Facilities management: No longer an expense

Web-based approach lets agencies make informed decisions

It's not easy managing the National Institutes of Health's 9 million square feet of space. Just ask Ed Bain.

"What we had before was kind of a hit-and-miss process," said Bain, chief of resource management at NIH's public works branch in the engineering services division, referring to how officials kept up with their facilities management.

Sometimes building or design engineers working in a facility would spot problems and alert the public works branch, he said, but there was no proactive approach. The branch kept paper files, and the only software program it used was a work order request system. Yet Bain said little solid reasoning was behind such requests.

"There might be a guess on somebody's part that it was going to cost X amount of dollars," he said. But "guesstimates were always way off; they were either way too high or way too low. It really didn't make any sense considering how many square feet we had and how many facilities we were trying to manage."

But the Bethesda, Md.-based agency, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, recently announced a deal with Boston-based VFA, which provides facilities management services, including detailed assessments integrated with Web technology.

During the next two years, comprehensive inspections and audits of NIH's 80-plus buildings — which include laboratories, hospitals and administration facilities — will help the agency not only develop a centralized electronic database, but also provide the needed justification for emergency or preventive maintenance funds.

"We're hoping that this process we're evolving into will not only provide us better justification to get more money to keep our facilities in better condition, but it will also allow us to really focus into the right location," he said, adding that NIH has an additional 1.5 million square feet in other parts of the country.

It's also important because the medical and health agency's facilities must always be operational to run and store valuable research experiments and materials. Bain said building systems, such as air conditioning, are "virtually running nonstop" with higher demands for emergency power.

Although it has been around for a decade, facilities management — a practice many agencies used to relegate as an expense — is being adopted more and more as a strategy to maintain buildings in a cost-effective, efficient and safe manner, said Peter Cholakis, vice president of marketing for VFA.

Higher education institutions are known for proactively managing their portfolio of facilities, but the federal government is catching on, he said, adding that the General Services Administration and the Federal Emergency Management Agency also are clients. VFA's other clients include school districts, state and local agencies, health care groups and private corporations.

Agency officials are recognizing the link between facilities and their impact on services, Cholakis said. Armed with better information, agencies can make informed decisions on a real-time basis, create "defensible" rather than "political" budgets, and get a better return on investment, he said.

At the federal level, Bain said the Bush administration is pushing agencies to justify their budgets to the Office of Management and Budget. "If you ask for something, then you need documentation to back it up," he said, and answer such questions as "Why is this justified? Why should we spend money on this?"

That's good news for VFA's products and services.

"As a company, we're growing — despite the economy — somewhere between 20 and 25 percent this year, which is for any software company great news," he said.

VFA uses a Web process called Capital Planning and Management Solutions (CPMS), which it developed in 1998. That enterprise approach calls for developing a building portfolio, categorizing existing physical and functional conditions, creating benchmarks, prioritizing investments and implementing a rational funding process, among other things. The information is stored in an electronic repository that includes photographs and analytical tools for forecasting.

Through a standard Web browser, an organization can access a VFA-hosted site that lists its physical asset database, including deficiencies, and create multiyear budgets. Most clients choose the application service provider model that the company offers.

"So from a total-cost-of-ownership aspect, it's really less expensive to go that route," Cholakis said, adding that users go through multiple levels of password protection. "No. 2, the appropriate availability of information and the associated uptime is key to these agencies."

"We can get VFA information from anywhere in the world over the Web," said Lt. Col. Thom Kurmel of the Army Health Facility Planning Agency, a VFA client for the past five years.

He said the Army has about 35 hospitals, 225 health and data clinics and 67 veterinary clinics making up an $8 billion inventory throughout the world. Because his organization's mission keeps changing, officials are constantly planning, designing, sustaining, fixing, repairing or developing facilities. VFA, he said, brought a consistent scientific approach to examining the Army's health facility inventory.

"We're moving from the boiler room to the board room," Kurmel said, referring to the approach.

Gayland Osteen, building operations manager at the General Services Department for Fulton County, Ga., said his county used to manage its 500 buildings and 5 million square feet "pretty much by the seat of the pants" when identifying and fixing problems. "It wasn't organized or prioritized," he said.

Through VFA's Web-based system, he said the county now amasses information on a consistent, objective and equitable basis and therefore recognizes or fixes problems before they occur. The database contains an updated history of a facility, including repairs and improvements, providing a defensible budget, he said.

However, states and municipalities aren't as far along as the federal government in using facilities management mainly because of a lack of experience and knowledge of the practice, Cholakis said. That situation likely won't get better because of revenue shortfalls many such governments currently face, he said.

But officials at federal agencies, such as NIH, GSA and FEMA, realize that a proactive plan helps them keep in line with governmental accounting standards. Web technology just makes that easier. Accessing information via the Web will make it easier for NIH to provide up-to-date information to federal budget authorities, Bain said.

"One thing they always ask us for is, 'Give me an update on your backlog of maintenance repairs.' So we plan on [telling whomever] it is at OMB, 'Here's how you go in and look for that,' " he said. "Our goal is once we have the data in there and they make that request, we can just say, 'Go to this site, you can look [at] it on your computer screen by doing this, or if you want to report, do this.' "

Cholakis said standardizing the process across an enterprise could enable an oversight or legislative group to compare agency facilities fairly and equitably.

In addition to the Web-based CPMS system, he said VFA has also developed a Web-based application through which a property manager or on-site architect can remotely enter detailed information into a questionnaire.

"We actually ask questions," he said, such as "Does your roof look like this?" or "Do you have pools of water like this?" with accompanying illustrations. "The data is then crunched, and at the end of the process, you end up with a prioritization and a cost in terms of requirements or deficiencies on a building-by-building basis."

The system will accurately indicate budgetary requirements within 10 percent to 20 percent, Cholakis said, meaning that an agency such as GSA — which employs this application — can pinpoint building "hot spots" that need to be addressed first.

"That would be considered as the first pass for any distributed organization," he said. "In other words, for the GSA, it would be impossible to do a detailed condition audit of all the portfolio. It simply would be too much work and potentially too costly," he said.

Most facility management applications have been "Webified," said Michael Bell, a Gartner Inc. research director who covers the market. "It's becoming almost mandatory for facility management.... The Web is becoming a pretty standard requirement."

Bell said that a lot of technology companies, such as Archibus Inc. and Aperture Technologies Inc., provide such software and help integrate them as enterprise solutions. However, Gartner "looks askance at software companies that purport to be in the consulting business," he said, adding that he had not heard of VFA or its business model.

There are lots of companies that conduct facility assessments, and there are other companies with software to manage the data, Bain said, "but it was hard to find a company [like VFA] that kind of did both."

***

Web-based approach

Web-based facilities management is the monitoring and long-term planning of real property, equipment and mechanical and electrical systems with software designed to help collect building data and determine long-term costs.

Benefits include:

* Access to a secure, hosted central repository of information.

* Better methodology for inspection, capital planning and procurement.

* The ability to track repairs and other improvements.

* Risk mitigation.

* Better quantitative and qualitative data to defend appropriate funding for budgets.

* Low information technology and implementation costs.

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