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Procurement Perspectives: The lifespan of a facility can be maintained indefinitely

Stephen Bauld
Procurement Perspectives: The lifespan of a facility can be maintained indefinitely

Governments in Canada collectively own hundreds of thousands of buildings and other structural infrastructure.

These facilities should constitute a portfolio of significant durable public assets. They constitute a multibillion-dollar investment of public funds, which are held and administered by the government on any given day in trust for future taxpayers.

At the municipal level, it is an obvious obligation of council to take reasonable steps to ensure these resources are properly sustained.

Inevitably, over time the performance of facilities declines due to aging and wear and tear of components and systems, functional changes and a variety of other factors.

However, with modern construction and building repair methods, the lifespan of a facility can be maintained indefinitely. Doing so, however, requires thorough and ongoing maintenance and repairs.

With proper maintenance, many of these facilities would last for centuries.

The necessary level of maintenance and repairs expenditure for an individual facility requires a consideration of many factors, such as building size and complexity; types of finishes; current age and condition; mechanical and electrical system technologies; historic or community value; types of occupants or users; climate; tenancy turnover rates; criticality of role or function; labour, energy and material prices; and distances between buildings in inventories.

An effective program for facilities maintenance and repair employs a combination of strategies and approaches.

These include preventive maintenance, programmed major maintenance, predictive testing and inspection, routine repairs, service calls and run-to-failure.

Unfortunately, while proper maintenance can extend the life of a facility, delaying or deferring maintenance and repairs can diminish the quality of the building as a workplace environment.

Over the longer term, it can lead to reduced building life expectancy and eventual building failure.

Even when buildings can be saved, deferring maintenance generally results in significantly higher rehabilitation costs when work is eventually carried out.

For example, steel cladding that is not painted at scheduled intervals (at a relatively minor cost) will eventually rust and deteriorate, perhaps necessitating complete replacement, at many times the cost of having painted it on schedule.

In addition, deferred maintenance can give rise to health and safety concerns, for the staff who must work on the decaying facilities — not to mention the public, who must on occasion visit them.

Working for extended periods in such conditions is also likely to damage the morale of staff, which in turn often results in increased absenteeism and adversely affects their ability to work efficiently.

The problem with deferred maintenance has become critical because so many governments have adopted policies of reducing annual maintenance (and mid-life upgrade) expenditure, as a way of reducing budget increases.

The reason for this approach is well articulated in a remarkable frank statement issued by the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

“Maintenance competes for funding with other government programs and is often deferred because appropriations are not available or were redirected to other priorities or projects. Deferred maintenance is often not immediately reported — and sometimes, not at all.”

The rational for such neglect is not difficult to find.

In the words of the American magazine, Governing:

“Roads, bridges and buildings construction are one field of government in which states don’t get a whole lot of attention unless they’ve done something wrong. When was the last time you heard a governor praised because his state finished a prison-building project on time? Or heard the director of DOA lauded for properly maintaining a bridge?”

On the other hand, as the same magazine cautions: “If the prison is delayed and the result is overcrowding, headlines follow. And if a bridge collapses, that, too, will make quite a splash, in the newspapers and otherwise.”

For decades encomiasts have struggled to convince governments that deficit spending is simply a form of deferred taxation. The same is true for deferred maintenance.

Stephen Bauld is a government procurement expert and can be reached at Some of his columns may contain excerpts from The Municipal Procurement Handbook published by Butterworths.

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