Greek dramatist Euripides once said, “Much effort, much prosperity.” Nowhere is this more true than at Michigan State University (MSU) in East Lansing. The institution’s Physical Plant division demonstrates inexhaustible effort and unending dedication despite diminishing budgets and a small staff.
While more than 44,000 students attend MSU, the Physical Plant division ensures successful and smooth operation of the 21.7 million square feet on the East Lansing campus, 12 million of which are its budgeted responsibility. The division’s responsibilities are organized under five departments: Business and Personnel; Building Services (consisting of maintenance and custodial services); Engineering and Architectural Services; Utilities and Waste Management; and Telecommunication and Transportation Services.
Like the university’s mascot, an ancient Greek Spartan warrior, Physical Plant employees are steadfast in their support of the school’s mission of teaching, research, and outreach. If the facilities do not support this objective, the Physical Plant falls short of achieving its goals as well. “Our mission statement is that the Physical Plant division provides and maintains the physical environment conducive for education, research, and public service,” explains Ronald T. Flinn, assistant vice president, Physical Plant division, MSU. The division has had no problem keeping standards high, and with creativity and resolve continues to improve the operation of campus buildings.
Small numbers require big efficiency.
On Dec. 11, 2003, Jennifer M. Granholm, governor of the State of Michigan, announced an executive order cutting $231.9 million from the State of Michigan General Fund. The reduction would result in a five-percent loss – more than $73 million – of general fund monies allotted to the state’s higher education institutions. This situation and its impact on MSU (as well as the state’s other schools) is becoming an ugly reality for many university physical plant departments nationwide.
While challenging, tight budgets can result in some of the most innovative thinking, resourcefulness, and creativity. This is the case for MSU Physical Plant employees. Flinn explains, “We all have less budget to work with, but in a way, it’s a blessing. You’ve just got to be very creative. Everybody here can make a difference. When I was a student employee, I made a difference. That’s one of the reasons I agreed to stay.”
“Small, but mighty” is a good way to describe the Physical Plant division. “When you talk about what sets MSU apart from other physical plants, almost every university our size will have twice (or more) as many full-time people,” Flinn says. “There will be a thousand to 1,200 people in the physical plant; we’re [a team of] 560.”
The limited manpower hasn’t slowed the division’s commitment to keeping the facilities clean, operational, and efficient. Under Flinn and department managers/directors, the team is infused with a spirit of ownership and dedication. “I’ve had many visitors say to me that our buildings look cleaner than those with much larger budgets. That’s a testimony to the fact that our team is trying to do the best possible with a real shortage of manpower, and is doing a great job,” Flinn shares proudly.
With numerous university customers relying on the Engineering and Architectural Services and Building Services groups for modernization and construction assistance, the division must work as efficiently as possible, keeping pace with the numerous projects planned or currently under way. “The last full fiscal year, which was 2002-2003, things slowed down a little. Before that year, for the previous 10 years, we had averaged about $70 million worth of construction per year. In 2002-2003, it slowed down to $51 million – still not terribly slow,” says Robert Nestle, university engineer, Engineering and Architectural Services, Physical Plant division, MSU. More than $110 million in construction projects have been designed and planned for the fiscal year beginning July 1, 2003, and ending June 30, 2004. As Nestle says, “Things didn’t slow down for long.”
Less is more.
MSU can be counted among the many universities making a concerted effort to be better stewards of the environment, considering waste diversion, energy efficiency, and reducing harmful emissions a priority. The Physical Plant’s Utilities and Waste Management organization generates nearly all of the electricity needed by the campus’ facilities, also supplying potable water and steam. By continuing the cogeneration program, which started at the turn of the century, the university is able to supply steam and electricity cost effectively. "We typically provide 95 percent of the electrical needs to the campus. Our goal is to provide 100 percent and only use the grid for back-up," explains Robert Ellerhorst, director, Utilities and Waste Management, Physical Plant division, MSU. “The thing that MSU has done differently than a lot of other higher education institutions is that we’ve got a long-term commitment to cogeneration and full-capacity supply,” he explains.
Cogeneration allows the university to keep the cost of electricity at 5.6 cents/kWh and provide reliable power to the campus as well. “When we had the blackout on Aug. 14, 2003, MSU was the only thing running here in Lansing,” Ellerhorst says. “We’re pretty proud of that. It’s largely a result of the investment that we made in good technology at the plant.”
