Sustainable Renewal Planning Inc.

Committing to the Cost of Ownership:


Maintenance and Repair of Public Buildings

Building Research Board - National Research Council


The nation's public buildings--government administration buildings, health care facilities, schools, correctional facilities, and a variety of other elements of public infrastructure--are critical to the nation's high quality of life and productive environment.  These facilities are public assets that have been acquired through the investment of public tax dollars over the years.  Public officials are the stewards of these assets, and their decisions about how these facilities are used, operated, maintained, retired, or replaced can have far-reaching consequences for the public.


These public assets are substantial.  Department of Defense buildings alone are estimated to be worth more than $500 billion.  Replacement cost of the nation's 88,021 public school buildings might exceed $422 billion.  It would cost more than $300 billion to replace the physical structure of America's institutions of higher learning (public and private).  State and local government building replacement value is estimated to be $400 billion.


In addition, water supply, waste disposal, transportation, and other physical infrastructure systems, an investment worth many billions of dollars, are beyond the scope of this report but play a similarly critical national role.


It is unfortunate but inevitable that the construction of new facilities attracts far greater attention than the maintenance and repair of existing ones.  While facilities are designed to provide service over long periods of time, the substantial costs of construction are addressed all at once in public debate and management decision.  In contrast, the yearly costs of maintenance seem small, although over the course of a facility's service life they generally total much more than the initial costs of construction.  The commissioning and occupancy of a new facility are a newsworthy event that attracts public attention, but the ongoing work of maintenance and repair receives little notice except when failures occur that affect the ability of a facility's users to perform their work.


At local levels particularly, few government entities recognize their buildings as more than a “trapping incidental to the provision of public services, to be maintained at the lowest possible cost” (ICMA, 1989).  This view pervades all levels of government.


Public agency managers and elected officials, faced with the constant challenge of balancing competing public priorities and limited fiscal resources, often find it easy to neglect the maintenance and repair of public buildings, and not only because new construction or other activities have greater public interest.  The cumulative effects of wear on a facility are slow to become apparent and only infrequently disrupt a facility's users.  Managers of facilities seldom have adequate information to predict when problems will occur if maintenance efforts are deferred.  These managers are often poorly equipped to argue persuasively the need for steady continuing commitment to maintenance.  Underfunding of maintenance and repair is such a prevalent practice in the public sector that it has become in many agencies a de facto policy that each year compounds the problem as the backlog of deficiencies grows.


Neglect of maintenance can nevertheless affect public health and safety, reduce productivity of public employees, and cause long-term financial losses as buildings wear out prematurely and must be replaced.  Decisions to neglect maintenance, whether made intentionally or through ignorance, violate the public trust and constitute a mismanagement of public funds.  In those cases where political expediency motivates the decision, it is not too harsh to term neglect of maintenance a form of embezzlement of public funds, a wasting of the nation's assets.


The purpose of this report is to provide public decision makers and facility managers guidance that may help to overcome this persistent problem of underfunding of maintenance and repair.  The central principle of this guidance is full recognition and firm commitment to the cost of ownership of public facilities, the stream of costs incurred by the decision to acquire a new facility.  In the absence of an adequate statistical basis for recommendations, the authors of this report have applied their extensive experience and judgment to propose a benchmark for budgeting for the maintenance and repair component of this cost of ownership.  Adequate funding is not the only element of effective maintenance and repair, but it is so critical that no maintenance and repair program can be successful for long without it.

Committee on Advanced Maintenance Concepts for Buildings.  Commission on Engineering and Technical Systems.  National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. 1990 


25 years ago, a blue-ribbon public sector committee said,


"Decisions to neglect maintenance, whether made intentionally or through ignorance, violate the public trust and constitute a mismanagement of public funds.  In those cases where political expediency motivates the decision, it is not too harsh to term neglect of maintenance a form of embezzlement of public funds, a wasting of the nation's assets."

The question today is, how much have public sector policies and practices changed since 1990?