Don't Forget to Look Outside

When you really think about it, have you noticed how much effort goes to activities and tangibles located inside the drip lines of our buildings? Preventive maintenance programs are mostly dedicated to equipment, systems, and components inside our expensive buildings or other support structures. Activities that technicians and custodians perform inside the buildings drive most of our key performance measures. A traditional campus master plan focuses on square footages, programmatic needs of or in buildings, or the relationships among buildings, with an occasional mention of sustainable grounds. Complaints we receive from our customers deal with things that are wrong — mostly in their own spaces, inside the buildings! Is it a surprise that we spend little time really looking at stuff on the outside?

Outside Assets

A few years ago I documented my frustration about a culture that allows design, construction, and inspection professionals to ignore the direct-buried underground utilities that feed and surround a new building. More recently, I have been surprised by the facilities organizations that also pay little attention to their outside assets, with the common exception of flower beds. Parking lots receive special attention because they are often considered auxiliaries. Otherwise, we tend to minimize efforts on sidewalks, pavements, light posts, curbs, gutters and waterways, landscaping (turf, shrubs, and trees), wastebaskets, benches, information kiosks, ash receptacles, traffic/parking and wayfinding signs, sprinkler heads, valve boxes and timers — the list could seem endless. There is so much of this stuff that we hardly notice it. It is like a visual white noise: we know it’s there but we hardly pay attention until there is an event indicating that something is out of order. On an average day, as long as no one trips on a sunken sidewalk or there is no 30-ft. geyser spewing out of the ground where a sprinkler head used to be, regular campus occupants see but barely notice the external stuff.

The turf is beautiful, with weeds only a faint memory and tree wells beautifully edged. Mulch, rocks, or other types of groundcover hide every inch of bare ground. The scene is serene… until we look at the details. Benches need paint, having been scuffed up by skateboarders. Waste receptacles are missing lids. Dumpsters have broken lids. Signs have letters missing (or worse, are wrong), or signposts are out of plumb. Curbs, damaged by snowplows or other operations, will regularly receive a fresh coat of red paint in select locations, but are only occasionally replaced. Ash receptacles are overflowing with miscellaneous trash, while carelessly tossed cigarette butts surround them. ADA curb cuts have become both unsightly and unsafe. Posters and stickers promoting events that have long since passed deface light poles and other utility poles. It just is not a pretty picture when you get up close.

There are several points to emphasizing this frequently forgotten aspect of our campuses.

First Impressions
Remember that Carnegie study?  Though not fresh, it is still frequently quoted, informing us that roughly two-thirds of prospective students and their parents select an institution based on initial impressions; a.k.a. “curb appeal.” Picture yourself coming onto your campus for the first time, from the perspective of a parent about to place a kid in college. Assume you have never seen the place before. You can’t help but notice the unkempt details. You are about to pay thousands of dollars for your pride and joy and the apple of your eye to spend four years or more at this institution, and yet — does the place look like anyone cares? Imagine what would happen if you were to visit another campus where the “curb appeal” actually screamed with institutional pride!

In order to avoid this scenario, what can (and should) a facilities officer do? Initially, s/he could harass senior leaders into allowing the establishment of a master plan for landscaping and all the other exterior fixtures listed above.

FM leadership must identify the annual maintenance and replacement costs for these assets, and ultimately, solidify proper funding for appropriate maintenance and replacement! That underutilized CMMS could be called into duty to schedule regular inspections on those items, plus any others not yet mentioned, while also tracking all corresponding maintenance activities. If there is an inspector on staff, this person could be charged to inspect these assets at least once a year. Make sure that someone “owns” this responsibility — better still if it is a senior-level facility manager. 

Let’s face it. If the campus doesn’t look good to me through the windshield of my car, it would be a challenge to remain interested in having my kids go to school here. At that point, it really doesn’t matter to me how efficiently the toilets flush!