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Facility Planning: Invest Now or Pay Later

I recently was struck by the size of the General Accounting Office’s estimate of the financial need of school districts to renovate and modernize their existing building stock. I wondered why the numbers were so high, what types of repairs and modernizations they represented, and how architects and school districts could learn from the past to avoid repeating mistakes that might have been made along the way.

One primary duty a school administrator has is the prudent expenditure and management of funds provided by the taxpayers. Thus, it makes sense to get competitive pricing on goods and services a district or school requires, and to buy from the low bidder.

In the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, the need for new classrooms to serve families moving to the suburbs created new school districts, expanded others and stretched the abilities of taxpayers in these communities to pay the price. The guidelines for new construction given to administrators often were: “get it done fast and cheap!”

The 1995 GAO projections of the financial needs for renovating our nation’s schools totaled $112 billion. A significant portion of that figure represents repairs needed by those schools that were built “fast and cheap.” After all, 72 percent of today’s schools were built after 1950. Their flat roofs have failed, their quickly erected metal panel and brick veneer skins are leaking both water and air, their single-pane windows waste energy, their rooftop HVAC units have outlived their useful lives, and their rigid floor plans do not lend themselves easily to today’s team teaching, house concepts and integrated curricular space needs.

Correcting Mistakes
Today, school boards are going back to the taxpayers, asking for money to correct those deficiencies-deficiencies caused, to a significant extent, by the original guidelines given to architects and builders.

Take a look at the tax base now. It’s predominantly middle-aged baby boomers who have the money and who vote. An increasing number are looking at aging schools and thinking, “do I want to trust these guys again? After all, 25 years ago they built these schools that are prematurely gray…why should I pay to fix them up now? After all, my kids are grown.”

This attitude, which may be quite justified, can lead to a Catch-22. If the taxpayer does not want to pay more taxes to improve poorly designed and constructed schools, how can school districts pay for the additions, renovations and new schools needed now?

The lifetime cost of a school building is only partially represented by the initial costs of design and construction. Once the building is occupied, operating costs, such as energy, heating, cooling and maintenance, start and continue until the building is demolished. Since many building systems, such as roofs, flooring and chillers, have a shorter life span than the structure, periodic replacement of these systems will be required. Other, hidden life-cycle costs can include time spent by teachers and students moving between activities in a stretched-out building with numerous additions. Then there’s the interest on the money borrowed to build the school, and the costs of demolition and disposal when the building can no longer function. These life-cycle costs can exceed the initial design and construction costs by four to five times, yet they can be significantly affected by the amount initially spent on design and construction.