Federal agencies are postponing needed building repairs, driving up costs

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Like most things in Washington, federal architecture is steeped in history, protected by tradition – and under constant threat of budget cuts.

Across the country, and particularly in the nation’s capital, federal office buildings are hemmed in by regulations aimed at preserving their design for both aesthetics and functionality. With over 130,000 properties in its portfolio, the federal government is the largest owner of real estate in North America.

All of these buildings, whether located on Pennsylvania Avenue or in a satellite city elsewhere in the country, must meet a dual requirement. First, they must provide efficient and economical facilities for use by government agencies. Second, they must provide “visual testimony to the dignity, entrepreneurship, vigor, and stability of the American government,” according to the General Services Administration.

“Our aim should be to answer the test of the evocation of Pericles to the Athenians, which the president recommended to the Massachusetts legislature in his speech of January 9, 1961: ‘We do not imitate, for we are a model for others,” say the GSA Guiding Principles.

To keep them that way, federal agencies must undertake constant and costly repair programs, which are not always a priority in departmental budgets. As a result, many have a growing deferred maintenance backlog.

Deferred repair costs among civilian agencies jumped to $76 billion in 2021 from $51 billion in 2017, according to data compiled by the Government Accountability Office. That’s after federal construction and maintenance spending fell every year from 2009 to 2013, and has yet to recover to pre-2009 levels.

The departments of Energy, Health and Human Services, Interior, and General Services Administration attributed increases in their deferred repair costs to funding constraints, increases in material costs, deliberate delays and changes in data collection.

All four selected agencies said maintenance funding has not kept pace with costs, leading to an increase in deferred maintenance and repairs.

The maintenance requirements for these properties “continue to exceed the work done to meet these requirements each year, despite the GSA, the agency that acts as the federal government’s property manager, requesting a budget provision for $1.3 billion in repair and retrofit projects” in 2021, according to Gordian, a provider of construction cost data, software and services for construction projects.

As inflation drove up the costs of daily consumer goods, prices also rose for building materials, according to an analysis by the Associated General Contractors of America.

GSA construction projects from 2014 to 2018 show that federally funded construction projects tend to cost 15-25% more than the same projects would cost if privately funded.

“Federal design requirements impact both practical designs and aesthetic designs of spaces,” Gordian said in his report. “On a practical level, the agency’s facilities are being built to meet or exceed a 100-year life cycle – far longer than most commercial or privately funded projects.”

That means federal buildings must be constructed of highly durable materials that can withstand the effects of time and the impact of an explosion, should an attack occur, he said.

The federal government also sets minimum wages for its contractors that frequently exceed rates for similar work in many states.

And purchasing priority is often given to building materials from domestic manufacturers, which can cost more.

Home Office officials said in the report that the agency had assets that became more expensive to repair over time. Officials also said increased visitation to federal lands is causing even faster degradation.

Health and Human Services also said in the report that aging facilities, particularly Indian Health Service facilities that are over 75 years old, have contributed to significant repair needs.

Even the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting supply chain issues have compounded repair spikes.

Aging federal structures

In some cases, agencies chose to postpone repairs on purpose, especially if maintenance at that stage in a structure’s life seemed futile.

According to Gordian’s report, as many as 45,000 of the 130,000 federally owned and operated facilities are underutilized and obsolete.

For example, officials with the Interior’s Bureau of Reclamation said they postponed maintenance of the Hoover Dam spillway gates because the water level in the reservoir had dropped enough that the agency did not probably don’t have to use the valves.

Similarly, Department of Energy officials said a significant portion of the agency’s deferred maintenance was for facilities that were nearing the end of their life.

Agencies have also developed new methods or systems to track and determine maintenance needs, which has led to an increase in deferrals.

Energy officials said the primary cause of an estimated 35% increase in estimated deferred maintenance and repair costs from 2018 to 2019 was a National Nuclear Security Administration initiative based on new software to calculate the costs.

Officials said this new method resulted in an increase of about $2 billion over previous calculations.

The GAO report also says total funding for repairs is murky because annual presidential budget requests, appropriation bills, and supporting documents typically don’t consolidate funds for deferred maintenance.

Molly Weisner is a reporter for the Federal Times, where she covers government labor, policy and contracts. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as an editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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