FIRST COST VS. LIFE-CYCLE COSTS: Don't get caught in the trap of saving now to pay later

The danger of building your budget for school construction upon short-term, as opposed to long-term, costs is not academic theory. As reports James T. Biehle, an architect and president of Inside! Out Architecture, Inc., of Clayton, Mo., schools all over the country are suffering the results of poor decisions by an earlier generation.

“What we've discovered during the past 10 years is that a significant amount of school construction is failing,” Biehle says. A lot of schools were built in the '50s and '60s to house the baby boomers, and a lot of today’s tendanciencies were the result of architects being told to get these schools built as fast and cheap as possible.”

Some of the problems now visible, notes Biehle, include flat roofs that are failing, roof HVAC systems that have outlived their useful life and need to be replaced, flimsy wall systems that are falling apart, and single pane windows that allow the inside heat to escape and the outside cold to enter.“What we see all over Missouri are rigid floor plans, with the bearing walls at the exterior and the corridors,” says Biehle. “This means the spacing between the exterior wall and the corridor is 24 ft., which is rather narrow. It’s difficult to renovate these schools.”

One of the things known about any type of building, continues Biehle, is that the life-cycle costs can be four to five times the initial cost of the structure. “If you design and plan well, you can reduce these long-term costs anywhere from 10-25 percent,” says Biehle. “But you have to spend more time and money for the pre-design and design phases so the architect can develop strategies to reduce maintenance and future renovation costs.”

This takes time and money, but not as much as you might think. Adding up-front design and construction costs might add three to five percent to the budget, explains Biehle. But since this planning ahead implies energy and other savings, this means the additional initial costs can be recouped within five years. “The lower energy, operating and maintenance costs can, through the longer life of the building, save as much as eight times the initial design and construction costs.

Biehle likes to spend a lot of time doing the pre-design and conceptual design for the science lab to make sure the budget will cover those defined needs. For instance, the science labs are usually twice as big and have bigger storage requirements than a typical classroom. A general-purpose classroom might be 800-900 sq. ft., while a lab will be 1600-1800 sq. ft. Moreover, the plumbing and electrical costs are usually twice as much.

“What often happens is that school districts, and we see a lot of this happening in the Missouri area, will set a budget without any real programming or planning being done,” Biehle says. “They will just say “we need so many classrooms at the cost of x dollars per classroom” and they come up with a budget. The funding comes by asking voters to vote for a bond. So it makes sense to put the appropriate amount of money into the bond. If you don’t, and haven’t planned correctly, you’re not going to have enough money to meet your needs.”

Another thing that sometimes happens, Biehle says, “and this ticks me off, is that some, though not all, districts will ask you to submit a cost list along with qualifications. It is illegal, and they say they won’t look at the costs, but they do. They buy on the low hid. But if the architect’s fee is reduced, all he has to sell is the time of his employees. He’s going to spend much less time thinking creatively on effective strategies to reduce costs in the long run.” Biehle adds that sometimes the bid will go to the design/build contractor, “which means that the contractor, with something like a HVAC system, will put in the cheapest one he can find. It will heat and cool for a while, but not as long as it should. So, again, it’s important not to skimp up front.”

Following are Biehle’s approximations of costs for a budget looking at total long-tern life-cycle costs:

*land: less than ½ percent;

*design: one percent;

*original construction: 20 percent;

*original furnishings: 6 percent;

*re placement furnishings: 4 percent;

*operations/utilities: 16 percent;

*maintenance: 14 percent;

*maintenance if the school is designed to last 40 to 50 years, an additional 14-15 percent; and

• interest on money borrowed (the biggest cost) : 24 percent

Having designed a lot of both secondary school and college campuses, Biehle likes to put together a master plan to take into consideration factors often overlooked.

For instance, on many campuses chillers and boilers for heating and cooling, as well as mechanisms for drainage and sewerage tend to be in individual buildings. “If you can centralize these activities in the science building, you can save on energy and equipment, and operating and maintenance expenses just by doing a little added design up front.”

Just the opposite dynamics take place in electrical generation,” Biehle says. Schools often have powerful transformers in a central location and transmit voltage around the campus. But a more efficient and less expensive way is to have smaller transformers in individual buildings.

Another point Biehle makes is that all the underground piping, electrical lines, water lines, storm sewers, sanitary sewers and so on, may have appeared to make sense when the area was first built. But it doesn’t make sense to build new buildings on top of them. So what Biehle does in his master plan is to pick out spaces where additional buildings might go up in the future, and then route the underground lines so they are not under these spaces.

Alternative energy sources are now a “hot button”, Biehle says. Many schools are putting solar energy on their roofs, and Chicago is one city that is providing funding for this, some of it going to schools.

Another possibility, which is quite new, Biehle continues, is ground source pumps, which uses earth temperatures to either heat or cool the water pumped.

Building materials constitute a big area for long-term savings if they are good quality, but long-term losses if they are inferior. “The fast and cheap concept results in flimsy exterior walls, but spend the extra money to get strong masonry walls and they last longer,” says Biehle. “The fast and cheap resiliant tile wears out, but the terrazzo from around the turn of the last century is still beautiful, a hundred years later.

Also, classroom space designed a few decades ago was literally “uptight” but, says Biehle, “teaching methods change all of the time, and the inflexible interiors designed in the past make it difficult to adapt to new styles of teaching.”

In sum, Biehle says, “All this planning costs money up front, but if you do it right, you can save significantly the life-cycle costs of the overall life of the campus.”