U’s buildings have lots of leaks and not enough cash

The University says its buildings will need $2.3 billion in repairs this decade.

A window in the seventh floor of the Civil Engineering building is boarded up to fight the lower portion of the building's water damage. The building faces constant maintenance issues related to the amount of water at its depth.

A window in the seventh floor of the Civil Engineering building is boarded up to fight the lower portion of the building’s water damage. The building faces constant maintenance issues related to the amount of water at its depth.

Conor Shine

Greg Williams is at war with water. And he is losing.
Over the years, it has eaten large holes in a steel rain roof that protects the underground laboratories in the University of MinnesotaâÄôs Civil Engineering Building, which Williams oversees as a district manager.
The rain roof has a total of 115 holes âÄî some stretching up to 3 feet âÄî that cause leaks and mold. Fixing all the holes would cost $6 million.
âÄúItâÄôs definitely in the works. It just needs to get funded,âÄù Williams said.
The Civil Engineering Building is one of 191 buildings scattered across the Twin Cities campus, many of which have their own maintenance issues.
The University has about $160 million in annual maintenance and renewal needs, but it currently only receives $90 million in funding.
Over the next 10 years, the University anticipates its infrastructure will need $2.3 billion for repairs âÄî about one-third of the total value of campus buildings.
The University has dealt with the funding gap in a variety of ways, including demolishing old buildings, finding new uses for aging ones and prioritizing maintenance projects. ItâÄôs also seeking $35 million from the Legislature in Higher Education Asset Preservation and Replacement funding to help tackle the backlog of projects.
But short of a cash windfall from the state or private fundraising, the UniversityâÄôs building maintenance is likely to continue operating at a deficit.
In the interim, building managers like Williams work to apply âÄúBand-AidâÄù fixes to keep buildings operating.
In the Civil Engineering Building, that means putting metal trays over the holes to collect water.
âÄúWater is insidious,âÄù Williams said. âÄú[It] wants to dissolve this thing like a tablet of Aspirin. Just wash it away.âÄù
Faculty and students have been shuffled around the building while maintenance workers battle mold and new leaks, impeding their work and research.
âÄúOne student had a notepad laying on a desk and the water dripped on it for a week,âÄù Williams said. âÄúWhen he came back there was a hole in it.âÄù
Buildings âÄòlimp alongâÄô
On a campus spanning nearly 24 million square feet where the average building is 54 years old, thereâÄôs a steady stream of maintenance issues.
On any given day, Williams said his crews are repairing doors, fixing handicap buttons, replacing lights and monitoring building systems.
As buildings age, roofs eventually must be replaced, bricks relaid and the heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems updated, said Mike Berthelsen, associate vice president for Facilities Management. The University monitors the condition of its buildings using a facilities index, which measures the value of buildings against their ongoing maintenance needs and guides where repair dollars are best used.
Excluding the 31 buildings that were built or renovated in the last decade, which have minimal maintenance needs, repairs will cost $2.1 billion over 10 years âÄìâÄì nearly half of the buildingsâÄô replacement value.
Leaky roofs and other major problems are prioritized highly and generally receive funding quickly, Berthelsen said.
âÄúIf thereâÄôs water infiltration âĦ and we donâÄôt address it, then it could exasperate mold issues or damage the building interior,âÄù he said. âÄúThen youâÄôre not just fixing the leak. Now youâÄôre replacing carpet and replacing sheet rock.âÄù
A tight budget means other, less pressing projects, like painting classrooms, replacing carpets or installing new windows are delayed, and buildings âÄúlimp along,âÄù Berthelsen said.
âÄúWe need to make sure itâÄôs safe and functional, but if the windows are leaking, itâÄôs not stopping us from doing what we need,âÄù he said.
One example of a delayed project is at the 76-year-old Nolte Center, which doesnâÄôt have an integrated fire alarm system.
âÄúIf thereâÄôs a fire in that building, the only way we know is if we walk over to it and see smoke coming out the window,âÄù Williams said.
The building, with a replacement cost valued at about $7 million, will require approximately $9 million in repairs and maintenance over the next 10 years. But fixing the fire system would force the University to address a host of other repairs in the building.
âÄúThe problem is you go to put in a fire system and now you have to bring it up to code with a sprinkler system,âÄù he said. âÄúAt the same time youâÄôre replumbing for the sprinkler system, you might as well update the plumbing and work on the supply fans.âÄù
Funding also lags for the more than 300 general-use classrooms, which get about 40 percent of the $7 million needed to regularly renew building furnishings and repair projection and audio systems.
