A Proactive Solution

Nov. 1, 2006
A facilities assessment can be a guide to diligent decisionmaking, planning and budgeting

With more than 5,000 colleges, universities, and independent school campuses in the United States, ranging in size from two or three buildings to hundreds of facilities, it is no surprise that financial administrators and facilities departments have a difficult job keeping track of their campuses' physical needs. Managing, tracking and planning for deferred-maintenance projects can be challenging. Whether a campus is urban, suburban or rural, it needs a periodic assessment, which puts campus planning into perspective and assists in the development of a multi-year budgeting tool.

A facilities department or business office has several ways to assess its campus and develop its budgets accordingly. It might rely on the in-house facilities department, hire an architectural/engineering firm, bring in a consulting firm that specializes in gathering data for facilities assessments, or hire a construction manager that specializes in institutional campus construction.

Understanding assessments

A facilities assessment means different things to different people. For some, it might mean a report to provide a holistic understanding of the existing conditions of all buildings and grounds so that a school can plan and budget for campus growth and upgrades. For others, an assessment may focus on one or two campus buildings in order to make decisions on whether a building can be reused for an alternative function or should be replaced with a new structure.

Many schools and universities conduct a facilities assessment during master planning or the beginning of a new capital campaign project. The assessment helps with projected budgeting for new projects and infrastructure repair. When preparing to add new buildings to a campus, schools need to determine if the existing campus infrastructure can support them.

For instance, a large, urban independent school with three campuses and many building types and ages conducted a campus assessment at the beginning of its master-planning process. The assessment included not only proposed construction projects and renovations, but also energy audits, facilities and code upgrades, and the capacity of the existing campus infrastructure to handle the strains that these new building upgrades would create. Early on, the school's chief financial officer recognized the importance of preventing new construction or eye-catching project improvements from claiming all available capital, leaving no resources for needed upgrades and code maintenance.

An assessment also can save an institution from making costly mistakes when deciding to upgrade or renovate specific buildings. In many cases, assessments will determine if building reuse or demolition is appropriate.

At a small urban university, officials wanted to add two stories to a historic building. An assessment determined that the existing structure could not support new floors; the work could be done, but it would require significant capital to do so. In another case on a large suburban campus, officials needed to know if a 1960s science building could accommodate a program expansion. An assessment concluded that the best option was to build a new structure.

Facilities assessments do not always need to coincide with new construction projects or campus renovations. A campus assessment can be an intelligent way to start the strategic planning process and provide a report on the current state of a campus. It gives decisionmakers a projected monetary budget over an extended period and helps estimate funding set aside for emergency repairs and upgrades. It also can determine the potential benefits of bundling projects in a specific area of campus or by a specific program type.

An example is a suburban 25-acre independent school whose new business manager wanted to know everything about the campus' structures and infrastructure, and what should be expected in the years to come. He wanted to assess how much renewal funding would be needed and how to best bundle upcoming projects for efficient budgeting. This prioritization provided an overall “to-do” list and financial forecasting for multi-year maintenance and renewal of campus structures.

Taking steps

A facilities assessment can be done in many ways, but every decisionmaker should follow a standard framework in order to make the most efficient use of this tool:

  • Step 1: Identify goals and select an appropriate audit

    A thorough inventory and critical analysis of campus buildings, grounds and equipment provides an administrator with valuable information for planning and budgeting, defensible data for a capital campaign, and an understanding of code, life-safety and space requirement deficiencies.

    Several different types of assessment reports can be prepared. Determining which type is right for an institution is based not on size, but on goals. If campus expansion is a primary goal, an assessment that focuses on space and programming needs can give insight into areas that are being over- or under-utilized. If concerns center on increases in oil and gas costs, an energy audit can assist in targeting areas for savings.

  • Step 2: Selecting the right person or team for the job

    For example, if energy conservation is the main concern, an energy-modeling consultant is a logical choice. If the assessment is driven by a need to renovate, expand, build new or demolish existing structures, then using a construction-management firm may be the right choice.

  • Step 3: Collecting data

    Assessments are only as good as the data that are compiled and included. Access to the individuals that have knowledge of the buildings, grounds and systems is an invaluable resource. Inaugurating a consultant in the educational philosophy, curriculum and program requirements of a school will help identify deficiencies and potential areas of need during a project.

    Data can be collected in a number of ways and presented in many formats. The team must consider the individuals that will be using this data on a regular basis (assessment information is only as useful as the users' ability to access and process it). Information can be compiled in narrative format, using floor plans and notes to illustrate needs, or electronically in a computer program. In either format, photography or video should be used to augment text descriptions.

    Once the data are collected and a general idea of cost has been compiled, decisionmakers can analyze, prioritize and package projects to fit a budget and maximize savings.

  • Step 4: Using the deliverable

    The assessment should produce a strategic and focused report or database. Too much information is daunting and will be pushed aside for more efficient means and methods. The goals set at the beginning of the assessment should guide the successful completion and end product. Whether this is organized and stored in a software program or a manual with spreadsheets, it will be used to guide decisionmaking, planning and budgeting, and ultimately shift administrators from a reactive to a proactive standpoint.

Hayes is vice president of Shawmut Design and Construction's Institutional Group, Boston.



Percentage of school construction dollars that were spent on facility additions and modernizations in 2005.


Percentage of college construction dollars that were spent on facility additions and modernizations in 2005.
Source: AS&U's 32nd Annual Official Construction Report, May 2006.

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