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With over 50 buildings in severe condition, UNC's maintenance costs keep growing

UNC’s deferred maintenance backlog has grown to over $900 million and counting.

Collectively, this has resulted in the deterioration of many buildings on campus. The University’s facilities condition index has designated over 50 buildings as in severe condition — including 16 dormitories and nearly two-dozen academic buildings.

Anna Wu, associate vice chancellor for facilities services, said even if buildings are severe, they can still be safe for occupancy. Regardless of the large backlog, she said all emergency maintenance is addressed.

Broken down by system, the backlog includes over $300 million in heating, ventilation and air conditioning, $242 million in architectural and $96 million in electrical systems. Infrastructure, plumbing and fire protection also have backlogs of around $60 million each.

In her 10 years at UNC, Wu said she has never seen the backlog below about $500 million, but they have made do with what they have.

“A steady state, even modest investment on a regular, recurring, predictable basis makes a huge difference in your ability to plan and address this backlog of items,” Wu said. “That unpredictability and an amount is what really contributes the most to, I think, the increase over the years.”

The facilities condition index is a ratio of remedying a building’s deficiencies relative to the current building replacement value, Wu said. A building in good condition has an FCI of less than or equal to 0.05; fair condition if between 0.05 and 0.10; poor condition if between 0.10 and 0.30, and severe condition if greater than 0.30.

The average for all UNC buildings is 0.19, falling in the poor condition category. A map of all the buildings on-campus, color-coded with their condition, is available here:

Wu said she would prefer the map to look less like a heat map —  filled with red and orange — and more reflective of spring and summer hues, with yellow and green. Red is severe, orange is poor, yellow is fair and green is good conditions.

The FCI rankings are a good measuring tool, but she said the historical status of some of the buildings on UNC’s campus also has to be considered.

Severe case study: Carrington Hall

Mary Lynn, a nursing professor at UNC, said many of the buildings on campus are so old that their issues outweigh their merits, including her own building, Carrington Hall. She said it has many problems, including asbestos.

“They've been abating rooms for about as long as I've been here, and I've been here 30 years,” Lynn said. “In fact, we had to vacate my research office because asbestos was literally flaking off the ceiling and putting fine asbestos dust all over the research space.”

Carrington Hall, home to the UNC School of Nursing, was built in 1969. It is one of the over 50 buildings across campus designated as in severe condition. 

Carrington Hall was slated to be renovated in 2006 when many of its systems were deemed beyond useful life. Other life-safety issues include its structural system, the envelope and enclosure system and the HVAC system.

In June 2020, North Carolina legislators and Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz toured Carrington Hall, including its 16 spaces closed for environmental and health concerns.

Lynn said the building is not impervious and heavy rains create water leaks, leading to mold and many offices being closed permanently. 

"Conversely, the windows don't seal tight,” Lynn said. “The walls are a little penetrable so that air leaks out all the time.”

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She also said the HVAC system is not reliable, and power consumption goes up in the winter when many use personal heaters.

“It's just it's a dangerous environment to be in,” Lynn said. “This is the sort of situation that happens when a building is built in a different era and then it doesn’t get replaced.”

The building also has had accessibility issues, Lynn said. But those are beginning to be addressed as ramp construction started this summer.

“The elevators are so old that they have to scrounge for parts from other old elevators when they break because those parts are not readily available,” Lynn said.

Wu said that, at some point, parts cannot be fabricated anymore. This leads to some elevator pieces being unavailable. 

Maintenance workers have been able to maintain some building systems for more than 15 years past their predicted life cycles, she said. 

“Our maintenance people, you could say, do almost too good of a job of keeping things functioning, because we know how important it is to keep buildings open for classes and for research and things like that,” Wu said.

Future funding

Wu said a steady state of investment is key to reducing the deferred maintenance backlog.

She said that last year, facilities only received $1.8 million from the state, but she would like to get around $25 to $30 million each year — numbers she said funding has historically not come close to.

Natalie Gauger is an undergraduate student appointee on UNC Faculty Governance’s Buildings and Grounds Committee — which approves new additions or alterations to facilities. She said that, as the University is unable to upkeep its buildings, they just become money pits.

Last year, the North Carolina House overwhelmingly passed a bill to issue $3.1 billion worth of bonds that would in part be used for UNC System building renovations. The Senate never voted on the measure. 

Pat Ryan, deputy chief of staff for Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, said there is no disagreement on the need for funds for capital improvements, but there are competing views on how to pay for them.

He said that Berger’s team felt strongly that it was most sensible to use available cash instead of having to take on debt and waste money on interest, which would occur with the bond issuance. 

Gov. Roy Cooper’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2021-23 includes a similar bond request.

Nate Knuffman, vice chancellor for finance and operations and chief financial officer at UNC, said in a statement that addressing the deferred maintenance backlog is a priority for the University. 

“The latest state of North Carolina revenue forecast has shown a stronger fiscal position for the state than anticipated, which could create one-time funding opportunities,” Knuffman said in the statement. “This funding would be a short-term strategy and not a permanent solution.”

Ryan said budget negotiations are still ongoing, but there is support for using that extra cash for infrastructure needs. 

“It would be nice if they spent some more money on buildings, because people are in them all the time, and it can't be unsafe and be right,” Lynn said.

Neal Inman, chief of staff for House Speaker Tim Moore, said in a statement that Speaker Moore is a long-time champion of the University system and understands the importance of updated buildings.

“Whether it’s paying for these capital projects via bond or out of the state’s healthy cash reserves, he has consistently supported renovations and new construction on buildings like the UNC School of Nursing and the Kenan-Flager School of Business,” he said. “Speaker Moore is ready to wisely invest in the infrastructure of our University system.”

Wu said people know deferred maintenance and building condition is an issue, but the administration is making it a financial priority.

“We're a campus with a rich history and a lot of old building stock, and that's just, I think, part of it is the challenge of being the first public University, if you tend to have more old buildings than many others,” Wu said. “But, I don't know that I would trade in all the old buildings for a bunch of shiny new ones. I like having that combination of both.”

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