Building Principles: Getting Ready to Repair

by Rick Stryker

Whether you’re planning to tackle needed facility repairs in house or whether you’re going to contract the work out, the first few steps may well determine the success of the final product. Using several examples, we illustrate how careful, methodical planning eases the administration of the project, no matter who is doing the work.

Needed Repairs

Assume that there is already a comprehensive list of needed repairs. Often, creating this list is a very arduous and contentious process which, once complete, most staff would prefer not to revisit. And although the expected cost of each need is a critical element in the preparation for the repairs, the initial pass in the prioritizing process should be made based on the operational or programmatic needs, outside the realm of cost. Once estimated costs have been tabulated, the list should then be reviewed and revised and all of the projects prioritized within the framework of the overall budget.

Taking Stock of Conditions

Once we have a list, the next step is to take stock of the conditions that need to be repaired or considered for replacement. Most importantly, the causes of the deterioration need to be uncovered. This need not be a long, drawn out forensic investigation, but to address symptoms of a problem without looking for a cause is short sighted at best.

For example, there is a potential host of causes for bathroom floors to fail, including a leaking seal at the toilet joint, a lack of or poorly installed floor drain, undersized shower curtains, or sloppy camper showering. Even condensation on the tank and bowl of a toilet can cause a subfloor to fail. In addition, conditions under the building such as a poorly drained or ventilated crawlspace can cause condensation to form — soaking insulation and keeping the underside of the floor saturated. A thorough check and some careful forethought about the damage to be repaired — the “symptom” so to speak — not only helps to ensure a lasting repair, but also ensures that the planned project scope is sufficiently thorough. This reduces the likelihood for surprises and cost overruns after the project is under way.

Understand that there is a break-even point associated with any repair. A certain situation might be causing accelerated deterioration, but the solution may be so cost prohibitive that you may decide that you can accept a shorter life span for a project. For example, if the floor is rotting because of tank condensation dripping, one solution could be that a small hot water feeder line be connected to the tank water supply. By adding just a little warm water to the tank water, the porcelain won’t stay cold, and the humidity won’t condense. However, if this toilet is in a location without hot water, or the plumbing is inaccessible, it may be more acceptable to look at replacing the floor, putting down a single sheet of vinyl and using additional caulk to reduce the amount of condensation that is getting to the subfloor.

Materials Required

When the cause of the problem has been determined, the next step is to begin to assemble the materials list by taking measurements and creating a table of items and the required quantities. In this article, we’ll look at a simple roofing project for a small building, and we’ll assume that the staff you plan to use has the knowledge and experience for the project. (That assessment is another column altogether!) This has to be done with standard units in mind. The physical dimensions of the project, and therefore the amount of material purchased, is a significant factor in the cost of the project. This is particularly true with smaller projects where a small amount of many different materials are required. In our bathroom flooring example above, if we are replacing a subfloor, it is not enough to know that we have to replace a 5/8-inch plywood subfloor in a 7- by 7-foot (49 square feet) bathroom. Plywood comes in 4- by 8-foot sheets. Only 48 square feet — total — are available in each sheet. This project requires two sheets of plywood, doubling the cost of this particular material. Even if the total square footage is slightly less than the available 48 square feet, there is likely to be some waste when the sheet is cut. The more irregularly shaped the floor, the more cuts, the more waste, and the greater possibility that a single sheet won’t cover the project.

While we’re on the subject of units, it’s important to understand that construction measurement has a language and lingo all its own. When assembling the “shopping list” for any project, make sure that each item is delineated in appropriate units. For example, on road projects, the materials purchased from a quarry or asphalt plant are likely to be sold by the ton. The commercial paving contractor, however, is likely to charge by the square yard, based on a certain thickness of each material. The savvy facility manager and director are familiar with the relationship between the different units, and are prepared to use the right term with each audience. In our roofing example, the contractor’s unit is typically the “square” or 100 square feet. The roof itself is 28 feet long and 12 feet from the edge to the ridge or 28- by 12-feet which equals 336 square feet on each side — 672 square feet total or nearly 7 square.

Cost Estimates

Once every single potential material requirement is identified and quantified, it is time to begin to assemble a materials cost estimate. This can be a difficult process in itself. These several suggestions may help as you assemble the cost information you require.

