Think about your building and ask yourself: where is your unlined emergency spillway?

Last night, close to 200,000 people in the communities surrounding Oroville were granted permission to head home as the most dangerous chances of their dam failing had receded. For four days, the crisis has captured the public’s attention on the calamity of aging public infrastructure. While there will be plenty of navel-gazing in the months to come from public officials and dam experts, we’re reflecting on the lessons for buildings.

Design matters

The major cause of the Oroville evacuation was not the damaged spillway, but rather the need to use the emergency spillway that was partially unlined and not reinforced. As predicted by environmentalists, a very small discharge over the hillside caused massive erosion that threatened the entire dam. Evacuation orders soon followed.

Think about your buildings and ask yourself: where is your unlined emergency spillway?

This dam clearly has a design flaw–what good is an emergency spillway if its use threatens the entire structure? Unfortunately, infrastructure lives with the consequences of design long after construction. The Oroville Dam opened in 1968–almost 40% of commercial buildings standing today were standing in 1968. And just like the dam, buildings suffer any number of design consequences, whether they be insufficient outside air capabilities, bad roofs, lack of shading, or old refrigerant systems.

Managing a building is about learning to play the best hand with the cards you have. But too often there is complacency about the bad cards in the deck and an unwillingness to remind everyone of design problems. When was the last time you submitted a remedy in the budget to fix your unlined emergency spillway? Does everyone on your team know about it?

Penny-wise pound foolish on deferred maintenance

One has to complement how the Department of Water Resources is battling to repair this dam. Thousand ton bags of rocks. Helicopters. Convoys of trucks with slurry mixtures. An impending storm just days away. It is a true battle and an impressive show of force.

But battles are expensive. And they have expenses not born by the army. The massive water release caused flooding and property damage. 200,000 people had to relocate for a week. This is not Palo Alto; Placer County officials are asking for donations for $25 gas cards so people that have missed work can afford to get home.

Compare this to the expense of diligent inspection and repair of the main spillway. Concrete doesn’t fail overnight–what steps were being taken to ensure this single point of failure was robust and reliable? How easily could those repairs have been made during the last four years of drought? What was the full cost of not being cautious enough to heed recommendations made 10 years ago to fix the emergency spillway? Only time and investigations will tell how much maintenance was deferred, but if this dam is anything like others in the US, the temptation has been to simply kick the can down the road another year.

The Oroville Dam deferred maintenance lesson? Deferred maintenance is just that–deferred. It doesn’t change the liability, and one day the bill will come due at ten times the costs that was deferred. If accountants honestly assessed the situation, they’d correctly put those liabilities on the balance sheet for everyone to see.

If this situation has you screaming into the wind about finance cutting your maintenance budget, use this as an opportunity to have a discussion about the massive funds you’ll need in the future if maintenance is not approved. Try asking finance where they are accruing the liabilities for the eventual, expensive, emergency repair.

Gravity to new projects

It’s hard not to feel the human consequences of this tragedy, although thankfully no-one has been seriously hurt. The situation also feels uniquely human; entirely predictable, also avoidable, and yet doomed to be repeated in the future.

From the New York Times:

Part of the problem, officials said, is that as a rule, the government is more inclined to invest money in building new projects, celebrated with elaborate ribbon-cutting ceremonies overseen by elected officials, than in the less visible (and less glamorous) task of maintenance.

Sound familiar? Substitute real estate leaders for government officials and you’ve got a perfect description of the human behavior of decisions around construction versus maintenance.

As building operators, we’ll never escape this. All we can do is recognize that there are very real and powerful forces seeking to ignore, defund and de-prioritize maintenance, and we must fight the good fight of standing up for the logically optimal approach.

About Tom Arnold

Tom Arnold is co-founder and CEO of Gridium. Prior to Gridium, Tom Arnold was the Vice President of Energy Efficiency at EnerNOC, and cofounder at TerraPass. Tom has an MBA from the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and a BA in Economics from Dartmouth College. When he isn't thinking about the future of buildings, he enjoys riding his bike and chasing after his two daughters.

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