Four deferred maintenance challenges—and how to solve them

While deferred maintenance (DM) has been a top priority for facilities leaders for decades, tackling the DM backlog has increasingly become a focus for other institutional leaders, including boards, presidents, and chief business officers. DM backlog per square foot has grown by 16% at U.S. private institutions and 24% at U.S. publics between 2007 and 2015, as well as by 56% at Canadian institutions between 2000 and 2015. These DM issues affect nearly all areas of campus.

While DM is not a problem exclusive to higher education, college and university leaders face four unique challenges.

Challenge 1: The perfect storm of renewal needs

Most institutions face the dual challenge of needing to replace or renovate antiquated buildings while maintaining newer “smart” buildings that require more frequent and complex upgrades. In the United States, 35% of current space was built in the post-war construction boom between 1960 and 1975—and many of these buildings now require significant renovations.

Simultaneously, institutions must fund renewal costs for newer, more advanced buildings constructed in the last two decades, which comprise 31% of facilities on campuses nationally. While facilities leaders agree that campuses should invest between 2% and 3% of total asset value into campus facilities, most institutions fall well short of that benchmark.

Challenge 2: Tighter budgets lead to painful trade-offs

Most senior leaders must grapple with tighter budgets. Nearly all institutions face declining revenues due to changes in enrollment, public support, research funding, and debt capacity. Tightening budgets disproportionally impact facilities units.

As the chart below shows, spending on plant operations and maintenance has dropped 8% at public institutions since 1987. At private institutions, plant operations and maintenance has grown the least of four spending categories over the past 20 years, increasing less than 1% per year on average.

Four deferred maintenance challenges—and what can help

Challenge 3: No quick fix to resolve the DM backlog

Higher education campuses cannot execute a significant number of capital projects at one time. Even if an institution obtained all the money it needed to resolve the DM backlog, the sheer amount of projects performed would massively disrupt the entirety of campus. Most campuses lack sufficient swing spaces to absorb impact units, enough free areas for project staging, and the logistical resources to support planning, scheduling, and executing many capital projects at once.

Challenge 4: Deferred maintenance language obscures the complexity of the problem

DM presents senior leaders with a complex and multifaceted problem. The graphic below shows the interrelationship between deferred, reactive, and preventive maintenance.

Four deferred maintenance challenges—and what can help

A growing DM backlog results in an increased risk of system failure. As systems begin to fail, facilities must divert resources to reactive maintenance activities. This leaves fewer resources for preventive maintenance, ultimately increasing the amount of deferred maintenance. As a result, senior leaders must address maintenance on multiple fronts at once—or risk diluting the impact of their interventions.

Your guide to addressing complex DM decisions

To help facilities leaders reduce deferred maintenance backlogs on campus, EAB offers a new publication entitled Addressing Increasingly Complex Deferred Maintenance Decisions. This best practice research study highlights six executive lessons to improve planning, prioritization, and executive communication. The first lesson focuses on winning senior leader buy-in and support for capital renewal. The following three lessons focus on strategies for collecting condition data, choosing meaningful metrics and weighing projects against institutional goals. The subsequent two lessons provide guidance for creating more flexible renewal plans and making principled divestments.

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Addressing Increasingly Complex Deferred Maintenance Decisions

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