âÄúAs our funding is cut, it doesnâÄôt allow us to maintain [classrooms] as frequently,âÄù Classroom Support Manager Toni Pangborn said. âÄúIt ends up degrading the quality âĦ of the teaching environment.âÄù
A deteriorating infrastructure can affect campus life and hurt schools as they compete to attract top students and faculty, said Harvey Kaiser, a higher education consultant and former building officer at Syracuse University.
System failures can threaten research or displace classes, and peeling paint, windows that donâÄôt close and broken doors all affect a campusâÄô image, he said.
âÄúIf nobody cares about what the place looks like, this whole business of teaching and learning appears secondary,âÄù he said.
Demolish, renovate, build
With increased funding, Facilities Management could take a broader approach to maintaining the campus, Berthelsen said.
âÄúWe might be able to get to that carpet a little faster. We might be able to update or redo something a little faster,âÄù he said. âÄúWe would be able to be more general about updating all single-pane windows, where as now weâÄôre targeting which ones are most important based on âĦ how bad they are.âÄù
Outside of prioritizing projects, the University has undertaken an aggressive campaign of demolishing and decommissioning buildings whose maintenance needs outstrip their value. Wesbrook Hall, one of the 20 worst buildings according to the facilities index, is slated to be demolished this summer, along with the Veterinary Anatomy Building on the St. Paul Campus.
The University has also invested heavily in major renovation and renewal projects in buildings. A $35 million renovation of the 104-year-old Folwell Hall and an $80 million renovation of Northrop Auditorium, both financed in part by state HEAPR dollars, are currently underway.
Since 2001, the University has done extensive renovations on 16 buildings, eight of which were built before 1950, including Nicholson Hall, Jones Hall and Walter Library. Over that same time period, 15 new buildings have been built on campus.
A new $77 million physics and nanotechnology building is in the works, and if funded by the state, the new building would allow the University to âÄúrepurposeâÄù the current physics building for classrooms and offices, lowering maintenance costs.
Berthelsen said new buildings are the best option in some situations, but his office focuses on extending the buildingsâÄô life-spans for as long as possible through maintenance and prioritized repairs.
âÄúWe want to use as few buildings as possible to make sure weâÄôre spending money on things like teaching,âÄù he said. âÄúWe need enough facilities to do our mission, but letâÄôs not overdo it.âÄù
Funding the need
Universities across the country struggle with similar gaps in maintenance funding, with an estimated $40 billion in deferred maintenance across campuses nationwide, according to Lander Medlin, executive vice president of APPA, a higher education building professionals association.
âÄúItâÄôs not a blame on these institutions,âÄù Medlin said. âÄúThey all have a certain amount of revenue and theyâÄôre all trying to balance those needs.âÄù
Deferred maintenance accounts for only part of the UniversityâÄôs $2.3 billion estimate for future repairs.
About a third of the schoolâÄôs maintenance budget comes from HEAPR funds with the rest from general state appropriations, tuition, debt, fundraising and revenue generated by building operations.
Kaiser said raising money from private donors can be difficult for typical repair and renewal projects.
âÄúYouâÄôll get somebody to stand around a buildingâÄôs ribbon cutting,âÄù he said. âÄúBut not for repairing a toilet thatâÄôs broken.âÄù
Kaiser said schools can package general repairs in larger capital projects that include full-scale renovations or new buildings to help attract donors.
Other states have passed multi-billion dollar referendums to wipe out maintenance backlogs on campuses and some universities, like the University of Michigan, have turned to student fees to help close the gap, Kaiser said.
Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed a $1 billion bonding bill this year that would allocate $100 million to the University. The bill would provide funding for the physics and nanotechnology building, as well as $35 million in HEAPR funds.
Those funds would be put toward repairing leaky roofs and updating elevator systems across campus.
The Legislature doesnâÄôt usually pass bonding bills in odd years, and the state faces a $5 billion budget deficit. ItâÄôs unclear whether this year will be an exception.
Sen. Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, said now is an ideal time to get caught up on HEAPR, especially because the repair and renewal work would generate jobs.
Pappas said it will take several funding cycles to make progress on the UniversityâÄôs maintenance backlog, and the state must balance its funding between new buildings and repairs.
âÄúIf we donâÄôt do a HEAPR bill this year and then we donâÄôt do much next year,âÄù she said, âÄúeventually we will be too far behind.âÄù