Facility Planning: Invest Now or Pay Later

April 1, 2000
The lifetime cost of a school building is only partially represented by the initial costs of design and construction.

I recently was struck by the size of the General Accounting Office's estimate of the financial need of school districts to renovate and modernize their existing building stock. I wondered why the numbers were so high, what types of repairs and modernizations they represented, and how architects and school districts could learn from the past to avoid repeating mistakes that might have been made along the way.

One primary duty a school administrator has is the prudent expenditure and management of funds provided by the taxpayers. Thus, it makes sense to get competitive pricing on goods and services a district or school requires, and to buy from the low bidder.

In the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, the need for new classrooms to serve families moving to the suburbs created new school districts, expanded others and stretched the abilities of taxpayers in these communities to pay the price. The guidelines for new construction given to administrators often were: "get it done fast and cheap!"

The 1995 GAO projections of the financial needs for renovating our nation's schools totaled $112 billion. A significant portion of that figure represents repairs needed by those schools that were built "fast and cheap." After all, 72 percent of today's schools were built after 1950. Their flat roofs have failed, their quickly erected metal panel and brick veneer skins are leaking both water and air, their single-pane windows waste energy, their rooftop HVAC units have outlived their useful lives, and their rigid floor plans do not lend themselves easily to today's team teaching, house concepts and integrated curricular space needs.

Correcting Mistakes Today, school boards are going back to the taxpayers, asking for money to correct those deficiencies-deficiencies caused, to a significant extent, by the original guidelines given to architects and builders.

Take a look at the tax base now. It's predominantly middle-aged baby boomers who have the money and who vote. An increasing number are looking at aging schools and thinking, "do I want to trust these guys again? After all, 25 years ago they built these schools that are prematurely gray...why should I pay to fix them up now? After all, my kids are grown."

This attitude, which may be quite justified, can lead to a Catch-22. If the taxpayer does not want to pay more taxes to improve poorly designed and constructed schools, how can school districts pay for the additions, renovations and new schools needed now?

The lifetime cost of a school building is only partially represented by the initial costs of design and construction. Once the building is occupied, operating costs, such as energy, heating, cooling and maintenance, start and continue until the building is demolished. Since many building systems, such as roofs, flooring and chillers, have a shorter life span than the structure, periodic replacement of these systems will be required. Other, hidden life-cycle costs can include time spent by teachers and students moving between activities in a stretched-out building with numerous additions. Then there's the interest on the money borrowed to build the school, and the costs of demolition and disposal when the building can no longer function. These life-cycle costs can exceed the initial design and construction costs by four to five times, yet they can be significantly affected by the amount initially spent on design and construction.

For example, a well-designed and constructed building can save in energy usage, which can reduce long-term operating costs. The added initial cost of such energy saving systems may be 3 to 5 percent of the construction costs, but may reduce operating costs so much that the added cost is recouped in less than five years, and the savings continue for 40 more years, resulting in life-cycle savings of eight times the initial added cost.

Avoiding Common Pitfalls People often ask "Why don't architects design energy-efficient buildings to begin with? Then we could save money on all of our projects."

An architect and his or her engineering consultants only have one commodity to sell: the time of their employees. The design of any building project requires a minimum list of activities that result in a complete set of construction documents. These activities take time, and the amount of time available to the architect can be determined by dividing the fee by the average hourly billing rate of the architect's employees. When the fee goes down, costs do not. In order to produce these construction documents within a fixed number of hours, the architect must look for ways to shorten the process. One way is to reuse design solutions and details that have been used before.

Money Well Spent Now, should the architect's fee be reduced below that required to effectively carry out the activities outlined, where can he or she reduce the personnel hours spent, still produce the required construction documents, and make a profit? Clearly, schematics and design development are the two phases where the time spent is less structured. Hours can be reduced, leaving adequate fees to produce the construction documents.

But what could have been a good solution to a unique set of problems becomes just another school with limited flexibility, little visual excitement and adequate functionality. The result may be a building that neither inspires nor functions efficiently, costing significantly more over its life to operate and maintain than it might have had the design team been given more time to think and research.

What has been saved? For example, the design team's fee for a $10 million school project should be at least $600,000, or about 6 percent. However, by selecting an architect based on low fees, you may find someone to do the job for $500,000.

That $100,000 in saved fees may represent 1,400 hours of the architect's time, or more than the entire budget for schematic design. Obviously, with this large cut in personnel hours, the amount of time spent on the soft, or creative, phases will be greatly reduced. After all, construction documents still must be produced.

On the other hand, the first cost of a school project, including land, architectural and engineering fees, permits, construction and furnishings, could easily equal 200 percent of the general contractor's bid. So now, the 1 percent saved on the architecture begins to pale (only 1/2 of 1 percent of the initial project cost).

If you spend a little more on designing and building schools now, the students will thank you twice: once when they enter their exciting, well-designed new school, and once again, 20 years from now, when they're the taxpayers who won't have to pay out more to repair the building.

Typically, the design process in an architectural office consists of several well-defined phases:

-Programming. In this phase, the architect seeks to understand user needs, and translates these needs into a list of spaces needed, the requirements of those spaces and the relationships among the spaces.

-Schematic design. In this phase, the needs expressed in the program are translated into a three-dimensional building design. This is the creative part of the process where the architect can take the concepts outlined in the program, combine them with the human interaction and non-specific input of the programming activity, and let creativity take control.

-Design development. Once schematics are approved, the conceptual ideas expressed in schematics are turned into a building on paper. The architect researches various building materials and systems, and begins to finalize how the facility will be built.

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