Wednesday, June 28, 2006


Building: A Mystery

Construction projects are nightmares generally, but they’re especially bad for colleges. I’m trying to get a handle on why that is.

Imagine that you’re buying a new car. You start with an optimistic but not ridiculous budget. You want something to haul the kids around, with a good reliability record and up-to-date safety features. You live in a region where both defrosters and air conditioners are pretty much mandatory.

You find a model you like. In the name of fiscal responsibility, you ask the dealer how much it would be without air conditioning, airbags, or an automatic transmission. You buy the stripped-down model, on the theory that you can always retrofit later. It has to be special-ordered, so it comes in after the rebate offer expires, but you figure you’re still coming out slightly ahead.

For the next two years, you pay out-of-pocket to add aftermarket options, one at a time. Each repair costs far more than the original option would have, and takes the car out of commission for days at a time.

Two years later, you’ve spent thousands more adding aftermarket products than you would have if you had just bitten the bullet the first time. (Air conditioning as a dealer option -- $800. As a retrofit, $2500. It takes a week to install, adding another $250 in rental car costs. And so on.) The car has spent lots of time in the shop getting things added, so you’ve paid for rental cars. Some of the aftermarket products aren’t really all that satisfactory, but you’ll take what you can get. You’ve spent considerable time driving around without air conditioning, airbags, and whatever else. And you probably wind up doing without a few of those options altogether, to compensate for spending too much on what you actually got. Your spouse criticizes you for pouring so much money down a rat hole; you respond, correctly, that you’ve paid careful attention to costs every step of the way, and that the costs couldn’t be helped. That’s pretty much how we do construction projects.

It’s easy, in the short run, for a college to decide to scale down a proposed project to cut costs. The problem is that the people charged with scaling it down are often not the end users, so much of what gets cut eventually finds its way back in, by necessity, leading to the dreaded-but-ubiquitous ‘overruns.’ (“Where are the electrical outlets?” “D’oh!” I’m not making that one up.) Too, price inflation in the construction world is rampant and rapid, so a project cut into ‘phases’ is guaranteed to cost more, in the end, than a project done whole-hog. What looks like prudence at the initial stage actually winds up costing much more, and yielding less, than just jumping in with both feet. And by the time the later phases roll around, the pressure to cut costs is usually even greater. So the later phases are broken into sub-phases, resulting in higher costs and lower functionality, leading to still more cost pressures. Inflation-by-penny-pinching.

(Renovation, which is often embraced as the less-expensive alternative to construction, brings its own unique nightmare: finding space for the displaced offices and people while the work is done. Storage is usually the first thing sacrificed, which is understandable, but which leads to equipment damage, trailer rental fees, and tremendous (and usually unbudgeted) diverted staff time. And has anybody ever seen ‘temporary’ storage trailers actually go away? Me neither.)

Yet the same mistakes keep happening, over and over again.

I’m all for deliberate consideration, measure-twice-cut-once, inclusion, etc. But there comes a time when someone has to make the call to pull the trigger. It takes calm nerves, a willingness to take risks, and an endurance for the inevitable Monday Morning critics. It takes the political skill and will to sell the relevant stakeholders on the wisdom of getting over the upfront sticker shock, which is considerable. It even involves a willingness to tell certain stakeholders that no, they won’t get everything they want, even if that was the original purpose of the project. It can’t be easy, or more colleges would do it.

I once heard a very experienced administrator talking about construction projects, and his advice struck me as brilliant in its Zen-like simplicity: only hire firms that have built something almost identical elsewhere, and tell them just to give you version 2.0 of what they’ve already done. Instead of doing the knee-jerk “we want to be on the cutting edge” thing, be the “fast follower” who gets the debugged version of what someone else has already spilt the requisite blood, sweat, and tears. This wouldn’t work for some very high-end, very specialized research facilities, but for teaching colleges, it struck me as retrospectively obvious. (Has anyone ever built an auditorium, smart classroom, or hockey rink before? I’m guessing ‘yes.’) Let some other college drop bodies on the barbed wire, so you can climb over those. Makes sense to me. Invest the saved millions (and we’re talking millions) in operating budgets – hiring faculty, providing financial aid to students, even marketing.

I haven’t cracked the nut of explaining why the same mistakes keep happening, though it’s not for lack of trying. Has your college found a way to avoid these same mistakes?

I'm sitting literally two feet away from a two-year construction project. There have been numerous increases in costs. What's been worse, though, has been the disruption to my work. I've been moved to take out space for plumbing and electrical, put back into the space adjacent to the site where I've endured fumes, noise and vibrations for two years. Sometimes the disruptions were so bad, I had to leave. Whoever thought it would be a good idea to have people next to the construction was crazy. I've endured only because there really wasn't any other place to go.

They were supposed to be adding an entrance to the building through ours, but they forgot about the handicapped accessible entry they needed to be up to code and so our entrance got nixed.
I have nothing smart to add here except that your post title made me giggle.
my favorite construction story is from an addition to the building just outside my window. (Laura: you're giving me flashbacks!)

it's a three-story building, so they made room for an elevator. then they started digging...and discovered that the electrical conduits for the building I'm in...are where the elevator was going to be.

so no elevator, just a staircase in a very strangely wide stairwell.

(and if you need an elevator, you have to go all the way to the old side of the building. not that I'm bitter about it from when I injured my knee or anything....)
Your comments on the virtues being a "fast follower" and the downsides of rehabs/remodeling are dead-on, from what I've seen. I worked down the hall from a massive rehab on an historic classroom/office building for the better part of a year and I'm not sure, three moves later, that the sheetrock dust is gone yet from books, files and my microfilm reader.

