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The Digital Age

Building Conservation Associates has developed a software maintenance program designed specifically for historic buildings.

By Raymond M. Pepi

Since its founding in 1985, Building Conservation Associates, Inc. (BCA), has been involved in the conservation or restoration of hundreds of buildings. We have noticed that only a handful have had the benefit of a maintenance plan and we have been trying to remedy this situation, especially for large and fragile buildings. Once you understand the mechanics of deterioration it seems obvious that the final step of any construction or restoration project should be a program of maintenance to prolong the service life of the investment, but even long-term monetary self-interest may not motivate owners. Constant incremental fixes to building systems are simply a burden and not very exciting except to engineers, who see it as an interesting systems puzzle, which it is.

Our experience is that corporations are most receptive to maintenance because buildings are assets and thus a critical part of any business strategy. Government agencies seem to have a harder time allocating resources for regular maintenance and tend to favor capital projects that will hopefully last a long time. This is a public policy problem of immense proportions since deterioration and breakdown begins as soon as restoration work is completed and thus affects thousands of publicly owned buildings.

The connection between maintenance, conservation and sustainability is an interesting one. Maintenance can be defined as a form of cyclical conservation. If maintenance or conservation indefinitely defers material replacement, it is playing a critical role in sustainability. It is no accident that the father of historic preservation education in America, James Marston Fitch, was a pioneer of environmental design in the 1950s.

The concept of routine maintenance seems to be more ingrained in the boating industry, where a broken fitting might be life threatening. But equally important is the fact that sailors can usually see or hear a problem before systemic failure occurs, plus there is a nautical tradition that doesn't exist in the building industry. It is phenomenal that yacht owners rinse down their boats after every outing to remove the salt accumulation. I don't recall scraping off the efflorescence on my brickwork the last time I left my house.

Compared to boats, buildings may be more fault-tolerant, but structural failure is the ultimate consequence of serial neglect. Do we need to wait for the water to be rushing in before attending to that balky flashing? It would help if you knew there was flashing, what it was made of, how it was installed, who installed it, its condition, service life and signs of decay. Multiply this by the tens or hundreds of systems found in the average building and you will understand the dilemma. Obviously millions of dollars are spent annually on maintenance, so what is the appropriate balance between obsessive upkeep and total neglect? How do you assess the situation and formulate a plan? What is needed is an easy way to manage the flow of information.

For landmark buildings, maintenance is not a simple policy choice because an owner's responsibility is to preserve the cultural resource, not just renew it. One agency in particular, Metro-North Railroad, the steward of New York City's Grand Central Terminal (GCT), is an exception to the rule. It exemplifies how a government agency can and should maintain its historic building.

In 2004, BCA was awarded the contract to carry out an inspection of the landmark areas of GCT to fulfill Metro North Railroad's "Continuing Maintenance Agreement." As a condition of the sale of its air rights, the owners of GCT, Metro-North Railroad, signed a Continuing Maintenance Agreement with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. They agreed to establish a maintenance plan, and also to hire a consultant to inspect the condition of elements in the designated landmark spaces, determine their soundness, evaluate building systems serving the landmark spaces, and make recommendations for necessary repair work. The inspections are to be performed every five years with the first inspection to be the base line. The inspections and reports are to establish that the landmark building is receiving responsible stewardship.

The opportunity presented itself quite clearly: Why not create an electronic tool to record conditions and link each condition to a maintenance task? The benefit of creating software to record this information would result in a practical tool for Metro-North and fulfill the owner's agreement with the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission at the same time.

Metro-North liked the concept, setting into motion an idea I have had in mind for years. In talking to Metro-North about the report, we felt they would get more out of it if the information was turned into an electronic maintenance manual, instead of just a hard-bound report that would sit on a shelf somewhere. Residing on a central server, it would be accessible to Metro-North employees with access to a computer, namely the managers and the people doing the maintenance work.

BCA created the software program for Metro-North Railroad in 2005 for use on the landmark areas of Grand Central Terminal. The program has since been rewritten for the maintenance of any building. It was designed by conservators specifically for the management and care of historic buildings.

Ease of use was the paramount design criteria. Functionality assumes there will be multiple users who need to simultaneously view information and managers who need to update or change information. The program can run on a single computer or on a central server accessed by multiple clients. It can be used by a single person or by a large staff. It is also scalable to multi-building complexes. The design incorporates the use of filters so that you only see what you are interested in. There is usually little need for an electrician to see hundreds of non-electrical tasks handled by other departments. This saves time and increases functionality.