Although the plant is coal-fired, the university, under the guidance of the Utilities and Waste Management department, works diligently to adhere to strict environmental regulations. “The State of Michigan was really aggressive about trying to make Michigan utility operations clean starting back in the 1970s. We responded. If you looked at our chimneys, they’re clean,” says Ellerhorst. Over the last five years, MSU has invested $8 million in NOx reduction and monitoring technology.
The university has also implemented a number of strategies to reduce energy consumption, and two years ago launched an energy conservation campaign. Ellerhorst serves as chair of the energy subcommittee. “We’re trying to, with an educational campaign, [communicate] to the university community that if a device is not essential to what you’re doing, turn it off. Try to stop wasteful patterns,” he explains. This recent initiative is only the latest in a long line of strategies employed by MSU and its Physical Plant division to cut down on energy consumption. According to Flinn, the efforts have been a huge success. “We have the lowest energy usage per square foot in the Big Ten. Between the cogeneration and vigorous energy program we started back in ’73, we’ve been able to prudently be good stewards.”
Waste reduction, re-use, and recycling are strategies the university has also employed to green up the campus and its operations. Two programs are operated on campus – one that was initiated by students; the other by the Physical Plant’s Utilities and Waste Management group. The latter is a general fund program and seeks to divert office and miscellaneous paper, magazines/catalogs, newspapers, laser printer toner and ink jet cartridges, and corrugated cardboard from the landfill. Additionally, when students move out of residence halls and abandon their lofts, the wood is recovered. “We provide the wood to a lot of volunteer organizations, like the Boy Scouts,” notes Ellerhorst.
“We do about 15-percent diversion of the waste material to recycling. We’re really interested in trying to increase that,” Ellerhorst says. With some universities boasting 30- to 40-percent diversion, MSU is searching for ways to boost its numbers. “We could do better in a lot of areas, but access to processing facilities has been a local limitation. We’re trying to overcome that,” he says. “We’re trying to get the local waste companies to provide us facilities that allow us to do more processing of recycled materials.”
Smart strategies (and staff) save money.
Conservative budgets haven’t crippled quality at MSU. The Physical Plant’s processes for construction and modernization projects often take advantage of the expertise of its in-house staff, a strategy that controls costs and quality. The Engineering and Architectural Services group has 26 people on staff, most of whom are licensed architects and engineers. “If we have a project where the construction cost is less than a couple hundred thousand dollars, you really can’t bring in an outside architect and keep fees reasonable,” explains Nestle. Small projects make use of the expertise of staff members, who create designs in-house on projects typically less than $300,000. The number of projects that Nestle’s group is involved in averages about 200 each year – ranging from a $5,000 project to install a few window air-conditioning units to coordination and management of the design and construction of a $90 million science building.
The use of in-house designs isn’t always relegated to the less expensive projects. The department is completing the final phase of a project to install fiber optics throughout the East Lansing campus. “We’ve had a coaxial cable broadband system on campus for probably 25 years. It served us well, but the technology has gone to fiber, so consequently about 10 years ago, we started putting in fiber,” says Nestle. Designed in-house, the fiber optics are being used for video and teleconferencing needs, and complement the coaxial cable, which is still in use.
Additionally, the Physical Plant’s Building Services group assumes the role of contractor on projects large and small. Employing Building Services for projects that are designed in-house makes for an excellent partnership. “Once it’s decided that we’re going to do it in-house, the engineering department knows that it can generally do an abbreviated design because our people are familiar with our standards and procedures,” explains Gaston G. Gosselin, director, Building Services, Physical Plant division, MSU.
On larger projects, the university’s Engineering and Architectural Services group accepts proposals and reviews candidates, providing the Board of Trustees with recommendations. Once the outside firm(s) have been selected, a member of the staff is selected as a liaison between the campus department that has put in the work request and the consulting firm that has been hired. This individual ensures that the consulting firm meets MSU’s expectations and achieves goals. “That person also has a significant role in controlling the scope of the project,” says Nestle, “to make sure the project doesn’t expand beyond the available funds.” A member of the staff also administers daily site inspections while the project is undergoing construction. “Our project inspector is responsible for quality control on the construction project,” Nestle explains.
A set of construction standards has been developed to ensure the high-level of quality and performance required by MSU and the Physical Plant. “We have some strong feelings about what works here and what doesn’t. It doesn’t make sense to reinvent the wheel on every project,” says Nestle. Architects that choose to deviate from the standards must provide a detailed explanation in defense.
