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A Proven Methodology for Assessing School Buildings
by Prakash Nair, R.A. and Nadine Chin-Santos
This method provides not only information on current conditions, but also a basis for long-range planning.

Many of the nation’s school buildings are getting older, while the student population continues to grow. This has created a great need to build new schools, and simultaneously to preserve and modernize existing buildings. New York City has more than 1,100 school buildings, most more than 50 years old. Over the past 12 years, since the creation of the New York City School Construction Authority, more than $10 billion has been invested in school facilities. While much has been accomplished to slow down the rapid deterioration that preceded this investment, much remains to be done.

In July 1999, the Board of Education’s third Five-Year Capital Plan went into effect. In their draft proposal, the BOE requested funding of almost $11 billion to be spent on new construction and the renovation, restoration and modernization of existing buildings. In developing this five-year capital plan, the BOE relied heavily on information obtained through a computerized Building Condition Assessment Survey (BCAS). This survey was conducted by a joint venture of three consulting firms under contract with the NYC School Construction Authority.

Benefits of Condition Assessment

Some would define planning as the equitable and optimal distribution of scarce resources. What is the best way to determine how much to spend, which buildings to spend it on and in what priority order? BCAS is a logical answer. It is a method by which architects and engineers using a consistent, uniform method assess every single capital asset. The advantage is that survey results, obtained mostly via objective rating criteria, provide ‘‘baseline’‘ measurements of individual building conditions, the school system as a whole or any part thereof.

It provides a sound basis for long-range capital planning, a realistic and defensible estimate of ‘‘cost of good repair’‘ and objective building condition information that designers can use to develop scopes of work. This improves consistency and minimizes subjective decision-making by designers.

Planning Ahead

Before embarking on a BCAS program, it is important to determine how the information from the survey will be used: Will it be used for a) capital planning, b) designing capital projects, c) maintenance or d) all of the above? It is also important to decide how often buildings will be surveyed. For example, New York City has a legal mandate to look at certain critical components such as structural elements annually.

Early planning decisions should include a) identifying what information already exists; b) deciding the universe of the survey -- will every building be looked at; and c) deciding if there will be one survey for all buildings on a site or one per building.

Scope of the Survey

The scope of the survey was influenced by the amount available to be spent. New York City spent about $4 million on about 1,400 surveys, for an average of about $2,900 per facility. On average, a team of three surveyors (an architect team leader, an electrical engineer and a mechanical engineer) spent one day at each facility. When it was necessary, a structural engineer visited the facility to evaluate special conditions.

Once they are at the school, surveyors may collect a variety of information; 1) they can simply look at building conditions and provide a condition rating for each component, 2) they can record every deficiency and take photographs, 3) they can inventory all equipment, 4) they can alert school authorities regarding imminent hazards, 5) they can assess the technology readiness of the school, 6) they can evaluate the school’s compliance with the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Actand, and 7) perhaps most important, they can gauge the educational adequacy of the school facility. Generally, educational adequacy is defined as the extent to which any particular facility complies with commonly recognized current and anticipated standards for education. This would include the availability and sizes of various required rooms, the ability of the facility to properly accommodate instructional technology, the shape of rooms and their relationships to one another, the flexibility of the overall plan, insofar as its ability to adjust to different learning styles and the size of the school itself.

Often, decisions to renovate or replace any particular facility may be less influenced by its physical condition than its educational adequacy.

In New York City, the pressing need to complete the surveying of almost 1,400 school facilities in about six months meant that only observed condition deficiencies could be recorded. While the surveys addressed items one through six from the prior list, it only marginally addressed item seven, the issue of educational adequacy. Certain common rooms such as auditoriums and gymnasiums were evaluated for their adequacy but, overall, the question of whether a particular facility met required educational adequacy standards was not dealt with.

An important observation regarding costs: New York City decided that surveyors would gather objective data regarding deficiencies with appropriate unit measures of the deficiencies. Unit costs would then be applied based upon historic project cost data.

Survey Granularity

Finally, in deciding the scope of the survey, the question of ‘‘granularity’‘ must be addressed. Granularity is the level of detail at which the survey is conducted. The least granular survey would have one question regarding an overall system such as ‘‘exteriors.’‘ In New York City, the granularity extended down to four levels -- interior, classroom, doors and wood.

The entire facility was broken down into components for purposes of the survey. This breakdown of building components was referred to as the ‘‘Physical Breakdown Structure.’‘ It contained a total of about 320 components included within one of three systems -- architectural, mechanical and electrical.


To minimize subjective ratings by surveyors, the following or similar system is necessary.

5 = Poor Condition: The component cannot continue to perform its original function without repairs or is in such a condition that its failure is imminent. Equipment exceeding its useful life and requiring replacement would fall under this category.

4 = Condition Between Fair and Poor

3 = Fair Condition: The component is still performing adequately at this time, but may require preventive maintenance to prevent further deterioration and to restore it to a good condition.

2 = Condition Between Good and Fair

1 = Good Condition: The system/sub-system is sound and performing its function.

Purpose of Action

Every deficiency is attached to a recommended action. A ‘‘Purpose of Action’‘ is attached to every recommended action. The following menu is taken from the New York City survey model and listed in priority order: Life Safety, Structural, Regulation/Code, Security, Betterment, Cost Avoidance, Operations/Maintenance Savings, Aesthetics and Community. In the above coding system, the recommendation to fix a broken light fixture in a non-teaching area which is rated a five (poor) would be considered betterment, whereas the recommendation to replace loose coping stones also rated five (poor) would be life safety and take precedence. This system allows planners to distinguish between and prioritize available resources.

Neither the rating by itself nor the purpose of action addresses the issue of urgency. Therefore, five urgency codes were established. They were: 1) fail now, 2) fail within six months, 3) fail within 24 months, 4) no fail within 24 months and 5) no urgency.

After all components were surveyed and rated, weights were assigned to the various systems and their components. A condition roll-up system uses these assigned weights to aggregate survey data in a manner that gives more importance to the systems and components considered critical or high priority.

Managing the Survey Task Force

A key to the success of the New York City program was the up-front planning and mobilization efforts. A detailed database of school facility information including school address, driving directions, names of school principal and custodian, size and age of building, etc. was included in the package of information given to each inspector. An appointment database was created and maintained by central administrative staff. Inspections that were incomplete or otherwise failed to pass quality control were rescheduled.

Using the Survey Information

New York City used the BCAS data in a number of ways. Primarily, survey data became the basis for a proposed $10.8-billion, five-year capital plan. Survey information regarding potentially hazardous conditions was also used to provide emergency stabilization measures at hundreds of locations throughout the city. The survey provided the Board of Education with the most complete and comprehensive inventory it ever had regarding handicapped accessibility of its buildings and programs. Project scopes of work for capital improvements were also reviewed against the BCAS data to ensure consistency and accuracy.

At the time the survey was performed, Prakash Nair, RA, REFP was a Director of Operations for the New York City School Construction Authority. He is currently the Director of Educational Planning for Vitetta and President of Urban Educational Facilities for the 21st Century.

Nadine Chin-Santos was formerly Project Manager of New York City's Building Condition Assessment Survey. She is currently working with Parsons Brinckerhoff, an engineering firm in New York.

Source: School Planning & Management, December 2000
Copyright 2003, Peter Li, Inc. All rights reserved. This article is protected by United States copyright and other intellectual property laws and may not be reproduced, rewritten, distributed, redisseminated, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast, directly or indirectly, in any medium without the prior written permission of Peter Li, Inc.

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