Maintenance & Operations (Managing the Physical Plant)

Maintenance by Design?

I’m going to go out on a limb here… not too far out on that limb, but away from the trunk just a bit. I’ll bet there isn’t a single one of us who hasn’t performed maintenance on a building and either questioned why something was built the way it was, why a certain product was installed, or how your team was going to access a piece of equipment for service.

At that point you began to curse the planners, architects and engineers who thought something looked great on paper but wound end up being a maintenance nightmare.

An Absence of Forethought

Let’s start by looking at the big picture. Precarious perches, narrow access passages, high reach issues and inadequate equipment access all plague the maintenance staff. Some are correctable in the field; others must be addressed only after great effort. I once took over a new building with a clerestory ceiling height of approximately 65 feet. There were a host of safe lift options on the market to access the motorized roller shades in the high windows. However, our problem was twofold: First, the shades’ design was such that they often worked themselves out of sync and either didn’t maintain a uniform level or, by the supplier’s admission, they often rolled up on themselves and required service. Problem two was the way the entrance and lobby doors were designed. A standard-size lift would not fit into the building, as the doors were narrow and offset. Only one very specific style lift would fit into the building and only one was available in that part of the state, and in order to get it to fit, we had to remove two sets of doors… it was that tight! That is a lot of trouble and expense to work on a recurring problem; a problem designed into the building!

I was once on a project where the new air handlers were being entombed into an attic mechanical space with no access to the equipment. When questioning the architect about the concern, he noted that the air handlers being installed were “lifetime air handlers.” Of course, I asked, “whose lifetime?” After the chuckles subsided around the table, I felt confident the architect realized how silly that sounded. At the next meeting that issue was corrected, but I firmly believe that some salesman had him convinced that there was really a machine that never required any sort of internal maintenance.

Conformity Can Be Good

How about ending up with a random brand of fixture or equipment when institutional standards are ignored? We are required to add a number of new parts to our managed inventory, or worse yet, either send technicians for new training or hire new, manufacturer-specific subcontractors to perform service on the equipment. The ripple effect is significant on procurement, maintenance and management. Not that any of this is life or death, but we work very hard to standardize so that we are able to provide the best possible service, and that best possible price, to our customer. I’ve also heard comments from architects and contractors to the effect of, “a faucet is a faucet,” or “paint is paint.” That may be so if they are installing that random faucet or paint at home, but when we are managing hundreds of faucets and their repairs per year, knowing we have the necessary, standardized supplies on hand will help keep us productive and efficient.

Speak Up!

The point of the earlier illustrations was not just so I can whine about what was delivered to the maintenance department, but to point out that there came a time where it made better sense for the facilities/maintenance department leadership to work to earn a place at the design table. From that place on the design team you will be in a position to advocate for the long-term needs of the department and, ultimately, the institution. Armed with a list of “must haves” and “don’t do’s,” you will be able to help guide the design and specification process from within. (If you don’t have a list compiled, gather your team over pizza at lunch and ask them about all the trouble spots and places they struggle to perform their maintenance functions; you’ll have a solid and meaningful list in no time!) If you have trouble getting a position on the design team, assemble a quick list of the preexisting maintenance concerns and associate an ongoing cost with them. It will quickly turn into a pay-me-now or pay-me-later scenario.

Take the time to study the plans and become integral to the process… at a minimum it will pay off in savings of pain reliever tablets down the road!

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

About the Author

Michael G. Steger is director, Physical Plant, for Berkeley Preparatory School in Tampa, FL. He can be reached at [email protected].