More Consideration Needed for Long-Term Facility Upkeep

By Deborah L. Vence

Whether you are building a recreation facility, park or playground, having a maintenance management plan in place from the start is key to ensuring long-term upkeep.

However, experts say that such a plan often isn't included in the budget at the start, and, many times, the first thing to get cut.

"It's becoming more so, but generally speaking what they are asking developers and architects' to do is provide an estimate of cost for maintenance for a facility. And that isn't adequate. If you are going to contract with someone, you need to have a list of the 'things' that need to be maintained, and whether or not by definition, a preventive maintenance element is a cyclical maintenance or corrective maintenance, generally speaking," said Bill Beckner, senior manager of research for the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA).

"Most departments I'm familiar with don't have a maintenance plan," he added. "They do what they did the year before. They don't necessarily look at the how and the why."

In fact, a significant maintenance deficit exists in the United States where billions of dollars worth of work would be needed to bring public facilities to a sustainable level.

"They have been undermaintained," Beckner said. "A large part of it is that jurisdictions don't have a plan when they are asked for funding. The way to get the money is to do the maintenance management plan."

What's more, deferred maintenance often is the first thing to get the ax.

"For some clients, it's just standard operating procedure. You see that in a lot of school districts where [there's a] bond package. If you look at the project list, it's full of roof replacements and mechanical replacements and system upgrades," noted Stephen Springs, AIA, principal at Brinkley Sargent Architects. "[They're] spending bond dollars [on such replacements]. It's a problem for a lot of public entities. [They] don't have the ability to be as nimble as a private entity. They can't adjust their fees without going to council—it becomes a political conversation."

And, "When budgets get squeezed, you get involved in deferred maintenance problems," Springs added. "It becomes a set of dominoes that's hard to stop falling. Even when budgets tend to normalize again, you are behind."

Thus, the bottom line is that whether it's a ball field or a building, you need to know what has to be maintained, and that has to be built into the annual maintenance plan and capital development plan.

The Earlier, The Better

And, the sooner, the better.

To secure a spot in your budget for long-term maintenance, discussions about a maintenance management plan should take place from the very beginning, during the pre-design phase.

"We do programming and feasibility design, upfront stuff. During that initial time, we always have user stakeholder meetings, during the pre-design phase," said Troy Sherrard, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, partner and architect at Moody Nolan Inc.

"Before we start designing a building, we meet with everybody who is involved. Those pre-design meetings open a pretty big window about what we're actually doing here. Some do have a good maintenance program. So, the key is, the more we know upfront, they can adjust accordingly, based on the initial conversation," he said.

For instance, some owners with a budget to develop a park or a site never include maintenance as part of the budget.

"Ultimately, it's up to them [to discuss maintenance]. The best conversations are early on. [They need to ask], 'How do they see this building in 50 years?'" Sherrard said. "We try to be the best long-term solution, regardless of what the owner may tell us. That's what we're set up to do. The more you can talk about the design and maintenance upfront, [the better]."

Usually what ends up being more important to owners is how the building or site will look on opening day. Many times, the initial 'wow' factor is what's most important in the beginning. That takes precedence over the long-term conversation.

Nevertheless, everybody involved in a recreation project should be brought into the conversation early on to discuss maintenance.

"They all have opinions. There are ways of maintaining a building. There are a lot of new products out every day to be maintained differently. [For example], wood gymnasium floors, we always go for a suspended wood floor that has shock absorption," he said.

But, many maintenance programs are more about cleaning gym floors as opposed to how to clean sports surface products.

"On two levels, when it gets into the sports floor finished products, the first is the use of the environment. There are better ones that will last longer, but cost more," Sherrard said. "[It's important to] be talking early on. [You need to ask], 'What spaces are your priority? What spaces are going to get the most use?'"

Keep a Checklist

A good way to make maintenance a priority is by keeping a checklist of what needs to be cared for on a regular and long-term basis—a list of all of your facilities and fields that need to be maintained.

