Act your Era…Not your Age

Act your Era blogCommon thinking among college facilities management professionals is that the age of facilities dictates capital investment.  On the whole this is true for things like roofs, chillers, boilers, or other building components.  But it is construction era rather than age that complicates the planning process at many campuses. As an industry, we have simply built buildings differently over time due to architectural trends and technical complexity of systems. To fully understand the drivers for current investment decisions, the era of construction is often more useful in explaining the intersection of component repair, renovation, and modernization requirements.

In recent months, we have been testing construction era as a new way to analyze capital investment needs for campuses. Our work has segmented campus buildings between pre-World War II buildings and those buildings built from 1945 to 1975, 1975 to 2000, and 2000 to present. This segmentation provides a stronger understanding of capital needs and conditions since today, a building over 50 years old could have been built in 1963 or 1923.  Despite the similar categorization; they have very different needs and should not be grouped together.

The reason has to do with the divergence of renewal cycles of major envelope and mechanical components (HVAC, electrical, and plumbing systems) versus space and program (interior finishes, configurations, program space). Buildings built before WWII often have longer renewal cycles for both the core building components and space. Institutions tended to comprehensively renovate program space while major mechanicals were overhauled.  Immediately following World War II, we experienced a rapid expansion of higher education that led to decreased lifecycles of new construction, however, even though they were shortened, these two lifecycles were still fairly close to each other.

renewal cycles are changingThe real complicating factor (since the early 1970’s) is what we refer to as “functional obsolescence” of space.  As time has moved on since the war, we are constructing buildings with longer system lifecycles for most components and shorter for a select few such as HVAC.  However, the key trigger for renovation has been the evolving technology that has dramatically decreased space and program lifecycles. It’s not that the space is worn out; it’s that it simply does not work effectively in today’s teaching and research environment. As a result, project decisions are increasingly dictated by program needs rather than asset preservation.

Take away: Although there is no one definitive formula for allocating capital we think it is extremely important that the college understand not only the age of its facilities but how the construction era tends to group similar investment decisions.  We cannot treat all buildings as equal and therefore should not allocate capital in the same manner. Finite capital resources should be allocated within portfolios with clear investment strategies that account for the difference between mechanical and space lifecycles. In doing so, you can then coordinate investment requirements, set priority needs, and optimize limited capital investment for the campus.


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