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Business Technology

Help for High Maintenance

IHEs turn to software for campus planning and operations.
University Business, Mar 2006

College campuses are often a mix of architectural styles: ivy-covered brick buildings, modern constructions with interiors bathed in natural light, enormous outdoor multiuse facilities. Whatever its style, a building's design and upkeep requires resources of time and money.

Today's facilities directors can't maintain, renovate, or build their campuses anew without help from specialized software systems.

Three types of programs have become the mainstays for planning campuses and keeping them operational. Probably the most common is the computerized maintenance management system (CMMS), which is used to track building inspections and needed repairs. These programs also produce work orders for maintenance staffs and track the costs for the work.

The second type of program is a capital planning and asset management system (CPMS), a technology used to track "inventory." Databases hold detailed information about buildings, their square footage, and the ways the space is used. Such systems are necessary for capital planning, helping facilities directors make decisions about what buildings to renovate or replace at some future date. These applications assist with facility design and master planning, while also allowing users to compare costs and make spending forecasts.

The third type of program--a computer-aided facility management system--gives a visual picture of the buildings and the campus. 3-D models give a clear image of the buildings, their rooms, and the entire campus layout.

Computer systems for campus planning started emerging two decades ago, but many major innovations have been put in place during the past five years, says Charles R. Thomas, a senior and IT consultant for the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

Some systems have been designed to incorporate elements of all three types of systems, especially the graphic-modeling capabilities. Advanced features allow for a virtual building "walk-through," Thomas notes. "There are programs that allow you to create a 3-D model from a set of blueprints." With no more than a floor plan, facilities directors can virtually move through a cluster of rooms and move elements around.

While there may be a convergence in the types of systems, no one program can yet do it all, insists Frank Lucas, assistant director of work management, University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The programs that specialize in planning and budgeting tend to have very basic computer-assisted design capabilities. Conversely, those that do beautiful 3-D modeling are likely light on the capital planning and cost analysis applications.

Like many facilities planners, Lucas relies on a mix of software systems and vendors to get the entire job done. His CMMS, from vendor TMA Systems, tracks maintenance and repairs. "They are looking into adding a module that can do capital and condition assessment," he adds. For now, Lucas outsources this part of the maintenance work to an outside firm that produces reports. Eventually some of that data is input into the CMMS on campus.

The facilities staff at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, relies on "communication" between an in-house homegrown database and commercial software to plan its maintenance needs.

Recently, the university had to complete a state-ordered life-cycle analysis of all buildings. The university drew data from an in-house database written by a staffer and maintained by the department that linked with applications in VFA's commercial software product, says Jay Klingel, director of Business Management Services.

With the power of both technologies--the in-house program and the commercial product--the staff was able to deliver the data on all 532 buildings, showing a replacement value of $2.3 billion.

In completing their recent project, and in doing routine analysis, the planners at UVA looked for maintenance deficiencies on a building-by-building basis. They also looked at the inspection history of each building. When was the last time the roof was checked? What is the condition of the interior walls? These are the questions the project aimed to answer.

"We used this to create the facilities condition index (FCI), which gives a ratio of the deferred maintenance to the value of the asset," says Klingel. A building valued at $10 million that needs $1 million in repairs would have an FCI of 10 percent, he explains. All FCIs are compared so that the department can get a picture of the "low-hanging fruit" problems--the ones that should be handled immediately.

"In an ideal world, a facilities department would have all types of software," says Persis Rickes, president and principal of Rickes Associates, a higher education planning consultancy based in Boston. If such a marriage of software systems isn't possible, the next best thing is a system that can share data, adds Rickes, who is also former director of planning at the University of Connecticut. The last thing a facilities director wants is a system that creates "dueling databases," she cautions. Unfortunately, this happens all too often at a campus. A Facilities department may run a CMMS while a business office keeps track of capital planning with a different type of software.

"One of the things we frequently do is come in and match the data," she explains.

Historic tensions between the Facilities and Planning departments and the provost and Financial Affairs can hurt the bottom line in the long run, she cautions.

Consider a research university that receives federal grant money. "The feds reimburse some of the cost for managing and running the research space. An inaccurate accounting of the square footage can shortchange a university. I've worked with one campus that underreported square footage by 1 million square feet." That can add up to much unreimbursed funding.

Those shopping for maintenance systems are looking for new applications that make working easier.

The trend today is browser-based technology, allowing users to input information and track data from any computer. This can be especially important for facilities managers who may need to troubleshoot problems during off hours. Many CMMS systems for higher ed are accessible through an internet connection, but those shopping for software would want to make sure this is the case. Dashboards are also key. These are smaller windows that appear on a computer desktop and that feed a user bits of pertinent information, avoiding the need to hunt for data in a program. Through dashboards, data can be instantly turned into charts and graphs.

"Dashboards have been around for a few years, but they are becoming more flexible," says Lucas. When they were first introduced they could only provide limited data, such as a certain cost history, or workflow. Now users can create their own dashboard applications, selecting the type of data that will appear--an improvement that makes them more useful, he explains.

The next step is for CMMS and other systems to go wireless, he adds. "This way you can be at home or on vacation and access your system." There are some vendors that have developed software for hand-held devices; there are others who have this technology in the pipeline.

Some of the software programs can be had for as little as $1,000, while other systems can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. This software is often sold in modules, with the cost being several hundred per application. Some systems are sold "per seat," charging several hundred or several thousand dollars for each registered system user. Prices and policies vary. Ten years ago there were just a few programs on the market. Now there are one dozen or more used in higher education.

The emergence of these systems has helped facilities contribute more to the bottom line of the campus operation, says Lucas. "The end goal is to see maintenance as a business." Systems that help schedule repairs, analyze costs, and help plan for the future are now necessary for getting the job done right. He adds, "It is important that we be able to collect data reliably and accurately so that upper management can make proper decisions."

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