Maintenance of physical structures always has been a significant challenge for education institutions, but today’s economic climate, which has cut budgets to the bone, has raised the stakes. Funding, staffing and resources for proper maintenance are becoming harder to find, and the need for upkeep and maintenance remains constant. Nowhere is this more true than in the area of roof maintenance—perhaps the most critical element of a building’s physical envelope. Deferring or cutting back on maintenance in this key area can have serious consequences, including leaks, structural damage, or even roof failure.
Even when roof maintenance is addressed, the need to do more with less can cause headaches. Budgetary constraints can cause education institutions to put off repairs and improvements until funding can be obtained. But roofing problems may not wait, and facilities managers must function in "crisis mode" and respond to sudden developments. The result in too many cases: an emergency (and costly) roof replacement, often well before the end of a roof’s service life. This is avoidable if roof asset management is made a priority and planned for properly.
Developing a plan
The foundation for an effective plan is to anticipate and schedule roof repair costs for campus facilities at regular intervals. It makes sense to do a roof asset audit, gather information on the type of roofing for each facility, when it was installed, and when it has been inspected.
Before scheduling inspections (twice yearly, in the spring and the fall, is probably the best schedule), decide which details to inspect (e.g., areas under HVAC units, areas under molding that could have hidden deterioration) and which areas are particularly vulnerable to damage (e.g., areas that routinely collect a thick coating of wet leaves in the fall). Pay particular attention to areas where objects such as pipes, chimneys and skylights penetrate through a roof, and where there are changes in the level or angle of the roof (intersections, peaks, dormers). These areas are where water is most likely to seep into roofing materials. It’s also a good idea to schedule "as-needed" inspections after events such as heavy snowstorms.
Keep in mind that small investments in time, effort and money can save money and disruption in the long term. These preventive efforts can be as simple as regular removal of debris (including materials left behind after building alterations or HVAC repairs). Quick repairs of small items such as tears in a roof membrane, or loose flashings or seams, can help prevent further deterioration and leaks. On flat roofs, ponding of water should be alleviated by making sure drains are clear or providing additional drainage.
Facilities staff can be assigned to conduct visual surveys to clean flat or low-slope roofs. However, for best results, inspection and cleaning—as well as most repairs—should be done in conjunction with experienced roofing contractors. Some contractors offer specialized inspection services that evaluate an entire roof assembly, including insulation, using techniques such as infrared imaging.
There’s a caveat here, however: Roofing contractors often have a vested interest in recommending costly solutions that require their own services, materials and personnel, including roof replacements. The proposed costs of such interventions can cause administrators to balk at having repair work done, sometimes with disastrous results.
Consider a specialist
Fortunately, dedicated roof asset management specialists have become available; they specialize in detecting not only weak spots and hidden problems, but also the potential for future trouble. These specialists offer robust condition inspection practices, including optional high-tech imaging capabilities, as well as predictive modeling and databases. By providing a thorough, unbiased evaluation of how roofs are performing—and how they are likely to perform in the future—these specialists can help education institutions save time and resources. A specialist also can offer insights that enable facility managers to choose from a variety of options (e.g., minor repairs, refurbishing, replacement).
Here are some critical factors to look for when considering a roof asset management specialist:
•Experience, plus a database of numerous roof evaluations/management projects, including those involving education institutions. This includes experience in large school districts with multiple roofs, as well as multiple types of roofs.
•Independence from any particular supplier, materials, technique or approach. This makes possible an unbiased, objective evaluation based on solid data. Many contractors invariably recommend the approach that maximizes their profit; a good roof asset management specialist will not.
•The ability to provide an evaluation that covers possible future developments, likely scenarios, and the pros and cons of various approaches (from minor fixes to refurbishing to replacement), as well as the likely outcomes of each approach. Some specialists use computer modeling based on a large database of prior roof assets, enabling accurate predictions of how, for example, a repair with roofing material X will hold up under prevailing conditions.
•Extensive documentation to help support facility managers and others in "making the case" for appropriate action, enabling decisions to be made based on hard data rather than guesswork or wishful thinking. This also balances the needs of the building with the demands of the budget.
•Good reputation and solid track record in the business.
Knowledge is power
Probably the biggest advantage of a qualified roof asset management and evaluation specialist is the ability to project the probable outcomes of multiple courses of action. For example, a specialist can predict with considerable confidence that a "quick fix" likely will result in the need for roof replacement within a year or two, and that a more comprehensive refurbishing will probably defer replacement for a decade or more. This makes it much less likely that administrators will choose the seemingly less expensive approach in the short run, only to be faced with an expensive, major project in the long term.
Managers of education facilities already know that investing now, in order to minimize expenditures later, is an intelligent strategy. And the wisdom of this investment should be pointed out whenever there’s competition for scarce resources and personnel. Calling on a roof asset management specialist makes the approach even smarter by helping to identify exactly when, where and how extensively an investment in roof assets should be made.
Sidebar: Case Study: Hillsborough County (Fla.) Public School District
The challenge: Evaluate, manage and maintain several million square feet of education roof assets in a variety of locations throughout the Hillsborough County (Fla.) district. Information about roof conditions and past maintenance efforts was sketchy and inconsistent. The evaluation had to be undertaken quickly, for budgetary reasons, and, of course, the available budget was limited.
The solution: Hillsborough County selected an experienced roof asset management specialist who used computer modeling to evaluate existing conditions and predict the outcome of possible approaches to repair/refurbishing/replacement. The specialist performed a detailed analysis and in general recommended repairs instead of waiting a few years until replacement became necessary. The evaluation was objective and neutral, and gave the school district a range of possible choices for each roof.
The results: Hillsborough County carried out the recommended repairs and refurbishment. The estimated value attributed to the increase in average roof life span was more than $8.7 million, based on $1.5 million total investment in strategic repairs. Some repairs have been deferred until truly needed, in areas where solid data confirmed that this was a viable approach. In addition, upgrading the integrity of aging roofs is likely to reduce energy expenditures, another source of long-term savings.
Whichever approach is taken, it’s a fact that roof maintenance is one of nature’s primary examples of "don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today."
McNeil, RRC, CCS, RRO is a senior design consultant for Building Technology Associates, Inc. (BTA), Oak Park, Mich. He has practiced roof consulting for more than 40 years. He can be reached at [email protected].