufficient. Decision makers do not intentionally underfund facility renewal. But many do not understand the financial penalty of insufficient funding. Whether you are contemplating doing your own study or outsourcing these services, you need to plan for future budgets and decrease the deferred maintenance backlog.

Clarence Wright is a former member of the APWA Board of Directors as well as APWA's Fleet Services Committee and Congress Planning Committee. He is currently a member of the Facilities & Grounds Committee. He can be reached at clwrightjr@talkamerica.net.