Building Principles: An Ounce of Prevention

by Rick Stryker

I heard on the radio the other day about an organization that is working to help folks overcome “cancer diagnosis phobia.” The premise of its work is that people so fear the diagnosis and treatment of cancer that they resist, and often completely avoid, diagnostic procedures which could detect cancer early and greatly improve their chances of long-term survival. Having lost several family members to cancer — and with my older sister undergoing treatment as I write this — I can hardly imagine allowing my fear to prevent me from doing what I can to help myself and my family. So, I’ll take a number and line up to endure whatever indignities the doctors can dream up with the hope that I’m helping my wife and daughters in the process.

Similarly, we frequently encounter administrative and operational folks who are reluctant to undertake important, even critical projects because of other “facility skeletons” in their closet — known and unknown. They are afraid that by inviting local or state officials into their processes they will expose their operation to closer scrutiny than they are able to endure. What if their organization cannot operate unless it spends unimaginable and largely unattainable amounts of money? Like the target of the radio advertisement, they fear a cancer they cannot cure.

As independent, self-sufficient camp professionals, we all chafe at increasing government involvement in our personal lives and camp operations. Recent hot topics include the use of fifteen-passenger vans, the availability and use of AEDs, and old metal bunk beds. It seems like government intrusion run amok. To throw the gates open and invite building, water, and sewer officials onto the facility seems counter-intuitive. The truth of the matter, however, is that these officials are not charged with making life miserable, to disrupt camp operations, or to spend all the capital that you can scrape together. Their focus and goal is much the same as ours — the health, safety, and welfare of all of the people who visit your facility.

Let’s look at some things that you can do to begin to open the lines of communication and purge those skeletons from your facility closet.

Meet and Greet

Make it a point to go and meet the people who are in the regulating positions. More than a phone call, a face-to-face meeting will go a long way to personalize your organization. This is particularly true for nonprofit organizations. In many locations, nonprofits are granted some amount of tax relief in exchange for the nonprofits’ delivery of services and facilities to the community. On both sides of the table, there can be uneasiness borne of ignorance of what each gives and receives. Once each party better understands the role of the other in the community, the groundwork is in place to begin making inroads toward regulatory compliance.

Clean House

There can be no substitute for a complete, thorough, and exhaustive survey of your property and its improvements. From a facilities standpoint, it’s the equivalent of the immunization shot — which hurts briefly, but the long-term benefit generally far outweighs the pain or potential harm. For this, hire both an engineer and an architect to perform a thorough study of your real estate improvements. These professionals bring very different perspectives to the job — each with their own valid input. They should conduct a detailed evaluation of each and every building, system, and program area. They should be tasked to provide analysis in terms of safety and urgency, as well as an estimate of what the identified issues will cost to remedy.

This service may be available through your insurance company, but many organizations are leery because of potential effects on their insurance premium. My sense is that no insurance company is seeking to price their product out of reach, and they don’t really need a reason to not renew your organization or facilities. From a marketing standpoint it is much easier to keep a client than to chase one away and find a replacement. There is no benefit to the insurance company or their policyholders if you go bankrupt paying for improvements, or you cancel your policy because it’s too expensive. If they are motivated by writing and maintaining insurance policies, and staying in business by paying reasonable claims, then identifying and alleviating conditions before they are claims are in everyone’s best interest. You’re already paying for the help, so let them do it!

Plan Your Work and Work Your Plan

This saying couldn’t be truer. Once your consultants have identified and prioritized the issues (from their perspective), you will need to combine and re-prioritize the combined list. Realistically budget and then commit the financial resources to take on each project on the list. Assign a fiscal year to each item. Revisit the list each fiscal year and evaluate your success from scheduling, operational, and cash flow standpoints. Revise it as projects are completed or priorities change. Reject the temptation to bleed funds from these critical repairs for “more fun” or more visible improvements.

If It’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Doing Right

There is often a temptation to convert previously unoccupied spaces into occupied ones by remodeling. The material costs are generally pretty low, and the scope often looks like a prime target for volunteers on the weekend. The apparent benefits though are far outweighed by the potential drawbacks. Among other things, doing the work this way often encourages further shortcuts like skipping building permits. Yes. On the surface, this way is more arduous, and it invites strangers into the process. But in the context of this article, this is exactly what you’re after. Instead of this feeling like a thorn in your side, consider it a seed for future opportunity.

Be Practical

Not all old things are priceless. Certain buildings hold many happy memories for many people. Without significant, regular, and comprehensive upkeep, a time comes when the cost of repair far, far, exceeds the cost of replacement. There is a peculiar dichotomy here, however. Fairly inexpensive but regular annual upgrades and improvements may keep the beloved building just outside the threshold of the massive costs for bringing the whole building up to code at once.

Occupant safety should be considered along with the structure’s contribution to continued program viability when weighing the difficult decision to repair or replace. Also, remember to consider the option of no building at all. Demolition of a fire trap, a structural catastrophe waiting to happen, or an attractive nuisance and replacing it with structured open space may well represent an improvement to your overall program.

Just Like the Proverbial Grim Reaper

The building regulators are coming for camps whether we want them or not. Until recently, there has been a collection of private building codes, which were enacted by states individually. In general, this has played to camps’ advantage because of the confusion created by these multiple sets of rules. Camps were a moving target as far as they were concerned. However, that confusion is about to evaporate. The private code writers have merged and combined their efforts to create the International Building Code. Building types and uses that previously “slipped through the cracks” will be addressed eventually as their omission is pointed out by building code officials nationwide. As each state adopts these rules, there will be many more sets of eyes looking at the same document. Changes and clarifications will be requested, and the rules will be set in stone.

Be prepared. Get in front of the curve. Find a project this year and begin to build bridges to the regulators who can help you have a safer, more insurable camp.

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 2003 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.