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  • Aaron C. Ruby, AIA

Maintenance... the longest, four-letter word.

John Ruskin, the prolific, nineteenth century renaissance man, really hated "restoration", but he argued poetically for the preservation and conservation of things. The more I think about it, the more convinced I am he had it right. If we could just keep up with what we build, there would be no need for restoration. But we have trouble with that don't we? We must, or else I suppose I wouldn't be able to make a living out of restoring old buildings.


I am learning that solving most problems involves complex layers--nothing is as easy at it seems. So whereas this post may come off as an oversimplification of the problem as I see it, I think it does help to start a discussion at a very basic level. The problem I see is common, we absolutely must do a better job of maintaining our buildings--and I think it starts by respecting the importance of proper maintenance and the folks that do it. We can do this in several ways:


1. I think in general our society undervalues the people and trades that work with their hands. Electricians, plumbers, welders, mechanics, carpenters, masons... we need them! They know how things work, why they break, and how to troubleshoot. For so long, we've placed such an emphasis on technology, software and hardware, communication, sales and professions, that we've left ourselves a void in skilled trades. Though doctors and nurses are very good at fixing you--its really hard for them to do it without being in a clean, functioning building. If you have someone on staff that you know does a great job of keeping things running, take care of them! If you don't, hire a headhunter and find them!

2. We need to put more value on institutional knowledge. Long-time employees that have collected a life time of knowledge about the particulars of how things work within a large building, such as a hospital or large government building, or group of buildings such as at a college campus, need to be tenured! I have personally seen the results of 30-plus year employees get the boot to make room for a newly elected official's best buds-- that's shameful, and stupid.

3. Purge from your brain the most awful phrase ever brought upon the human race: "Maintenance-Free". There is No. Such. Thing. Ever. In my experience, the materials that actually CAN be maintained, such as good old fashioned, old-growth wood lap siding, last far longer (and look better), then the newest replacement, which generally, isn't manufactured in a way that is maintain-able, it's meant to be discarded and replaced. Let us simply understand up front that everything must be maintained.

4. Encourage training and continuing education for your maintenance staff. Maybe a re-statement of #2 somewhat, but you have to have folks that are willing and able to share their knowledge and show the ropes to younger generations. If folks are to take pride in their work, we need to let them know they are valued.


5. Support local schools and colleges that provide technical training programs--and encourage them to start recruiting young people into the programs. Then hire these people.


As true as I think all of this is, it also must be said that our buildings are becoming more complex--more sophisticated, full of systems and automation that makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for today's best electricians and "hvac guys" to know how to troubleshoot. Unfortunately, I don't see this trend changing--and so as architects and engineers continue to design these fancy buildings with sophisticated, code-mandated systems, owners need to be prepared to accept responsibility for the buildings and have staff capable of understanding them and maintaining them in a way that is consistent with how they have been designed. This reinforces my points #4 & #5 above. The people that have trouble shooting skills, that are accustomed to understanding the mechanics and wiring of things, on an intimate level, must be educated and trained more holistically as well. The photo on this post is somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I am not describing the need for better staff that knows how and when to clean the gutters.


My point is this: we need to take regular maintenance of our buildings more seriously, and prepare ourselves for the fact that it isn't as simple as it once was.


One additional service we provide at Revival Architecture, that to my knowledge isn't typically provided by most architects, is to generate a maintenance check list at the end of the project that will help our client with their new or renovated building. Much like a recommended maintenance chart found in the owner's manual of your new Buick, it seems the least we can do to serve our clients. They spent a lot of money, and we spent a lot of time--we both want to see the building last for generations.




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