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?