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As maintenance backlog grows, Campus Facilities stretched thin

Monday, August 12, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:31 a.m. CDT, Monday, August 19, 2013
The needs of the buildings at MU are much greater than the funds available to make all of the repairs. In recent years, Campus Facilities has prioritized buildings with the greatest need and planned complete building renovations. Switzler Hall is one of three buildings to be renovated this year. Curtis Hall, Lafferre Hall and Strickland Hall are high on the list for renovations. Tate Hall and Switzler Hall were recently renovated with bond issues.

COLUMBIA — Curtis Hall, on MU’s white campus, has some issues. MU built it in 1940 and hasn’t renovated it since. Cracks are spreading through drywall and bricks, in offices and hallways.

Besides the cracks, Campus Facilities has plenty of other items on the building’s repair list. Campus Facilities estimates it would cost less to build another Curtis from scratch than to fix all of the problems piece by piece.

Curtis is in worse shape than any other academic building on campus, though Campus Facilities keeps a list of 30 buildings it says are in critical need of repair. As MU’s facilities age and its maintenance budget stays flat, the list of problems grows.

MU’s buildings are older, its facilities budgets are lower, and its maintenance staff is spread thinner than most of the universities it competes with for students. In 2006, Campus Facilities contracted with a firm called Sightlines to study its facilities and budgets and compare them to its peers. The results indicate MU is trying to serve more students with less.

Sightlines defined MU’s peers as Indiana, Iowa State, Michigan State, Northwestern, Ohio State, Purdue, Pennsylvania State, Illinois-Urbana/Champaign, Michigan and Minnesota universities. These institutions were chosen because of their comparable density, size and complexity to MU, their membership in the Association of American Universities and their similar winter climates and, therefore, energy needs.

According to Sightlines, MU’s total facilities operating budget over the past 10 years was $4.81 per gross square foot, $1 below the peer universities’ average. MU's backlog of needs averages $87.40 per gross square foot, compared to an average of $83.05 for the others.

MU’s total repair backlog adds up to $552 million and grows by $22 million each year, said Gary Ward, MU’s associate vice chancellor for facilities.

This means Campus Facilities would need more than 18 times its entire operating budget to tackle all of its maintenance problems. The annual maintenance budget hovers at about $10 million.

Yet aging buildings have not kept new students away from MU. From 2003 to 2013, MU’s enrollment grew about 35 percent, compared to a little more than 10 percent for its peers, according to Sightlines. MU officials anticipate this enrollment growth will level off.

Approaching a breaking point

Ward said the excellence of a university reflects its teaching and research, not its buildings. But he worries about a future where breakdowns in facilities get in the way of the university’s academic mission.

Even though Campus Facilities can’t afford to fix all these problems, it keeps tabs on them.

Every five years, Facilities hires a contractor named ISES Corp. to audit each building for all needed repairs. The company assigns each a score based on how much work is needed; the resulting document is known as a facilities needs index.

One hundred and thirty-four buildings are on this list. Less than a handful are listed as not needing any repairs. Others have relatively low scores, however, many have scores indicating considerable repairs are needed. The list only includes administration, educational and research facilities — dining halls, residence halls and other auxiliary buildings, such as athletics or hospital buildings, are not included. 

Each building has a score that Campus Facilities calculates by dividing the total cost of repairs by the cost of building it all over again from the ground up. A score of one  means it would be as cheap to build a new building as it would be to repair everything in the old.

Curtis Hall scores the highest, with 1.24. Thirty buildings on campus have a score of 0.4 or higher, meaning their repairs make up 40 percent of their buildings costs.

"Above 0.4, they’re all bad," Ward said.

With a maintenance budget of close to $10 million and no additional help from the state legislature in sight, Ward fears Campus Facilities’ budget is stretched almost to the breaking point. 

"That lack of funding has forced a level of creativity and stewardship that you won’t see anywhere else," Ward said. "But there comes a point where it can’t continue. We’re getting there."

Facility operations manager Jeff Brown said the same thing.

"I think we’re getting close to there," Brown said. "I don’t think there’s much more we can do because if it gets to a point where we don’t have funding to at least maintain the exterior, you know, then we start having that collateral damage from that."

Brown said Campus Facilities staff knows where the weak points are in each building and stays on top of preventive maintenance. He used Strickland, a general academic building full of classroom space, as an example.