Use information you already have
Often, the new projects on the list are very similar to others that you’ve completed (or at least considered) during the last several years. By using standard units of measurement on every project and by keeping close records of other material cost quotes, you may not even need to ask suppliers for prices. This may prevent you from committing error.

Don’t kill the “golden goose”
By this, I mean, don’t wear out your local suppliers’ goodwill with endless requests for price quotes. Although they recognize that customer service is number one for the success of their business, preparing materials quotes costs their business money since they have to invest the time to look up the prices and prepare the paperwork. The easier that you make their job, the more likely you’ll receive the best quote that they can give you. Let them know where your project stands in terms of timing and budgeting. Make sure that you have done your homework by using the proper units for the items you seek. If something comes in a color and you have a preference, specify it. In short, don’t make them guess what you want. Ultimately, their time costs you money.

Project accounting
Talk to your potential suppliers about arranging a “project account” for more complex projects. Often, their internal accounting system allows the purchaser to specify a purchase order number or project name. With a “project account,” you are better able to track what the real materials costs are associated with any given project. In addition, it may be possible to arrange for a contractor to perform the work on a “labor only” basis where the materials are billed directly to your organization, and you avoid the markup a contractor typically applies to purchases on an owner’s behalf.

Do as much as you can in writing and by fax
This also helps build goodwill with the vendors by allowing them to give your project their undivided attention. A phone call may be convenient for you, but do you really need that information RIGHT NOW? By faxing a list with item names, dimensions, quantities, and units shown, you allow the supplier to be thorough. Give a date and time when you need or would like to have the information. Be as specific and liberal as you can. (I need this by noon Tuesday, so that I can prepare for a board meeting on Wednesday.) Remember the adage that bad planning on your part should not necessarily constitute an emergency on their part. This, also, goes with number two above.

Additional Costs to Consider

Now that we have a comprehensive materials list, quantities, and prices, we have a good idea what the “hard” costs will be for the project. Several items should now be added to the estimate at this point before we can call it complete.

One item which most camp administrators are reluctant to add in is the labor effort. The mindset is often that the staff is “on the payroll already anyway.” By taking the value of the involved staffs’ individual gross salaries, and dividing it by 2,080 (forty hours per week, fifty-two weeks per year), you have an hourly, monetary value of their labor. Remember that this represents a salary figure only and that the value of each worker’s benefits is not included. The number of hours expected to be dedicated to the job, times each worker’s hourly value gives you an internal labor cost. This information should be a line item on the cost estimate with the other costs associated with the project.

If you are tax-exempt, the accounting of “capital labor costs” may seem to be more trouble than it’s worth. However, consider the concept of “opportunity cost.” This term from economics describes the condition where one person cannot be two places at one time. Unless your facility staff has endless idle hours, they cannot handle other routine maintenance items while replacing four or five roofs, and may even be somewhat unavailable to address emergencies. It’s important to account for the work which is not being done. If this is to be a project that is to be “squeezed in” among the other routine duties, plan on doubling the project length at least. The amount of time spent starting and stopping is more than annoying — it’s unproductive. If your facility is heavily booked through the period when the work needs to be done, can the operation afford to be hamstrung by repairs?

Another cost to consider is the waste materials. Certain refuse, like old concrete, can be buried on site if you have the space (and sometimes, permits!). Other materials like untreated wood and paper can be burned (again, remember the permits). Some, like asbestos shingles or old fiberglass insulation, are best put into a dumpster and hauled away. You should budget for this part of the project to ensure that if you decide to contract the work out, the contractor makes provisions to handle the material in the manner that you planned.

A cost-estimate table for our sample roofing project is found on page 13.

By planning a project completely and thoroughly, expecting the worst (like our plan to replace all of the subroofing), and applying a reasonable contingency figure (usually 10 to 15 percent), the budget is much less likely to be overrun. And, finally, by compiling this data and maintaining an active file of unit prices, construction cost estimating becomes much more straightforward and involves much less guesswork.

Rick Stryker is a professional engineer with Camp Facilities Consulting providing study, design, permitting, and construction consultation services to the camp and conference center community. Camp personnel may contact him at 570-296-2765 or by e-mail at

Originally published in the 2002 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.