The software's architecture was invented by BCA and reflects BCA's knowledge and experience working on historic buildings and understanding how they deteriorate. The actual data that went into the program came from documentation that BCA collected during its own survey and partly from existing documentation including: drawings for a 1990 restoration campaign of the copper cheneau and upper roof; a maintenance manual produced by Beyer Blinder Belle after the 1997-1999 award-winning interior restoration; BCA's 2002 exterior conditions survey report; and Altieri Sebor Wieber's mechanical, electrical and plumbing report. BCA chose Filemaker as the software platform because it could be programmed with a calendar.

Not every building is as large as Grand Central but the maintenance issues are virtually the same – it is simply a question of scale. The issues at Grand Central Terminal may be exaggerated compared to the needs of other buildings, but the advantages of using an automated scheduling program should be readily apparent. In the case of GCT, there are 1,400 objects (features) and 200 routine tasks to keep track of every day, month and year. Keeping track of hundreds of tasks and objects on a daily basis using pencil and paper is impractical because tasks inevitably slip and resetting the calendar for all the tasks is labor intensive. This is the principle reason paper-based maintenance manuals often go unused.

Faced with a traditional paper manual, it is frankly easier, although not always better, to rely on a knowledgeable facility staff to set their own agenda. There are problems with this approach, not the least of which is that managers, the ones responsible for securing resources, are often in the dark about what is really needed regarding the status of building conditions.

Staff turnover, planning and budgeting demands suggest that an automated tracking system would be beneficial to any institution, large or small. Most important, even a competent facility staff cannot provide managers with all the data (proof) necessary to compete (with other departments) for future resources. The biggest concerns heard again and again from managers are: (1) We don't even know what we have, (2) What are the appropriate treatments that will preserve the historic materials? (3) How do we keep track of what is wrong and what has been done? (4) Who should do the work – in-house staff or contractors – and how long will it take? (5) How do we prioritize the work? This is not a trivial problem and consequently the answer is that often there is no system aside from crisis management.

BCA drew on its own extensive experience when creating the software for GCT. We have had a lot of experience creating our own company-wide database program during the last few years. This led us to conclude that the key to designing a facility program is to assure that information can be located with, at most, two or three mouse clicks.

The program that BCA created is called "Fast-Track." It is organized in five major modules: Start (a search engine), Timeline (calendar), Tasks, Objects and Summary (reports). It is possible to jump to any module at any time so you never get lost. You can always start over. As tasks are entered into the database you can assign a priority. Let's face it – keeping air conditioning filters clean is more important than dusting the chair rails.

The program that has evolved is a powerful tool, but some may wonder how to organize and input all of the information into the software. There are two ways. The first is to enter the information manually from within the program. This is a simple, albeit mundane, process of creating an object and assigning it to a task that has already been created. (See the screen shots and captions for a sense of how this is done.)

The data can also be automatically downloaded from a spreadsheet like Excel. Of course, the spreadsheet records and fields need to be organized appropriately, but this approach has been found to be the most efficient. In any case, someone must still collect the information and make decisions about treatments, durations, etc. A high level of expertise is needed or the data will be useless. Most importantly, the expert must work closely with the facility staff and management to ensure that resource allocations are actually available. If photographs are needed, they can be imported and assigned to each object. Once this is done and entered into the program, you have a powerful tool to manage your building needs.

Reports can also be printed according to different needs. Managers usually print out reports and use them for organizing tasks. You can print a list of objects, tasks, and a calendar by location, material, object, task, etc. Once the tasks are completed, the software is updated to show what has been done and when it was done. Color coding shows the status of tasks and alarms can be used as reminders. Blue indicates that a task has been completed, while red shows that it is past due. The software also allows you to plan for capital projects, so you can justify adding staff for maintenance. It includes a history of tasks for reference.

Knowing what has happened to your building at what time is a tremendous asset. Quite often we will go into a building and ask when was the last time it was pointed, and no one knows. This software creates a permanent record of what has been done to the building, and when. With a paper-based manual, it is almost impossible to schedule tasks and to keep up with what has been done to the building.

The BCA building-maintenance software is designed specifically for historic buildings, but is not limited to historic buildings. The needs of each client are different, but we are pretty confident that the same types of problems recur in all buildings. The size of the database will vary, but certain factors are constant. In masonry buildings, for example, you will have the same recurrent problems – the need for re-pointing, for flashing, for inspecting roof drains and for routine maintenance that's common to all masonry. The same could be said for interiors as well.

Should a building manager invest in this or similar technology? You might begin to answer that question by thinking about how your building will fit into a future where buildings readily take advantage of automation and feedback systems. For new construction, architects are already using automation to control how a building reacts to its environment.

In the restoration field, the emphasis has been on traditional building methods and technology. This makes perfect sense most of the time, but now we believe it is time to match building metrics with automated systems for maintaining our historic buildings. The next step is keeping track of what is happening to our historic buildings in real time to best preserve their traditional attributes. This is the first step towards building automation and the future.  



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