"If that building was shut down, I mean, can you imagine what that would do to a day?" Brown said. "Well, there’s one air handler in the basement that serves that whole building. And I mean, we really take care of that thing."

Plans for Swallow Hall

On a tour through Swallow Hall, built in 1893 on Francis Quadrangle, and one of three buildings next in line for renovation or improvements, Brown pointed out several opportunities to add more academic space to the building.

Swallow’s basement ceiling is about six feet high. Brown said Campus Facilities will probably dig the floor lower, opening the space to be used as at least one classroom.

The top floor has the opposite problem. In this part of the building, ceilings soar about 25 feet high. Adding another floor would open up more classroom and office space here, too.

Other plans include adding central heating and cooling, replacing items such as windows to improve the building’s energy efficiency and spend less on utilities and making it easier to get from one side of Swallow to the other.

"This department here is a growing department, and they’ve hired some top-notch faculty to come here from other universities," Campus Facilities communications manager Karlan Seville said. "Do you want to bring a tour here and say, this is our department? Does this look like a world-class anthropology building?"

"You know, the amazing thing is that it is," Brown said, referring to the department, not the building. 

Brown can think of plenty of ways renovation could improve a building’s academic performance, but he can't think of an example of when a problem with a building interfered significantly with teaching or research. Brown said Campus Facilities has worked hard to avoid any such situation.

Seville said Campus Facilities will often make a repair after hours to not interfere with class time or will make temporary repairs until it can schedule a major repair. For example, Facilities caulked one-inch cracks in an Eckles Hall basement research laboratory last winter to minimize the draft until excavation and repairs could be made this summer.

A major point of its strategy has been renovating whole buildings instead of only going after isolated repairs — paying less to renovate now instead of more to repair later.

A new way of doing things

Ward came up with what he calls the stewardship model in 2008, after giving former UM System President Gary Forsee a tour of campus. Forsee had just become system president, and Ward wanted to explain to him Campus Facilities’ repair backlog.

"At that particular time, I think we had a needs of, I think, about $480 million," Ward said, referring only to academic and research buildings. "At that time it was growing about $18 million a year. Our budget was less than $12 (million)."

Ward estimated MU had about $19 million in serious repairs needed all over campus. He explained the traditional way of tackling these problems, before the stewardship model:

"Traditionally, the way that you would approach maintenance would be a shotgun approach," Ward said. "You would get, say, a million dollars. And you would go, 'OK, how can I spread this million dollars around?'"

Facilities managers would take on as many pesky problems as they could with that million dollars. Ward said this strategy helps Campus Facilities but often does little to improve teaching or research. Ward said if he were to ask a faculty member for his or her thoughts on the repairs, he might hear this response: “I didn’t even know you were in here. I didn’t notice anything different.’”

In that case, "we didn’t do anything whatsoever for the academic mission," he said.

That’s why, when Forsee suggested tacking $19 million onto a university bond issue to deal with critical repairs scattered across campus, Ward thought there might be a better way to spend the money.

"I thought, 'Huh, so we’re going to do $19 million worth of work, but no one’s going to even know it.'"

Ward went back to Forsee and asked if they could take a look at the buildings on campus that have the highest level of critical needs with the greatest opportunities for improving teaching or research. He suggested spending the bond money on renovating those buildings.

The idea made sense to Forsee, Ward said. Facilities decided to put it to use for the first time on Tate Hall, where Ninth Street turns into Conley Avenue, and Switzler Hall, on the Francis Quadrangle. In 2009, Facilities began renovating the two buildings, a process that took two years.

Stewardship model in action

Campus Facilities added 280 classroom seats and 34 offices to the buildings. It improved the energy efficiency of the buildings by adding central heating and cooling and improved windows, and it made the buildings compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Vickie Thorp, Tate’s building coordinator, has worked in the building for decades. She pointed out Tate’s new, modern-looking interior, with a few salvaged pieces of the old building — an ornate lamp found in the attic and handcrafted wood panels on the walls.

Thorp serves as a liaison between the English Department and Campus Facilities. If something breaks, she calls in the repair. She said Facilities usually handles all problems within 24 hours.

Thorp said she thinks the department is satisfied with the new building.

