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Shedding Light on Aging Higher Ed. Infrastructure

Larry Romine | 18 Apr 2017 | Comments

How can academic institutions use cost-efficient asset management tools to fix aging infrastructure and plan for the future? Answer, a “living” database.

Picture the scene; you put on a virtual reality (VR) headset to find a bird’s eye view of your institution. All of your assets are here. It’s a perfect simulation—a perfect 3-D model of your buildings, structures, underground infrastructure, and landscape. An exact model you can virtually wander through, swooping around the intricate web of your facility's infrastructure, efficiently able to discern which systems need maintenance, which are fully functioning, and which might be in danger of failing. This isn't science fiction. It is the very real and contemporary potential of living data.

Now picture another scene. It's a scene we all dread. Catastrophic failure has just occurred in your heat and water systems. Where’s the point of failure and what was the cause? Do we own those utilities or does the city? Classes are canceled. Doctors can't treat patients. Research is stalled. And, worst of all, there's nothing in the budget to address the issue. This is another nonfictional scenario. It's happening to facilities nationwide and will occur more frequently in the future. Aging infrastructure and a "run-to-fail" philosophy are a scourge in the United States, but there are clear steps we can take to beat it back.

The American Society Civil Engineers (ASCE) has given national infrastructure a failing grade—the glass isn’t even half full. We can’t get ahead of the issue with a “what you don’t know, won’t hurt you” approach. We need to get proactive. We need to incorporate all our information into one “living” database. And the best news is, there are clear ways to get started.

The first steps include the collection, extraction, and integration of all available as-built drawings (paper, CAD and PDF) and existing Geographic Information System (GIS) layers to develop a centralized, “living,” GIS database. What do we mean by living data? Often information is collected, stored and used with a single purpose in mind, but the living database would incorporate all available information into one centralized hub where data could be extracted, parsed, and utilized with multiple end-purposes in mind. Future surveys, locations, renovation upgrades, and service life estimations could all be incorporated into this database providing new opportunities to evaluate past problems and predict future outcomes.

The potential of this tool is boundless. A living database provides accurate data for use with master planning, lifecycle projection, and capital planning/budgeting. It integrates smoothly with other asset management tools, and it’s scalable.
Asset management may be a scary term for some. It inspires visions of old schematics piled to the ceiling, endless setbacks, infinite committees, and internal friction—a bureaucratic nightmare, hard to sell, with little-perceived return on investment (ROI). But when it comes to getting an accurate understanding of the state of your infrastructure, it can be as straightforward as integrating your existing data into one database and creating a clear strategy for how you want to expand that database in the future. It’s an incredibly cost-effective solution. After this integration and strategy phase, all you have to do is take small steps in the right direction to achieve your institutions’ goals.

Louisiana State University’s (LSU) Office of Facility Services has already begun the process—working with Atkins to review and verify all available data sources and create a new GIS model. This model aids survey teams with field investigations, is used in day-to-day operations and maintenance, and serves as a decision-making tool on infrastructure improvements for future growth consistent with the campus master plan.

We also helped the Utah State Building Board go beyond the initial utility inventory and GIS mapping to do a comprehensive cost and service life estimation. From this living data in the GIS model, we have created a summary report of the quantities and cost data, sorted by institution and year of replacement. The model indicates the optimal replacement of any element in the next two/ten year periods for each facility to minimize the “run to failure” scenario. Close collaboration with Faithful & Gould (F+G,) our sister Atkins company, who compiled and inputted the product data into the State’s capital planning software solution, enable the state and its agencies to see a holistic view of the capital needs—both the building and utility infrastructure assets—and develop a strategic replacement plan based on criticality.

Using the GIS model as a foundation, the collection of additional data for these organizations will feed subsequent analysis—allowing for iterative scenario analyses which can assist leadership in decision making throughout the planning process. Capacity studies in campus expansion or addition planning could utilize these asset management models. On-site repair crews could access detailed tablet-accessible (or VR) utility maps. Maintenance crews could coordinate workflow through the GIS. Institutions could analyze space management, parking, and pavement conditions. And last but not least, emergency services can protect their people with immediate access to accurate utility system information.

These are all exciting options, but it’s important to remember that these possibilities are scalable and can be tailored to fit your budget—bringing to light real action items from a mire of unknowns at a cost that you can afford. It begs the question: can you afford not to know?

Ignorance is bliss until the bill comes due. A “run-to-fail” approach costs big money in the long run and creates much larger potential disruptions to your campus. It’s time to get proactive about your current infrastructure, and a living database is a good place to start. Ultimately what you don’t know will hurt you.

 Co-authored by Scott Smiley