Even in good economic times, schools and universities have to manage their funds carefully to keep up with facility needs. In the past few years, as budgets have become tighter, the importance of operating school buildings efficiently has assumed greater prominence.

Because most institutions are unlikely to see significant spending increases to cover construction, renovation or maintenance, administrators have to find ways to squeeze more value out of the budgets they have. That means finding other parties to help shoulder the financial burden, taking advantage of new technologies that streamline the planning and construction process, and upgrading equipment to conserve energy and other resources.

Here are 10 ways schools and universities can operate their facilities more efficiently:

Facilities database

Schools can manage the maintenance and repair needs of their facilities and equipment more effectively if they have a comprehensive database of information. In the past, that database often has been socked away in the brain of an institution's facilities manager; when that person retired, the information was lost.

With the advance of technology, it's easier for schools and universities to compile all those facts and figures and keep track of the condition of their facilities, and have that information accessible to all school personnel who need it.

The DLR Group architectural firm uses a software program to help schools create an extensive database so administrators can anticipate and prepare financially for when repair and construction projects will be necessary.

“It helps schools proactively plan for minor and major building investments,” says Dan Sandall, a principal with the firm. “It's a great tool to keep things up to date.”

Some school systems may decide to create a database on their own; others for whom that task is too daunting may choose to have an outside firm gather the information. Sandall says once the initial compilation of data is accomplished, it is fairly easy for an education institution to maintain the database.

“Once you've got it, you're set,” says Sandall. “You need to find the correct person in the administration — someone who is computer-savvy — to be in charge of the system.”

Preventive maintenance

Schools with good data on the condition of their buildings can focus their scarce maintenance resources more directly on preventive strategies.

Education institutions hurting for funds often put off routine maintenance until a small, nagging problem becomes a catastrophic, expensive crisis.

“Regularly scheduled equipment maintenance not only prevents sudden and unexpected equipment failure, but also reduces the overall life-cycle cost of the building,” says the U.S. Education Department's “Planning Guide for Maintaining School Facilities.”

Water use

Schools can cut utility costs by installing more efficient equipment, such as low-flow toilets, showerheads and faucets or, where allowed, urinals that do not use water. Capturing rainwater for re-use and using drought-resistant plants for landscaping will reduce a school's water needs.

Maintenance workers who are vigilant about detecting and repairing leaks can save significant amounts of water. According to the National Best Practices Manual for High-Performance Schools, a faucet drip or invisible leak in a toilet will cause a school to lose up to 15 gallons of water a day, which adds up to 5,475 gallons of wasted water a year. That and other basic efficiency steps can reduce a school's water use by 30 percent or more, the manual states.

Energy management

Upgrading equipment to take advantage of technological advancements can help schools and universities conserve energy and slash their utility bills. The newest lighting systems and heating and air conditioning units use less energy; modern windows are more efficient at keeping unwanted heat out of a building in the summer and preventing cold from penetrating the building in the winter. Motion sensors and timers allow schools to turn off lights automatically in areas not in use. Design strategies that enhance the use of natural light allow schools to lessen the need for artificial lights to illuminate classrooms and other spaces.

Money-strapped schools often are unable to pay the initial expense of acquiring the latest, more efficient equipment, but many institutions have entered into a performance contract with an energy-service company or equipment provider. The company pays for the equipment at first, and the school or university repays the company with the savings it accumulates because of the more efficient systems.

Multischool residence hall

In areas like downtown Chicago, available land is scarce and expensive; building a residence hall might be beyond the means of any one college. But when three schools can split the costs, the project becomes feasible. That's the story of the University Center of Chicago, now under construction.

When it opens later this year, it will house 1,720 students from DePaul University, Roosevelt University and Columbia College.

“It was in the works for a number of years,” says Scot Ferguson, a project manager with the architectural firm of Antunovich Associates, which designed the 17-story facility. “There were a number of issues for the three schools to work out before we could move forward.”