"You create a checklist that every day you need to check this meter, this belt, every two weeks and every week [check the] hydrolics. Whatever the sequence takes place within that year. That should be laid out that something that needs to be done," Beckner said.

A good way to make maintenance a priority is by keeping a checklist of what needs to be cared for on a regular and long-term basis.

For example, lighting in a ball field is something that will have to be attended to consistently to ensure proper upkeep. And, with standardized lighting you can save hundreds or even thousands of dollars just in buying the lamps. If you have 300 fields with 28 different types of lighting systems, that can be costly in having to maintain different lighting systems on a regular basis.

"People maintaining it have to be knowledgeable about it, [too]. Then, they will have specialty tools to maintain a particular model. And, you need to schedule funding for replacement," he added.

In another example, with other amenities, such as tennis courts, the windscreens around them and the surface of the courts will have to be attended to and maintained. The sub base of a tennis court will last for 20 years, Beckner noted, but it won't last 20 years if you allow the surface to crack and open itself to water and freeze and thaw. "You would have to break the sub base up and redo the whole thing," he said. However, "Tennis courts can go forever depending on the weather and soil."

To boot, a cyclical aspect of hard court basketball exists, too, as well as issues with sand courts, grass courts or asphalt courts … the turf itself has its own issue, depending on how you are taking care of it.

"Some of those kinds of things you can't plan for. Roofs on buildings … some buildings you may have to replace the shingles on a certain cyclical timeframe," he added.

A building or facility has a lifecycle, and you would expect that under sustainable maintenance that that facility—whether it's a tennis court or recreation center—will last X amount of years. Certain amenities have a timeframe as to when they are going to need to be repaired or replaced. Rugs might have to be replaced every five years; operating equipment in pools might have to be replaced every 10 years; and a boiler could need replacing every 15 years.

"Anything needs to have a lifecycle of the building. Those things that you need to do to keep pumps running, and things metered, bells and whistles—those are an annual thing and [should be] checklisted [to ensure you have] enough money," Beckner said.

And, don't forget about the minor things that can be an issue, too, if you don't plan it outright. The way you can manage that is by making appropriate cyclical replacements that are necessary.

You need to have all of those things filled out in the final documents, Beckner advised, because you need to build that into a maintenance management plan, so you have a cost and resource of material supply.

"And, you are either going to put that in as preventive in operating, or cyclical where you can put it in your capital budget," he added.

Prepare for the Unexpected

Certainly, something unforeseen could go wrong at your facility or park site that needs immediate attention.

And, consequently, if a long-term maintenance management plan isn't established early on, then it will be more difficult to pay for the repairs. Some public entities might have a difficult time acquiring the funding needed to make more expensive fixes if they don't have a maintenance management plan in place. The upside, though, is that if something unanticipated needs fixing and if your facility is at a peak of productivity, most jurisdictions likely will provide the money.

"I used to do workload studies and take all the things that have to be maintained and how frequently and put a standard on it," Beckner said. "I could go through and say, 'Here's how many people you need to be permanent full-time people in a maintenance program, and here's where you have to hire seasonal workers.'"

The point is to make sure you are maintaining things in the most productive matter, and that you have the kind of materials that are good quality.

Probably the biggest issues to affect recreation facilities involve mechanical problems.

"Mechanical systems probably is one of the biggest issues—building codes and effort to save energy costs. What we're finding is systems are becoming so sophisticated in an effort to be green, your average maintenance people may not be aware of how to maintain it," Springs said.

He noted that the incremental dollars you spend will help with the longevity of equipment. And, when you defer little items, they end up costing you more.

As an example, one of Springs' clients had an interesting idea on a gym floor.

"They specified upfront [what they wanted], but they had a lot of recreation centers they maintained," he said.

Some public entities might have a difficult time acquiring the funding needed to make more expensive fixes if they don't have a maintenance management plan in place.