"The building is far better than it was before," she said. "We don’t have any asbestos. We have a working elevator."

The additional classroom space "is beneficial for academics because we do have a lot of classes here," she said. 

Thorp took pictures of the old building before renovation. She pulled up pictures of metal bookshelves, like those in Ellis Library, that took up space, as well as one room with a sweeping, cathedral ceiling. "There was a lot of unused space in the old building," she said.

Ward said the renovations didn’t just help the English Department, they affected the whole campus. When the buildings reopened, the new classroom space reduced crowding all over campus.

"Two hundred eighty additional seats per hour," Ward said. "So take an hour, times how many teaching hours there are in a day, times five. I mean, that’s a lot of additional students. I will tell you, the classroom problem went away."

Now, Facilities hopes to add classroom space with its Swallow Hall project. Swallow also scores fairly high on the facilities needs index, 0.57.

But another important reason Facilities went after Swallow instead of a building in worse shape is that it found a way to pay for the whole project. By refinancing some of its bonds, the university found enough one-time money to complete the projects in Swallow, Pickard and Jesse halls.

MU will close Pickard Hall in December to continue a decommissioning process required by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Starting in July 2014, Jesse Hall will receive new sprinklers and fire alarms, a second elevator and updated heating and cooling systems. 

"We’re continually looking for one-time money," Ward said. "If we can find enough coins behind the seat cushions, then we can save those things up, and we can try to add some maintenance dollars on, too."

But some projects, such as Lafferre Hall on the quad, are just too big.

"Why can’t we do this?" Ward said, holding up an audit book of one section of Lafferre Hall. "It’s 64 million bucks. It’s too big of a project to find the nickels and dimes. We’ve got to have state support for this."

In June, the University of Missouri System Board of Curators approved a request for $194 million in state capital appropriations that would cover critical facility needs across all four system campuses. MU's portion of the request adds up to $82.9 million.

After the Swallow, Jesse and Pickard projects, the next items on MU's list are renovating and adding to portions of Lafferre and Strickland halls, as well as constructing a new School of Music facility. In July, the curators approved a request for $55.9 million for Lafferre, $31.5 million for the School of Music facility and $47.6 million for Strickland.

In Missouri, that kind of support has proven difficult to count on.

Nikki Krawitz, former UM System vice president for finance and administration, summarized the situation at the June Board of Curators meeting.

"State funding for capital improvement projects has been episodic, political and unpredictable," Krawitz said then.

Missouri passed its last capital improvements bond issue in 1994. The bill was known as the Fourth State Bond Issue, and it mostly focused on state prisons. The Third State Bond Issue lasted from 1983 through 1987. That bond had a more varied focus, with $130 million going to higher education infrastructure.

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, was serving as Columbia’s state senator when the third issue passed. Since 2009, he has been working on passing the Fifth State Bond Issue and seen it die twice in the Senate after passing the House.

"Part of it is that you don’t have enough legislators with long-term perspective on the needs of their state," Kelly said. "They’re going to be gone. It’s not their problem."

Kelly said anything as big as a capital improvements bond issue takes a lot of compromise. He said both bond issues passed as a result of compromise among Democrats and Republicans, both houses of the Missouri General Assembly, the governor, the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and the Missouri Labor Council.

Strong leadership is also important, he said. He attributed that leadership to former Republican Gov. Christopher "Kit" Bond. 

"Kit Bond was the driver, no two ways about it," Kelly said.

Use the zoom bar at the top of the documents to get a better view.

Sightlines' 2012 presentation on MU's buildings:

MU's facilities needs index for campus buildings:

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.


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Comments

Ellis Smith August 12, 2013 | 10:17 a.m.

When setting priorities, keep in mind that one of the four campuses no longer has space for more students, a situation the other three campuses don't face.

(Report Comment)
Jimmy Bearfield August 12, 2013 | 11:46 a.m.

Why not fund repairs with an additional student fee? They were willing to pay more to fund fancy digs at Brady, the rec center and dorms. Why not the classroom buildings? After all, that's what college is really all about, right?

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith August 12, 2013 | 4:11 p.m.

Con the Tiger faithful into putting up the money by telling them the funds are for a new football stadium or basketball palace. They'll probably give money for those things, but almost certainly won't give money for clasrooms.

(Report Comment)

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