The Custodian: Your New Building Design Consultant

Thirty to 40 years ago, classroom buildings were used almost exclusively between 8:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. for lectures and other traditional student-teacher activities. As a result, cleaning and maintenance were relatively easy to schedule and perform in the late afternoon and evenings, when few students and instructors were around.

These days, however, classroom buildings are in almost constant use. They’re occupied for evening, as well as daytime classes -- not to mention the occasional weekend class. Consequently, cleaning and maintenance are more difficult to schedule and even harder to perform, particularly given the ubiquitousness of computers and other high-tech devices whose wiring and power requirements need to be incorporated into -- and kept in a constant state of readiness for use in -- today’s modern classrooms.

The Maintenance Viewpoint

Therefore, even before the design stage of a new classroom building begins, a good architectural-engineering firm will seek input from representatives of the college’s facilities maintenance department. To create the most attractive and functional classroom building possible, it’s vital to consider the needs and viewpoint of the people responsible for maintaining the building’s appearance and usability. After all, no building -- no matter how striking -- will be able to serve its original purpose if its design gets in the way of its maintenance.

Consider, for example, the words of a facility director responsible for maintaining the mechanical system of an attractive new building on the campus he works for: “Because much of the machinery we have to maintain is located on the rooftop, we have to haul tools up a very tall ladder to where the equipment is. Why didn’t the architect simply include a stairwell up to the roof? Was he so concerned with making the building look attractive that he failed to consider the safety and convenience of the people who have to maintain the building?”

It’s a good question, and one that more and more campus facilities maintenance personnel are asking these days. For obvious reasons, maintenance personnel are not primarily concerned with the aesthetics of a new building. When they look at a building, inevitably they begin wondering about the practical, nuts-and-bolts issues involved in cleaning carpeting, changing light fixtures and maintaining HVAC equipment. More and more, of course, they’re also concerned with the wiring necessary for the proper functioning of computers and other sophisticated -- and expensive -- electronic devices.

Aesthetics Vs. Maintenance

But while maintenance issues are an important consideration in a building’s design, they should never be the only consideration. It is true that any building strong on aesthetics but weak on functionality will not serve its intended purpose, but the reverse is also true. A building designed solely with maintenance issues in mind will be nothing more than a big, inelegant box that students and instructors will not want to spend time in. Obviously, the only sensible solution is to seek a classroom building design that strikes a proper balance between aesthetics and maintenance concerns.

Naturally, the definition of “proper balance” will vary from person to person and campus to campus. And it will take into consideration any number of factors, including budgetary constraints and the need to interest students in attending an attractive, wellcared-for institution of higher learning. But frequent consultation with maintenance personnel before, as well as during, the design and construction of campus facilities will ensure that their needs and concerns get a fair hearing during the search for proper balance. What follows are some of the key issues that architects and maintenance staff should discuss during the design of a new building.

1. Adequate staff and equipment.

It’s possible that your current staff will require additional training to maintain the new building once it’s completed; it’s even possible that additional staff will need to be hired. Other points to consider include the possibility of contracting with outside vendors to maintain certain portions of the building (e.g., cleaning windows) and whether some products or materials should be eliminated from the design based on a realistic assessment of available resources.

2. Low-maintenance areas vs. high- maintenance areas.

Inevitably, certain design features of any new building will require more time and effort to maintain than others. The lobby of the Parente Building at King’s College, for instance, was designed with slate stairs, glass railings and a glass elevator tower. Clearly, this is an example of a building whose aesthetic value was deemed worthy of the time, effort and cost required to maintain it.

3. Short-term cost vs. long-term durability.

Life cycle cost analysis is always a critical factor in building design. Seemingly inexpensive materials may not really be inexpensive once you’ve repaired and maintained them for 10 to 20 years. A key question, therefore, is not “What will the building look like the day it opens?” but rather “What will it look like 10 or 20 years after it opens?” For example, the Academic Building on Pennsylvania State University’s Hazleton Campus was built almost 10 years ago. However, its brick and concrete masonry exterior has provided a durable, maintenance-friendly appearance.

Obviously, whole articles could be written on each of these topics, as well as other maintenance issues that should be thoroughly reviewed before the design of a new classroom building is agreed to. However, the main point to keep in mind is that striking a proper balance between aesthetics and maintenance involves working as a team during the design stage.

Ideally, architects should pay more attention to maintenance issues, and custodians should think a little more about aesthetics. Designing any new building is a collaborative process. As a result, a good architectural firm will listen carefully to the campus maintenance staff while trying to help them understand the aesthetics of building design.

Typically, this team approach works quite well. After all, what maintenance person wants to work hard at maintaining an ugly building? The earlier and more often the maintenance staff is consulted in the design of a new classroom building, the likelier you are to come up with an attractive, well-maintained building.

Joel K. Sims is senior vice president and director of educational projects for Quad Three Group, Inc., an architectural and engineering firm based in Wilkes-Barre, Pa.