Students from Roosevelt will account for 20 percent of the capacity; DePaul and Columbia each will account for 40 percent. Room rates will be the same regardless of which college a student attends.

Students from all three schools will be housed throughout the building. “The decision was to make it a truly democratic area and not to segregate students by school,” says Ferguson. “Having a mix of students from all three schools will create a sense of community.”

The collaboration enabled the schools to provide housing that they couldn't have on their own.

“When you consider all of the auxiliary spaces — food service, fitness rooms, game rooms — that you don't have to build three times, you're looking at some pretty large savings,” says Ferguson. “And the retail space on the first level will generate revenue as well.”

Joint-use facilities

Not every university or school is in a position to partner with another educational institution on a facility. But more schools are entering into joint-use partnerships with local libraries, recreational centers or governmental offices.

Last summer in Denver, the school district broke ground on a K-8 school facility that will include a recreation center, gymnasium, playfields and library designed for use by students and the community at large. The district, the city of Denver, the city's parks department and the developer of the surrounding neighborhood are sharing the costs of the project.

By bringing in a partner, schools can save on construction costs as well as operating expenses. In some jurisdictions, such as California, the state also provides incentives for districts that participate in eligible projects.

In addition to the financial savings, having a school as part of a joint-use facility helps cement a school's identity as a neighborhood center.

Technology

Software programs can help schools and universities design their construction projects more efficiently.

For the design of the University Center of Chicago project, Ferguson says the use of three-dimensional software enabled architects to create more precise renderings of the project and discover potential problems before they delayed the construction.

“You really only need to make revisions in one area, and it automatically revises the whole design,” says Ferguson. “We ended up with an accurate, complete set of drawings and came back with very good bids that were right on budget.”

The ability to alter the design quickly and relay those changes to school officials immediately and accurately was especially beneficial for a project in which three schools were involved.

“It's difficult enough to put plans together for one client, let alone three clients,” says Ferguson.

The software also allowed architects to keep up with the demands of a compressed time schedule.

Stakeholder involvement

Schools and universities planning to build or renovate facilities can benefit by opening up the planning process to include all those affected — students, staff members, business leaders and neighbors. By involving people early in the process, planners can avoid design flaws that those who actually will use the building can identify.

Previous generations of school facilities often had faulty designs, and many observers have attributed those problems to the fact that schools were routinely designed without any input from stakeholders.

Those who live in the area affected by a new school facility can provide critical insight into what type of facility will fit into a neighborhood. Community leaders can help school officials plan to make the building serve as a center for the entire neighborhood.

Outsourcing

Many schools and universities find they can deliver some services more efficiently by outsourcing them to private contractors. For example, the nation's largest school system, New York City, announced plans in December to lay off as many as 486 of the city's 830 school repair and maintenance workers and bring in private contractors. District officials say the changes would boost productivity, a claim disputed by the unions representing the affected workers.

Some schools and universities have determined that outside companies that have expertise in specific areas can provide services more effectively at less cost. Many schools also have turned to outsourcing for services not directly related to education so school administrators can devote more attention to curriculum and instruction.

Services that are commonly outsourced include maintenance, food service, transportation, security and computer servicing.

Online purchasing

Schools and universities can streamline their purchasing systems and eliminate much of the bureaucracy associated with procuring supplies and equipment by using the Internet to buy what they need.

Online bidding and procurement reduces the mountains of paperwork that often accompany school purchasing and can transform a process that took days to one accomplished in a few hours. Doing business on the Internet frees schools from geographical restraints, and purchasing departments are able to attract more potential vendors, which results in better price competition.

Some institutions that have gotten involved with online purchasing have had trouble getting their employees to embrace the transition to a technology-driven procurement process, and others have found it too difficult to integrate an online purchasing system with a school's financial-management system. But schools that have overcome those obstacles have been able to acquire supplies and equipment more efficiently.

Kennedy, staff writer, can be reached at mkennedy@primediabusiness.com.