Maintenance worker José Rodriguez paints a wall. 1994, St. Joseph’s Hospital (Paterson, N.J.) Source: Library of Congress, American Folklife Center. This photo is in the public domain.

What’s new?

The New York Times, as well as other sources, reported that maintenance and repairs had been neglected for many years in the Champlain Towers South condo building in Florida that collapsed with significant loss of life on 24 June. The Times quotes an undated letter from the board to residents before the collapse: “For the last few years, your board has recognized that our building has been neglected, repairs have been repeatedly postponed or simply patched up, and our property values have remained sadly below what they should be.” Much more information will be and should be explored to determine definitively the causes of the collapse.

What does it mean?

I recall many years ago that a friend who was considering buying a house for the first time asked how to buy one that would need little maintenance. I laughed and said it was impossible. I have always tried to do the right thing by the three houses I have owned. In my first house, I chose to make an expensive long-lasting repair to a creek wall near the house, rather than a quick fix, knowing that I was unlikely to benefit from the long-term ownership of that house nor from a corresponding increase in the value of the house. I took similar action regarding repair of the outside deck in my second house, and last summer we had a metal roof put on our 20-year-old house, a roof that will surely outlive us.

For engineers, the field of engineering economy deals with the economics of long-lived assets. The ABET criteria for accreditation of an undergraduate program in engineering include as a required student outcome “an ability to apply engineering design to produce solutions that meet specified needs with consideration of public health, safety, and welfare, as well as global, cultural, social, environmental, and economic factors.”

The total cost of ownership of ownership is a concept that should be familiar to every business. The initial cost of equipment is only a fraction of the total cost of ownership. For example, this brochure from the South Dakota Cooperative Extension Service advises that for high cost agricultural machines, “25% of the purchase price will approximate annual total cost” to operate and maintain the equipment.

Every long-lived piece of property should be acquired only with the financial commitment to its safe operation and maintenance over the planned lifetime. Any other approach risks lives and the financial sustainability of the organization.

A discussion on reddit pointed me to an article on Slate that puts the Florida collapse in the context of the growth of condominiums in the 1970s and the inability of homeowner associations to handle the maintenance costs with fees set too low by developers who cared more about profitable sales than about long-term sustainability. The author draws the analogy with municipal governments that have survived on low taxes by deferring maintenance and failing to plan for replacement:

Strong Towns founder Charles Marohn has written persuasively about this phenomenon in the suburbs, whose low-tax model only works until the end of the infrastructure life cycle, at which point sprawl becomes very expensive to maintain. In the king-size homeowners association known as California, it’s become common for even the richest jurisdictions to be unable to afford basic repairs to roads and bridges that are reaching the end of their useful life.

The reddit discussion includes several laments about the neglect of maintenance in various industries, including water systems, software, and manufacturing. The overall message is that too many people emphasize the short term over the long term. One comment points to The Long Now Foundation, founded, it almost hardly needs saying, by Stewart Brand, which “hopes to provide a counterpoint to today’s accelerating culture and help make long-term thinking more common.”

What does it mean for you?

I have twice used the word sustainability in this article. The Florida collapse has highlighted our poor infrastructure at a time when debate is underway for funding improvements. Recent events have highlighted many societal practices that are simply unsustainable: buildings collapse and so do people. How can you ensure that your organization is sustainable in all of its practices?

At a minimum, you should reexamine the maintenance practices of your organization. Do you know the maintenance schedules and actual practices of your organization? Are you using up resources and people without adequate planning for sustainability?

I have always liked the word “custodian” meaning someone who has the responsibility for looking after something. You and I are custodians of the resources we currently own or manage. We should strive to leave those resources in at least as good a state as they were when we acquired them.

Where can I learn more?

An Internet search on total cost of ownership or life cycle analysis will turn up many useful pages, and many companies willing to help you perform these analyses well. Total preventive maintenance is another useful subject for search.

The ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) Report Card for America’s Infrastructure is an excellent source of information on the status of the country’s public infrastructure.

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