Strategies employed by the Engineering and Architectural Services group during the recent construction of a $93 million biophysical science building facilitated seamless project coordination throughout the design and construction phases. “Early on, we told the architect on that project that during construction, we expected them to issue a bulletin every month unless there was nothing that needed a bulletin,” explains Nestle. These timely updates kept construction progressing because the contractor was not left waiting for necessary change orders. Additionally, the group made it mandatory for the contractor to update the construction schedule monthly. “We told them at the start of the job, ‘If you don’t have an updated construction schedule, don’t send in a pay request, because it won’t be approved,’ ” Nestle says. These strategies positively impacted the construction processes, kept communication flowing, and helped everyone anticipate future challenges while staying on schedule.
Much can be achieved with the right tools, training, and attitude.
The MSU Physical Plant is savvy to the advantages of technology and employs tools that improve operations as well as facilitate communication and record-keeping. Recently, the organization began employing an enterprise facilities management software solution by FAMIS Software Inc. Flinn learned of the product’s capability during a Big Ten Physical Plant directors meeting. Since its implementation, the results have been positive and project tracking has been streamlined. “It’s proven to be capable of doing project tracking for the whole university, not just our division,” says Flinn. The software is currently being explored as a way to formalize key control.
Palm pilots are also utilized where effective, and a Motorola radio system with a signal powerful enough to penetrate steam tunnels and building basements has been installed. While Flinn admits the cost of the system was steep, it was essential to the unit’s safety and effectiveness. “It’s been worthwhile because that raised the productivity and efficiency of our unit,” he says.
To help organize and present the university’s facility data, MSU is employing a Geographic Information System (GIS). According to Nestle, “One of the primary instigators for getting it started was to provide the vice president of Finance and Operations with an effective tool [so] that he could explain to the Board of Trustees and other administrators on campus, the compelling problem the university has relative to deferred maintenance.” The graphic function of the system allows buildings to be mapped, numerous queries ran, and facility data to be displayed through color-coded maps, charts, and graphs. MSU presents deferred maintenance information in a format called “Just in Time.” The GIS identifies various facility systems that are approaching the critical stage, and helps make a case for obtaining funding “just in time” before failure. The Engineering and Architectural Services group was instrumental in providing information to the Contract and Grants Administration office, enabling the foundation of the program – small-scale drawings and building plans – to be entered.
Perhaps more important than the Physical Plant’s tools, are the skills of its employees. As a past president of Alexandria, VA-based APPA, The Association of Higher Education Facilities Officers, Flinn recognizes the value of educational opportunities. “As we’ve suffered budget cuts, there is usually talk about cutting back training. That’s when I pump up training. If there’s going to be less people, they have to be better. It only comes with training,” he explains. Employees attend educational training (such as the APPA Institute), as well as industry seminars and trade shows.
A solid foundation enables future success.
The MSU Physical Plant has overcome many of the challenges plaguing facility operations nationwide, and with strong leadership will continue to ensure that current and future facilities on the East Lansing campus meet the needs of educators, students, and the community. An effective and proactive maintenance program keeps equipment running smoothly and trouble-free. “Our preventive maintenance strategy is that we do the lube, oil, and filter maintenance quite religiously on our equipment. We fix things as much as we can before we have problems,” explains Gosselin. “We’re quite proud of that [because at] Michigan State University, on most of the equipment we have, we get much longer life than what the industry projects.” The life of an absorption type chiller on the MSU campus averages 30 years; the industry projects a useful life of 20. Elevators on campus have the same track record, outliving the industry average by 10 years. “We’re a small, effective group. Our cost of maintenance per square foot is the lowest in the country,” explains Gosselin.
The Physical Plant will be tasked in the future to keep up with the rapid expansion plans projected for MSU. According to the 2020 Vision, the Michigan State University Master Plan created in 2000: “The total new program of over 3.6 million gross square feet represents an addition of nearly 17 percent to the existing space inventory of approximately 21 million square feet.” An additional 2.4 million gross square feet of existing building space will undergo life-cycle upgrades and modernization before the year 2020. As the campus grows, the Physical Plant division will continue to evolve its operations to meet the expanding needs of the university.
Through dedication, innovation, tools, and training, the team has carved out a successful organization. “If we have a weakness, it’s that we don’t toot our horn often enough or loud enough. Day in and day out, we just do our job. When somebody asks us, ‘What did you do that was so special today?’ we kind of give them a blank look and say, ‘Well, we did our job,’ ” explains Gosselin.
Today, tomorrow, and well into the future, the MSU Physical Plant will excel – investigating new technology, new strategies, and even alternative energy sources. Being good at what they do is just part of their job.
Jana J. Madsen (firstname.lastname@example.org) is managing editor at Buildings magazine.