Building Principles: The Elephant in the Living Room

January 2007

By itself, this month's metaphoric title may already have caused some readers to turn the page because it suggests that the facility guy is on a tirade about something we all know about but don't want to discuss. Though I've hinted around it for all the years we've been meeting like this, we've never really talked about it. This month, we're going to take a short look at "deferred maintenance." For anyone not familiar with the term, it's commonly used to explain away all of the things that just don't seem to get done. It may surprise you to know that the term has a very specific meaning outside the camp arena. In the real estate property management industry, "deferred maintenance" implies that sufficient operations and maintenance (O&M) funds were budgeted, but were redirected to meet another emergency or unforeseen issue with the physical plant. More and more often, camps are using it to gloss over or perpetually postpone (or worse completely ignore) needed repairs or replacement of capital items. These can be minor or really serious. Take these, for example:

  • Not mowing a ball field: If fuel for the tractor is a spot in the budget to "find" money for an emergency elsewhere, mow the ball field every 10 days or three weeks instead of weekly. How long can you put that off or maintain that schedule, because you can't use the field when the grass is 10" deep. If it gets deeper yet, does the tractor have enough horsepower to mow it at all? What do you do then? You could call a local farmer to bring in a bailer, I suppose . . .
  • Not painting a water storage tank: True, it holds water even when the paint is peeling. But if it looks bad on the outside, what do you suppose it looks like on the inside? Before "deferring" that tank sandblast, patch, and clean another year, why not look a little deeper (inside, perhaps) and see if there aren't other issues that you should tend to.
  • Not mending a screen on a bunk: The bunk is certainly usable, but do your guests find them as acceptable as insect-free space?
  • Not patching potholes: More than an uneven walking or driving surface (safety), those potholes that hold water are freezing and thawing continually and are lifting the pavement or just making the road impassable.
  • Not clearing culverts: When the road floods and washes out in the spring, will you be able to get to the other side of camp?

Every camp has these troubles, but how in the world can you possibly get your arms around them? The answer lies in brutally honest, thoughtful, and deliberate planning followed by carrying out the plan.


Many of us over 40 have grudgingly come to admit that we're not as young as we once were. Every year we're less surprised that we have something new to think about at the dinner table, on the bathroom scale, or in front of the dressing mirror. Like us, our facilities are never as young as they used to be, even if built last year. And also like us, they are entitled to a thorough physical every year. Among other things, this includes a review of the records from the previous year to put numbers to the operation and maintenance of that facility. How much time did it take to mend this or that? What did it cost? This information is captured throughout the year in the form of detailed time sheets and cost tracking. (See Building Principles columns in the July/August 2005 and September/October 2006 issues of Camping Magazine.) With that before you, you're in a much better position to ask the questions like, "What will it cost next year?" and "How much longer will it last?" Did we hear a repair man say even once, "You know, a little seasonal maintenance would go a long way toward…"? But where the situation has been patched over, not documented or ignored altogether, it remains a difficult, frightening, and intangible specter to which there are only more questions and no answers. Every building, utility system, program area, and road deserves a detailed check and a written report to describe what was found, what repairs will cost (today), and an estimate of the repair costs if left to deteriorate. The complete assessment is then assembled into a single document so that the effects on the offered programs can be evaluated.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer to the question of whether your organization should use its own staff or hire someone to conduct the inventory and assessment. There are benefits and dangers to either approach. If you choose to hire a consultant, make certain that they understand more than the nuts and bolts of what they're looking at. They need to consider how and by whom the facility is used in order to prepare a comprehensive, meaningful report. With a consultant, you have reason to believe that they're using data, information, and methods that will provide you as realistic a picture as they are able. If you decide to conduct the assessment with camp staff, you should be fairly comfortable that they understand the organization and the facility's mission in meeting the program goals. At the same time, though, they may not have all of the cost, regulatory, or construction information that will provide a complete picture.

And while they may be a very competent jack-of-all-trades, they may not have all the right skills or knowledge to put this important work together.

It's important to mention that there is often an inclination to dismiss the results as "over the top" or "unrealistic." But like the routine blood work that's part of the annual physical, sometimes we get answers that we don't like. Disliking the results is completely different from ignoring them.


When the report is complete it's time to look at the individual pieces and begin to prioritize the approach. This will be contentious and complex because it's rare that your program or organization will benefit from sorting the list by price (high to low OR low to high). Here is where the management of the business and leadership of the organization merge on their most meaningful level, because the budget is the most fundamental place that they come together each year. The most important outcome is that the organization is making pro-active and informed decisions about the direction of the facilities for the coming years. The funds available are combined with a realistic income projection and estimate of time required will shape the undertakings for the coming months and sometimes years.

More specifically, what does that look like? There are four basic issues which should direct how these are prioritized. What they are and the reasoning behind them follows in order (see table below).

Follow Through

For many organizations, this may seem to be the hardest part of the process. Like the 500 calorie-a-day diet New Year's resolution, you may be afraid of what tomorrow might bring. But unlike that optimistic, spur of the moment, twelve-oh-one kiss and a promise, there is no new sobering moment coming. You're already beyond that by having gathered the data and realistically considered the impacts of each choice and priority assignment. Now it is time to work the plan. Resolve to not look back or second guess your decisions until next year when you're going to go through the same process on the same facilities again. If situations arise in the course of the year, you can absolutely defer anything on the list, knowing what the impacts of your decision are.

When it comes right down to it, the facilities at camp are one risk management nugget over which you have complete control. Why wait for something else preventable to throw another wrinkle in the smooth operation of camp? Sleep a little easier by taking charge of the property, planning for, and sticking to the maintenance plan.

Item   Reason
Health, safety, and code compliance items. Obviously, the safety of the staff and guests is paramount. The courts have repeatedly upheld the property owner's responsibility to ensure that the implied warranty of merchantability is met. For example, this means that if you have a septic system, it is expected to operate in accordance with all of the parameters set by the state. If you have a building with a roof, it is assumed that the roof is adequately supported by the walls and foundation. Failing to address these things first and foremost will eventually bring a charge of negligence to camp's door.
Items which will have adverse consequences on the organization if left unattended. If your organization relies on and touts waterfront activities as a primary draw for your guests, then the waterfront should have and hold your attention. This is more than the dock and beach, but should include all of the components of the dam that make the water front program possible. In this case, ask: "What would happen to camp if the dam was breached?" "Do you still have camp as you know it?" Once you've truly grasped the importance of the facility, the next question might unnerve you as well: "What IS required to maintain a dam? We've never done a thing!" You're on the right track, now.
What will add or maintain real or perceived value to the program and property? Once the campers are safe and the viability of the facility is secure, the next issue is filling camp and keeping it filled. With an emphasis on program and market appeal, you cannot afford to ignore the addition or continued maintenance of elements to the property which will improve the program director's ability to deliver the program. That's what you're about!
Choose capital investments that will reduce operating and maintenance costs. That is, you can calculate a "pay back" on the time and money invested. Let's look at heating hot water. Depending on your organization, you may budget to replace a few each year. (You may also just hope that nothing dies this year!) But have you considered new technology that might deliver better performance, at a lower cost? Tankless (or instantaneous) hot-water heaters are many times more energy and water efficient than systems that store tanks full of water that's reheated over and over until it's needed. (See "Building Principles" in the September/October 2005 issue of Camping Magazine) With just a little simple math, you could determine for yourself how long it might take to recover your investment, even if the units cost more than the conventional ones.

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 2007 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.