Restore, Update, and Maintain: Making the Most of Grounds Work in Campus Downtime

Restore, Update, and Maintain: Making the Most of Grounds Work in Campus Downtime

On a normal day, facility directors and managers, at college campuses and medical centers, are busy running between the many construction projects assigned by their colleagues in campus planning. But when COVID-19 hit, construction across the nation came to a screeching halt, leaving facilities managers with a moment to catch their breath, while they unexpectedly twiddled their thumbs.

Though some work has resumed, much of it is still on hold or scaled down. Now, facility engineers, groundskeepers, and other physical plant staff have the chance to take a step back and consider which other projects can and should be prioritized. While capital projects are light, campus facility managers can use this downtime wisely, at schools and medical centers alike, to take up the forgotten projects and zero in on laying a better foundation for future construction.

The Reality of “Eds and Meds” Campuses

The University of Pennsylvania has been public with its coronavirus-related impacts on construction and paint a picture of what campuses have faced in the past few months. UPenn paused all campus construction in March 2020 due to the pandemic, with the exception of a handful of exterior-focused projects. That meant pressing pause on 390 active projects for the summer and delaying $50 million worth of construction work.

Though a different image of COVID-19’s effects, medical campuses have also experienced a construction conundrum. In March, the University of Pennsylvania’s medical arm, Penn Medicine, shifted construction attention away from new wings and centers and toward building out space and infrastructure for additional hospital beds.

UPenn and Penn Medicine have resumed some delayed projects, but the return is slow and cautious. Other campuses—though not widely publicized—still have construction moratoriums or are just recently lifting them and implementing a slew of restrictions.

It’s the perfect storm for campus facility directors and managers.

Why Now?

Usually, a big deterrent in construction projects is student or patient interruption. Campuses try to time and plan projects to take place when there’s not an influx of people. Now is that time.

Students are returning, in limited capacities, with limited extracurricular activity. We’ve also seen, in cases like UNC-Chapel Hill, students will be right back at home soon. On the medical side, emergency, acute, and intensive care may be active, but outpatient activity is slow. Though unfortunate for the bottom line, these circumstances in the “eds and meds” mean fewer bodies on campus and more space for facility directors and managers to attend to necessary but otherwise neglected projects—deferred maintenance.

Un-Deferred Maintenance

Many of the projects proceeding at UPenn and Penn Medicine surround maintenance, restoration, and preservation, as opposed to net-new work. Campus facility directors and managers, and their budget controllers finding themselves with downtime, should consider the quotidian, “keeping the lights on” projects that have to be continued. Here are a few to consider:

Relocating utilities

Are your existing utility lines optimally sited for when new capital projects start back up? Intelligent rerouting is important work that clears the way, underground, for future projects. For example, at a university we work with, a major utility relocation under consideration involves an aged, large-diameter drain line that infelicitously runs at a diagonal across the campuses major open-air parking lot. Moving this vital structure to align with the campus grid will free up the school’s valuable urban land asset for new buildings, and greatly simplify the planning of foundations.

Upgrading utilities

How’s your drainage system? Do you have flooding or ponding issues? How are your utilities? How old are they? While sometimes you’re taking perfectly good lines and moving them, other times you just need a simple upgrade. Fragility of old utilities and electrical lines can contribute to damage. We saw examples this past winter with Houston’s disruptive water main break, and there are countless other stories like it. Hospitals and college campuses can’t afford to that have these types of disruptions, so facility teams can be proactive while the foot traffic is low. Even now, we’re involved in a medical project putting in brand new lines throughout the campus that will run under both public and private streets to help avoid the negative impacts of deferred maintenance.

Mapping utilities

Do you know where your assets are underground? What about sprinkler systems or lighting and electrical systems? They are often shallow—within the first foot of topsoil—and unmapped. Systems like these are likely to get hit by even the most careful landscape contractors if not provided with a reliable as-built map.

One of the best projects for facility managers to take on now is to go into that wrecking room and see what’s in the flat files. Often times, we find campus utility and infrastructure maps are outdated, not well indexed, and not in formats that are user friendly for the variety of people that need to see them. Typically, they rely on institutional knowledge that lies with one long-term employee. But knowledge succession is key to avoiding underground accidents, project delays, and remapping of assets in the future. Now is a good time for campus facilities directors to consider working with a surveying professional to develop a Digital Utility Atlas. Doing so will create a comprehensive picture of campus infrastructure in easy-to-use CAD and GIS formats to ensure successful planning and construction when paused projects come back to life.

Making the Case

All of these projects put only a small dent in the campus planning budgets. When comparing the cost investment in a large, architecturally complex, new academic or medical building with infrastructure updating and maintenance, a case can certainly be made for low-dollar, high-value infrastructure work.

Additionally, many of these projects can be done by surveyors and engineers, who are considered essential services as the pandemic continues, and who often come at a lower price point than general contractors, architects, and others involved in big construction projects.

While they may be catching their breath during this downtime, campus facility managers, with fewer bodies and projects, have a unique opportunity to play catch-up in their infrastructure maintenance. Benjamin Franklin said, “Lost time is never found again.” Everyone’s sincerest hope is that we’ll never face another life-altering, work-stopping, pandemic again. But while we have the time, let’s make the most of it.

Learn more about DGT’s surveying, engineering, or SUM work.