On a brand new floor, a couple of extra layers of urethane were used. "It gives them longer wear. They found that if they spend a little extra money and put in more urethane, they can extend the period of time between resurfacing. It's an incremental amount of money to save in the long haul," he said, adding that long-term maintenance issues that get deferred are usually the type at the back of the house, so to speak, the types of things that you don't see all the time.

"Even if you specify products that have a nice long warranty, those warranties are tied to proper maintenance," he said.

For example, a lot of newer vinyls are meant to be installed and left alone. But, oftentimes, maintenance involves the use of harsh soaps and waxing.

"Sometimes the chemicals they are used [to using to do the] cleaning can harm it as well … and then the materials start breaking down," Springs said. "Then, you have to regrout because they are being aggressive. It's always good to make sure that your cleaning crews really understand, in a new building or a remodel, … that they are looking at their own manuals and using the right products to maintain it."

Keep in mind, too, on a gym floor that if the chairs and tables you use don't have soft feet, they can scratch up the floor.

"You can inadvertently create your own problem with simple things like that. Everyone thinks about non-marking soles on their shoes, but when they rent out the gym without controlling what equipment is coming in and out of the gym [that can be a problem]," Springs noted.

"It's always cheaper to do it right once, than to do it twice. Picking something that's durable doesn't have to make it feel institutionalized. There are a lot more choices now," he said.

Overall, using quality materials can help ensure the longevity of your facility or park site.

"We ask what works and what doesn't, what would be their ideal [type of] main entry? Usually there are key areas [where more wear and tear] takes place. The more conversations you have [about maintenance] the better," Sherrard said.

"A good quality building takes a lot of people to make it happen. If you have a good team that cares, it yields a significantly better building," he said. "If everyone cares, the end result is usually better."

A Plan in Place

About four years ago in El Paso, Texas, when the city's park and facility maintenance were transferred from the parks department to general services, a standard of care for outdoor park facilities was established.

"It's not so much best management, but minimum standards. We talk about irrigation and base it on geographic needs. We do visual checks on a monthly and weekly basis. On a bi-annual basis, we try to do a full audit of the 230 parks we have," said Joel W. McKnight, CPRP, CGCS, deputy general services director for the city of El Paso.

McKnight noted that one of the most important things about maintenance is to be thinking at least 30 days out. "It will affect how those sports fields look in the fall," he said. "It's a direct reflection of how it comes out in the spring. We have focused on planning proactively 30 to 90 days out."

What's more, to help ensure the city's parks and fields are kept up on a regular basis, a work order system was established and implemented in early spring of this year. The system helps track management inventory, manpower and hours worked.

"If there is a certain park, whether a play system that's there or football fields, we feel like we are putting in an enormous amount of time, so we can filter through with the work order system," McKnight explained. "That's the best thing managers can do today is to have a credible system. You can utilize Excel spreadsheets, if you are in a larger system, and if you have at least 50-plus parks, with a work order system everything can be kept in a database. It's so much more economical. With a work order system, you are being very objective. It's truly quantitative, not qualitative.

For instance, "Let's say that you are out at one of our parks, maybe a chain is broken on a swing. A citizen can put in a concern or work request [into the work order system]," he said.

Residents can log into a link, sign in and put in their concern, and then see what the progress is on their request.

"With our new web-based system, you don't have to be a part of our internal network. Private citizens can go online. They can go online and see the progress toward the request. They could call in, and we would still put it into the work order system," he explained. "But, in my opinion, this gives them more ownership in the whole process."

If a citizen's concern involves a simple fix, work supervisors will be sent out into the field to repair the problem. In more involved repairs that are more expensive, however, the problem might have to go through planning and capital funding. "For us, it has to meet a certain dollar threshold," McKnight said.

"I think it's a transparent system because they [residents] are directly involved," he added. "Part of it was seeing a way to maximize technology, and we saw it as an opportunity to reach out to younger generations."

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