Aging Gracefully: The Real Cost of Deferred Maintenance

Aging Gracefully: The Real Cost of Deferred Maintenance

The University of Wisconsin–Madison’s sprawling new $120.5 million microbiology building features highly sophisticated classrooms, a "discovery center" for hands-on inter-generational learning, and high-tech instructional and research laboratories programmed for translational research. Like many campuses across the nation, UW-Madison is heeding the call for bigger, better buildings with next-generation technology. But it is also tackling the equally important—yet less exciting— task of tending to deteriorating facilities on its 150-year old campus.

"The aging and deterioration of college facilities is a permanent, on-going problem. Solving it is essential for effective teaching, research and public service. Facility reinvestment has not kept up with the campus’ needs," says Rod Rose in the Association of Physical Plant Administrators publication Charting a New Course for Campus Renewal. The remedy can become a massive undertaking, given that more than half of college buildings were constructed during the national enrollment surge of the 1960s and 1970s, according to the report.


Footing the Bill

The University of Nebraska in Lincoln felt the pinch of deferred maintenance in the late 1990s. Over the years, tight budgets and competing priorities kept necessary repairs on the back burner. The result? Some buildings were in such disrepair, they were in danger of being closed.1

To address the issue, the university began an aggressive push to complete the highest-priority projects quickly and secured a steady increase in budgets to handle projects on ongoing basis. Nebraska’s case is typical. To finance updates to aging facilities, it usually takes a combination of private donations, state grants, bonds and student fees. However, strategies need to match the institution.

The University of Mississippi in Oxford has been successful appealing to wealthy alumni, and UC-Berkeley created a way to commit out-of-state tuition fees toward deferred maintenance.2 The University of Delaware has nearly completed its backlog of deferred maintenance problems by reallocating resources, redirecting year-end surpluses, and relying on private gifts.3

The exterior façade of the addition to the mechanical engineering building at the University of Wisconsin-Madison closely resembles the old part of the building, utilizing hand-tooled stone veneer and cast stone features, such as those pictured here.

Bring Buildings Up to Speed

Of the 250 major instructional and research facilities at UW-Madison, more than 50 percent are older than 35 years. Considering the size of the campus and more than $300 million documented deferred maintenance, it’s a continuous challenge to keep up with the demands. From a maintenance standpoint, the challenges are clear, says John Harrod, Jr., Director of Physical Plant at UWMadison.

"We must modernize older facilities, including historic structures, to meet current standards and programming needs. Mechanical systems are wearing out and buildings need major updates and repairs." John manages a department of 800, and oversees maintenance and construction of small-scale remodeling projects in all academic and research buildings.

Electrical, mechanical, and plumbing upgrades are needed to boost performance, and meet code compliance, safety standards and energy efficiency goals. In addition, project designs must retain the architectural and historic integrity of older space while keeping a sharp eye on costs.

Rehab of older facilities calls for creative engineering, such as adapting modern ductwork to incompatible floor to- ceiling heights. Integrating high-tech tools—including wireless networks, sound systems, video technology and interactive whiteboards—can also be a challenge.

Creative Maintenance Solutions

As budgets tighten, a proactive approach to maintenance is more important than ever. "The cost is significantly more for emergency repair than regular maintenance. When systems fail, the goal is often to get them up and running at any cost," says John. "A stoppage may affect an area with lab animals or research that has been going on for years." Without a quick remedy, progress and data from hundreds of hours of experiments and study could be lost. To establish a more proactive approach and to reverse the facilities deterioration trends, in 1991 the department began a systematic reconditioning project called CURB (Concentrated Upgrade and Repair Buildings).

"We began with the building that had generated the most trouble calls and targeted it systematically," says John. "We brought a group of staff together—carpenters, plumbers, electricians, maintenance mechanics—to identify all building problems so we could fix them, one room at a time, one floor at a time. It took more than 18 months, but resulted in a trouble-free facility."

While building occupants initially were less than excited about the presence of regular work crews, they soon embraced the project and its benefits. "After a while, other departments and deans began calling to find out when their buildings could be put on the list," says John.

To date, 20 of the campuses 240 major buildings have undergone comprehensive reconditioning at a cost of $13 million or about $4 per square foot. Once buildings are reconditioned, they are put on an aggressive maintenance plan to keep new problems from developing.

A Capital Idea

To address the capital needs of aging facilities, universities need to weigh the benefits of restoration versus replacement. Either option can come with a hefty price tag. The University of Texas at Houston plans to raze five older buildings and construct a $250 million research and treatment center on the site. Teardown costs will total $6 million.4

UW-Madison opted to blend new construction with a refurbishment of its 1930s era Mechanical Engineering Building— an endeavor that cost $33 million. The original facility had been constructed around a machine shop called "the Sawtooth." To create a modern facility within the old building, the Sawtooth structure was demolished and replaced with a new, four-story addition for academic and research programs, as well as a fifth floor to house the mechanical systems and a basement containing heavy-duty laboratories.

A multi-media lecture hall capable of originating and receiving satellite video transmissions was also constructed. The original structure received a host of retrofits, including updates to electrical and data infrastructure, a new HVAC system and installation of new elevators. The building’s historic limestone facade was retained.

Keeping the original appearance of older buildings not only safeguards the historical landscape of a campus, it also preserves fond memories, John notes. Alumni often have emotional ties to the campus and want it to look like it did when they attended college.

Being Present for the Future

While facility managers who care for older campuses routinely encounter funding and logistical roadblocks, their work is essential to the future of higher education.


  • American School and University Web site:; "Maintenance Deferred," by Mike Kennedy, Dec. 2000
  • College Planning & Management Web site:; "Deferred Maintenance Strategies You Must Try," by Julie Sturgeon, July 2000
  • University of Delaware online newsletter, "Special Delivery,"
  • Businessweek, July 23, 2007

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