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Guest Column - May/June 2006

Help from Technology-Enabled Systems

Facility Planning

By Ray Dufresne


The recreational spaces that cities and towns maintain are a highly visible part of a community's infrastructure. Parks, athletic facilities, community centers and other public spaces help to define a community's culture and represent its history and citizens. Yet local governments frequently struggle to win public support—and taxpayer dollars—to fund the repair and renewal of these properties.

One challenge municipalities face in funding these initiatives is demonstrating the long-term impact of investment decisions made today. What will reducing the maintenance backlog in the short-term mean for long-term spending? How will investing in the construction of a new facility benefit taxpayers in the long run? For example, renovating a community center ultimately may prove more costly than building a new structure that has higher initial costs but will provide operational savings in the future.

In many cases, facility managers do not have the detailed condition data or analysis tools they need to evaluate these scenarios and present them in a language the city council, voters and other important constituencies can understand. Many cities and towns assess the condition of their recreational infrastructure on an as-needed basis, often with inconsistent assessment process from one facility to the next, leaving them with little current or standardized data on which to base decisions about maintenance, renewal and capital investments. The data they do have about use, condition and maintenance history therefore often is inconsistent and out of date. Because this data most often takes the form of paper reports issued by an engineer or design firm engaged for the assessment, the information does not lend itself to ready analysis.

Standardized assessment methodologies coupled with technology-enabled systems can help cities extend their planning horizons, better project the impact of funding decisions into the future and build an effective business case for obtaining the funding necessary to sustain their recreational infrastructure.

A new approach

One example of how local governments effectively are tackling this issue can be found in Milwaukee County in Wisconsin. With more than 800 buildings across 12 million square feet of space, facilities managers for the County have vast amounts of facilities data that require continual updating and analysis.

In order to better facilitate the management of its large building portfolio, the County Department of Administration initiated a facility condition assessment program to update data on the condition of its properties, in parallel with a preventative maintenance program for each building. The collected data was housed centrally in a system designed to allow the county to analyze trends and conduct long-term capital improvement planning.

As part of the larger project, Milwaukee County conducted assessments of assets within the Milwaukee County Zoo. Spread across a 200-acre wooded lot that has housed the zoo since 1958, the County is responsible for the zoo's extensive fencing, roadways, sidewalks and aging building portfolio. Past facility condition audits of the zoo had captured data in static reports, and there was no centralized system for tracking and prioritizing capital repair and renewal projects at the zoo.

Milwaukee County worked with a provider of facilities management and planning services and software to assess the condition of all administrative, exhibit and support buildings, as well as the utility distribution system, using software to create a centralized inventory of the zoo buildings, including information on condition and cost liabilities. The assessment revealed a significant backlog of maintenance requirements. Using this information, it prioritized the various requirements to develop an improvement plan. Among its priorities for allocating funds, safety requirements take top priority, followed those related to function, performance and finally, aesthetics. In addition to assessing the condition of its infrastructure, a planning services company also evaluated the capacity of the zoo's utility systems to meet the needs of future capital improvement and growth of the park. The County used this information to form the foundation for determining future energy demand analysis options to support growth of the zoological gardens. The annual preventative maintenance program developed by the County in conjunction with the assessment program outlined specific tasks, frequencies and labor hours, helping the zoo to justify personnel and service contract requirements. The new system also has formed the foundation for the County's five-year capital improvement planning process. The County's facility managers now can identify and prioritize major maintenance and capital improvement requirements, using a standardized format and up-to-date building information.

Ask the right questions

In considering implementing a technology-enabled solution for capital planning and management of recreational facilities within a city or county, planners should begin by identifying current gaps in information. In creating effective multi-year capital allocation plans that address more than just short-term, day-to-day operations, recreation facility managers must be able to answer several key questions:

  • What inventory exists in the building portfolio?
  • What is the existing physical condition of each building?
  • What is the building being used for?
  • What investments need to be made?
  • How should these investments be prioritized?
  • How can a rational funding process be implemented?

Answering these questions is critical to the success of a comprehensive capital planning program that addresses the full spectrum of facilities issues from budgeting and financing to construction management, maintenance and property management.

The facility condition audit

The foundation for effective facilities maintenance and capital planning is accurate information about current building conditions. Facility managers should ensure that their current condition assessment methodologies are adequate for providing this information. The first step is a condition assessment audit. More than an inventory, this audit should take at least a cursory view of each building and plant, its age and location, current conditions, the dates and costs of recent repairs, and the best use within a combined operation. Additionally, it should address the condition of key facility systems at a high level, in order to allow estimation of the overall costs associated with deferred maintenance and future renewal needs for these systems.

Managing disparate data

Even detailed and accurate data about facilities' conditions is limited in its value unless it can be readily analyzed in a way that supports maintenance and capital planning decisions both at the individual facility level and across the portfolio. One of the greatest challenges facing facility managers in developing more comprehensive capital planning capabilities is disparity in data sources. Technology-enabled solutions for capital planning and management integrate services, best-practice business processes and assessment methodologies with technology to provide the mission-critical information and decision support tools that enable life-cycle-based facilities management. Employing such solutions allows managers to:

  • Determine not only the physical conditions of facilities but also the suitability of the asset portfolio to support the institution's mission
  • Gain an accurate understanding of facility conditions and the costs associated with each repair and deferred maintenance project
  • Pinpoint and prioritize facilities requirements objectively, as well as summarize and report associated risks
  • Formulate optimal, multi-year capital allocation strategies, such as renovation vs. new construction

By using a facility condition audit within a centralized data repository that supports scenario planning and associated budget estimation and forecasting, facility managers can determine the most effective course of action to manage the short and long term. They can more readily estimate at what point a particular system will need replacement, see the impact on the facility portfolio overall and anticipate future budget needs. And they can develop clear, impartial arguments that support budgeting requests and guarantee a greater return on investment.



ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ray Dufresne is vice president of consulting services for VFA, Inc., a leading provider of software and services for facilities capital planning and asset management. For more information, visit www.vfa.com.