Managing municipal facilities

Bill Trivitt
Facilities Specialist
Public Works Department
City of Springfield, Missouri
Member, APWA Facilities and Grounds Committee

In the field of managing governmental buildings, a facilities planner is part of a group that oversees what is, collectively, a municipality’s most valuable asset. In reaction to today’s economic climate of doing more with less, greater demands and increased workloads have been placed on facilities staff, while building components and technologies are becoming increasingly complex.

Facilities planners are tagged with varying job titles (coordinator, manager, administrator, etc.). Regardless of title, there remains a common thread to our jobs that involves working with outside consultants, maintenance personnel and private contractors to design, build and maintain a work environment that is ergonomically correct, comfortable, and conducive to productivity. The road to creating these ideal surroundings has many obstacles, some of which are discussed below.

By necessity, facilities staff wear many hats and serve several masters. One area of responsibility involves analyzing and correcting problems that employees encounter in the office or the workshop. We’re confronted with varying workplace dilemmas ranging from replacing door locks to coordinating installation of a new roof. And, there is the ever-present challenge of providing good air quality and comfortable temperatures for office personnel. Occasionally, we run into a unique problem that requires a “meeting of the minds” to correct. At those difficult times, it helps to have the Rolodex handy and know whom to call for help. If a fallen tree limb has punctured the art museum’s roof in the middle of a rainstorm, a good working relationship with a roofing contractor can prove to be a lifesaver, not to mention preserve valuable artwork. In the ebb and flow of our 8-5 day, it would not be uncommon for a staff meeting, where one particular project is being discussed, to be interrupted with details of a different, unrelated job. Whoever coined the phrase “patience is a virtue,” must have worked in facilities at some point in their career.

Responding to the needs of others is the hallmark of facilities staff. Working as a municipality’s project coordinator, the clients we serve are typically departments that have secured funding for improving an existing space or building a new facility. Coordinating design and construction of a facility begins by forming a team consisting of facilities staff, individuals from the department for which the work is being done, and others that have a stake or interest in the venture. Maximizing the effectiveness of such a disparate project group of individuals, with dissimilar abilities and interests, can be accomplished by recognizing strengths and talents of those involved, and tapping into those resources. A facilities planner contributes a vital ingredient to the mix by helping to galvanize the collective expertise, forming a strong foundation for managing the project that lies ahead. As the owner’s project liaison, our job is to work with others to transform a two-dimensional vision into a three-dimensional reality.

One of the first duties of the project team is to select a design consultant. Following selection of a consultant, facilities staff take the lead by negotiating terms of the contract for professional design services. At this critical juncture, it is essential that a clear and concise scope of work be developed with the consultant, identifying various phases of design and indicating those design tasks that are basic, and those that are optional and will cost extra. The objective is an agreement that outlines the responsibilities of all the parties involved, focusing on creating a well-designed facility that serves the needs of our clients.

Facilities planning is similar to other occupations that require a combination of technical and creative skills. The best work output is done by those who have a real passion for the process. We bring value to our positions by cultivating a keen interest in design and construction, as opposed to simply going through the motions as part of a daily grind. Our jobs require skills taught not only in the classroom, but in the field. Considering the number of participants in a project and the degree of coordination required, the role we play could be compared with that of a parent. Corralling family members around the breakfast table and preparing for the day ahead is similar to the coordination efforts required on a job site. Utilizing interpersonal skills in gaining the trust and cooperation of family members isn’t too far removed from the partnership involved in designing and constructing a facility.

A myriad of details must be considered when designing a new facility or renovating an existing building. The facilities planner serves as intermediary between the client and consultant in this process by analyzing requests for specific amenities and features, helping to determine if they are essential elements of a project or frivolous luxuries. Creating a design that suits the needs of the client and fits in with the surrounding neighborhood is one of the hallmarks of a successful design. For example, designers must recognize whether adding an ornate cornice to a building will provide the “right look” for a district, or be viewed as gaudy and inappropriate. The same degree of judgment must be used when selecting interior finishes. The weight of these decisions and responsibilities is not viewed as being a burden, but rather an opportunity to be relished as we participate in forming the visual and functional landscapes of our communities.

Since the tragic terrorist events of 2001, our society has faced harsh economic and political realities that have clouded the confidence of governments and the private sector. Governments are responding by stepping up efforts to incorporate more efficient management practices into their operations. For instance, some public works departments are competing directly with private contractors for work that has historically been done by a municipality’s work forces. Consistent with this trend, fine-tuning a project team’s methods, based on an objective look at procedures and processes, affords good stewardship of taxpayers’ trust and dollars. In our fast-paced society, the axiom “you’re only in trouble if you stop learning,” has never taken on more importance than now.

The involvement of community funds in a project can present an extra layer of complications, but shouldn’t be seen as burdensome. Fiscal constraints that are part of a publicly-funded project should not interfere with basic construction management practices. The goal is that a contractor will realize a profit from their efforts and the owner will derive the benefits of the contractor’s expertise. Since governmental entities are in this for the long haul, we embrace our contractor partners who share these core values.

Helping to transform visions into realities is the true essence of a facilities planner’s job. For a better perspective on how we may successfully achieve this objective, it is interesting to examine the Japanese style of management, where the main tenet is to nurture a climate of motivation and teamwork, in order to fulfill expectations and desires of others. It is understood that if that goal isn’t achieved, relations can become very difficult. Conversely, if this basic requirement is met, great things can be accomplished. Without hyperbole, one could conclude that in many ways, managing facilities can be viewed as a microcosm of the entire spectrum of our human experience.

To reach Bill Trivitt, call (417) 864-1951 or send e-mail to btrivitt@ci.springfield.mo.us.