Of course, I didn't learn my lesson well enough, so now I'm in the middle of a house expansion / rehab! This time, the microfilm machine is wrapped in plastic as is the 'puter), some 4,000 books are boxed and my daughter thinks that Dad the Historian and Mom the Librarian aren't having enough fun with the mess.
How about a renovation to a university science building wherein there were no electrical outlets put into the electronics lab and classrooms? This despite faculty noticing this on the plans, calling it to the architect's attention three times. . . yet it still happened. So extension cords are used, running ACROSS a busy hallway, to the power outlets. Oops!
I work at a relatively wealthy private university so our construction problems are different. We don't have problems with skimping and change orders, just problems with hiring visionary architects who don't have to live or work in their fanciful creations. (How about some *&%#@ shades or curtains on those huge freaking windows on a west wall?!) Also, no amount of money in the world can cure the boneheaded decision to build something right on top of an underground stream. You can't buy enough concrete to cure the subsidence. How about a stadium large enough to hold every living alumni of known address twice over? I'd call that a mistake. What about the morale impact on employees who get three percent raises watching the landscaping being ripped out - again - because some muckety-muck doesn't like the flowers?

The lesson here is that money can create its own set of problems! Moderation in everything, grasshopper.

Some remodeling problems affect every school, regardless. Asbestos, anyone? How about lead paint, chemical waste, radioactive materials, mercury and PBCs?

-I'm accounting as fast as I can
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Gordon Wilson (BC politician for the Sunshine Coast) wrote one of those "what I would like to do" books. One of the things I remember him criticizing was how schoal boards hired an architect every time they needed a new school. Why not, he asked, hire some very good architects to design some standard schools, paying design fees once, and then just build them? The design could evolve with experience, and the public would both save money and have better schools.

As far as I know, nothing ever came of the idea, and every school is still custom-designed -- sometimes by people without any idea how children behave.
We have one project that has been going on for the past two years because of a phase process. And nobody knows when it will be completed. Another problem is that our school is not directly responsible for the project; instead, it's up to the university system to make decisions and they are four hours away in the state capital.
I've learned that the building housing my department was supposed to be 3 stories, but money ran short and only 2 floors were built. Did they choose the bottom and top? No, instead they chose the bottom and middle, leading to years of roof leaks. (Last spring I looked up in the hallway and saw blue sky. At least it wasn't cloudy.)

DD and Anonymous said it well when they commented about how each building is a brand new model, never designed before. That's where the car analogy fails.

Perhaps phased building occurs so often because the alternative is no building at all? If a project requires $x to be built but only 0.8x is available, then the choices seem to be 0.8x or 0x (no new building at all).

DD, your willingness to make the call in the absence of all data is part of what makes you a good dean.
"only hire firms that have built something almost identical elsewhere, and tell them just to give you version 2.0 of what they’ve already done."

This is always the correct answer. N-1 is where the sweet spot lives.
I can tell you three building stories. The first was from really well known university where I did my doctoral work. They wanted to build a wonderful science building, they had great plans, AND they had an alum builder to put it together. His firm did a fantastic job. The only problem was that the firm specialized in elementary schools, and when they did the toilets, they put in the kiddy sized stuff they had on hand....

The second, is more or less the first. A well known Catholic football factory I was at wanted a new classroom building, so they got the plans for a school building from a local diocese. Unfortunately they forgot to upscale the fountains and bathrooms.

The third was a huge new university in Germany that I went to work for. Sensibly, they hired the theoretical physicists first, before the building was built. So the architects went to the physicists and asked what do physicists need, and the physicists said, a couple of plugs for our computers, a place to brew coffee, that should be enough, and it was, until us experimental types arrived.

If there is a moral in this it is that anyone considering building should hire a consultant who ramrodded a similar building through the process. Pay them what they want. It will be inexpensive.
The University my two oldest kids attend is undergoing some sort of image problem. Their short term solution is to build a new stadium for a very sorry football program. Never mind that the dance program and art program are out of room and meeting in whatever space they can find. Never mind that musical theater was cut from the degree offerings. Never mind that some of the dorms are so old and moldy (literally) that many of the residents are battling constant upper respiratory infections-lets build us a football stadium....erg. Oh, and to appease those of us not into sports, they also plan to plan numerous cherry trees, in Texas, in the middle of a drought, in clay soil that can grow nothing other than scrub grass for cattle or cotton. Go figure.
My CC just has a serious problem with timing. I understand you have to get plans approved and that takes time but once the plans are approved what's the harm in waiting a bit?
My CC is located next to one of the most populated high schools in the city and we already have a serious traffic/ parking problem. People would wait 2 hours sometimes to find a spot! Public transportation in this city does not care if their schedule does not work. The CC made the money to build a parking garage. Their timing sucked. They started excavating the first week of fall semester when of course everyone's there, people tend to drop out the closer it gets to x-mas. They then were building throughout the wettest winter we've ever had, we had more rain then seattle for instance.
They then kill the commute just walking around campus by begginning to build a library. A huge three story library, right in the middle of campus. They started building these literally weeks apart from each other. I can't wait to use the library, I think the parking garage is a joke. Being a liberal college they should have endorsed carpooling and alternative transportation, maybe pushed the city to improve the public transportation.
But besides that the timing stinks...
Read Stewart Brand, "How Buildings Learn"
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