Knowing Your Department's Limits

Rudyard Kipling once wrote "East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet." This saying often is used to illustrate two points of view that are opposite each other and will never be compromised. It also can be used to define different duties that a person or a department has that can never be mixed together or even talked about in the same breath.

This is the way many people view the relationship that building-maintenance services in a school or university has with those in the same organization involved with new construction. Although some feel the two are on opposite ends of the scale and "never the twain shall meet," others believe that maintenance services should be an integral part of new construction and should provide those services to the institution.

Juggling duties As buildings become more sophisticated to build and operate, the relationship between construction and maintenance has become more important. However, busy and increasingly leaner maintenance departments sometimes have a hard time keeping up with the demands that new construction projects require, even when those duties only include keeping a productive liaison with the outside contractor doing the job.

The problem in the maintenance business, however, is not that plant operators cannot do the job of supporting new construction and the needs common to that activity, it is that they often commit their departments to unrealistic goals and duties in connection with the actual construction that is to be done. This problem, of course, is based on what the institution wants to accomplish.

The various types of construction projects that most physical-plant departments have to deal with in one way or another include:

*Small alteration jobs, such as running a line for an extra electrical outlet or installing a small dividing wall between two spaces. *Area remodeling jobs, such as converting an open space to offices or classrooms. *Complete remodel jobs, such as entirely remodeling a building or wing, which may include certain kinds of support work and asbestos removal. *New construction on an existing site, such as a new classroom building added to a multibuilding college or public-school campus. *New construction on a new site, such as a new school building on a previously undeveloped site. How a physical plant commits to dealing with each of these types of projects is very important. The decisions made at the beginning of the process will determine how successful any activities will be as they relate to new construction.

A maintenance department that is committed to the process is a very important aspect of the endeavor. Without the proper resources to pursue the agreed-upon path, though, a committed department soon will be lost in the vast con-struction process. This loss of direction often will result in decimated budgets; unhappy recipients of maintenance services on the existing campus; lack of trust by the administration concerning the maintenance department's ability to get things done; and poor morale among maintenance workers and craftsmen.

Unrealistic expectations A difficult situation occurs when the physical-plant manager or maintenance team decides to take on and commit to services the department cannot possibly supply. Promising what cannot be delivered creates problems in the process, no matter what the intention.

Physical-plant managers seldom commit to building a new building on a previously undeveloped site; they know this job is best left to an outside contractor. Most departments, on the other hand, can tackle small and area remodeling jobs. In fact, most are set up to do such work, with one part of the workforce engaged in these projects on a routine basis in connection with its ongoing schedule.

The problem that arises usually occurs when organizations try to tackle larger mid-range projects involving new construction on an existing site, or large remodel/renovation jobs. A plant director may have the proper skills available within his or her staff to do either type of project, but it is not the skill level that interferes as much as the time involved in actually performing the work.

Even if the maintenance force in an organization is current with all of its preventive-maintenance work orders and there is not a large backlog of maintenance/small alteration projects to do, a regular setting cannot handle this new construction work and do it well. The result often can lead to not only unhappy customers who feel they have been slighted, but also to higher regular maintenance costs over the long-term because of neglected or overlooked maintenance problems.

Finding answers The answer to this dilemma is an educated administration that is in touch with what is going on in its facilities. Administrators should never let their pet projects and dreams get in the way of realism. Giving a large construction project to an already faltering or overworked physical-plant department is just asking for trouble.

At the same time, facility managers need to know how much their department can handle, and communicate with the construction team if problems arise.

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