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It’s no secret that MIT invests in cutting-edge research centers while many existing buildings and their environs fall into disrepair. Not far from the gleaming new Media Lab, Koch Institute building, and Sloan School building, rusty windows, cracked sidewalks, and leaky basements are hard to miss.

The magnitude of this disrepair is less well known. In 2007, MIT hired a consultant to assess the extent of deferred maintenance on campus. The consultant, Vanderweil Facility Advisors, projected that the cost of addressing building-related deferred maintenance would add up to $2.1 billion in 2011, up from $1.4 billion in 2008 and $400 million in 1999. For context, the 2011 General Institute Budget is less than $1 billion.

Maintenance backlog costs are growing so quickly because a large number of buildings on campus are due for extensive renovations around the same time, according to Director of Facilities Campus Planning, Engineering & Construction Richard L. Amster, Jr.

The $2.1 billion figure, said Amster, includes the cost of bringing all facilities on campus up to a defined standard of functioning, which for some buildings might mean replacing a few windows or an elevator but for others might require a complete building renovation or replacement.

A long-standing issue

How did such a large maintenance backlog arise? Administrators whose job is to worry about deferred maintenance say the issue is not new. Since as early as the beginning of the last century, MIT administrators have confronted concerns about maintenance backlogs. In his annual report for 1917, former MIT president Richard C. Maclaurin wrote of the importance of “clear[ing] ourselves of temporary embarrassments” by “learn[ing] from actual experience over a period of time, and not merely from estimates, what the cost of the maintenance of our plant actually is.”

Current administrators say a maintenance backlog is nearly inevitable for a cutting-edge research institution. Executive Vice President Theresa M. Stone SM ’76, whose job involves keeping a broad watch over MIT’s financial, capital, and operational resources, said Institute leaders have always been forced to balance capital renewal needs with the investments necessary to support new types of research.

Amster said, similarly, “We’ve been investing in large, technically intensive, complicated buildings … instead of renewing old ones,” he said.

Amster and Stone said that because MIT has always needed keep up with new research technology, they don’t fault their predecessors for investing in new buildings while letting others fall into disrepair. Associate Provost Martin A. Schmidt PhD ’88, who chairs the Committee for the Review of Space Planning (CRSP), which oversees a large segment of MIT’s capital renewal efforts, does not place blame on his predecessors either. Past investment decisions “may have mortgaged our future a little bit,” he said, but “it’s possible that previous leaders made these decisions fully aware of deferred maintenance.” And, in any case, “we are still the best university in the world for what we do.”

Amster explained that deferred maintenance is a particularly large and growing issue today because many buildings are showing multiple serious signs of age. The Main Group buildings (which form the Infinite Corridor and several connected structures) are almost 100 years old and are degenerating: “[They] have stood up well … but they’re coming due on their age,” Amster said.

Meanwhile, Amster said the buildings from the 1950s and ’60s are “coming due for renewal” around now.

Because of this wave of renewal needs, Amster said, “I don’t think we have a choice but to address the problem.”

“We can’t continue to live with deferred maintenance,” said Schmidt.

Current funds are inadequate

Several mechanisms are currently in place to plan and fund the capital renewal projects necessary to address the maintenance backlog. The Committee for the Review of Space Planning allocates a $20 million annual budget to renovation projects related to “programmatic needs,” such as lab renewals, said Schmidt. Individual departments and other units often supplement this fund with their own financial resources.

Furthermore, Schmidt said, MIT created a $20 million annual Capital Renewal Fund six or seven years ago, managed by the Department of Facilities, to address more haphazard deferred maintenance issues, such as leaky roofs and aging elevators.

In addition to these funds devoted specifically to addressing maintenance needs, MIT also solicits funds for major individual renovation projects, such as W1. Last September, alumnus Fariborz Maseeh ScD ’90 donated $24 million to finish renovating the building to reopen it as an undergraduate dormitory, Maseeh Hall, this fall.

Despite these efforts to put a dent in the deferred maintenance issue, the current system and funds are still inadequate to return MIT’s facilities to a condition that’s “worthy of MIT’s mission,” said Stone. She, and other administrators, say that in the near future, MIT needs to devote more funds and thought to addressing deferred maintenance.

Stone said that over the next decade preliminary plans are in place to devote about $1 billion, two-thirds of the Institute’s total capital expenditures, toward renovations.

MIT will continue to solicit additional funds for specific renovation projects, Stone said. At the same time, she said, the Institute will continue to construct new buildings in situations where research agendas demand new resources. For example, MIT might build a new nanotechnology building to maintain “international competitiveness,” said Schmidt. Because of these new building needs, and the sheer magnitude of deferred maintenance costs, Stone said, some capital renewal “will have to be financed through Institute debt.”

Amster said he hopes to kick off a new effort to systematically attack capital renewal issues at a CRSP meeting early this year. He envisions that the Department of Facilities will organize “an analysis process for how to invest in our existing buildings.”

He hopes that the process will be transparent and involve the community ­— to an extent. Facilities has a thick document containing the details of the building maintenance costs that add up to the $2.1 billion figure, but Amster has no plans to make it public. He said he worries that MIT community members would overwhelm Facilities with their personal input and opinions, interfering with Facilities’ ability to do its job.

Administrators are optimistic

Institute leaders are optimistic that the deferred maintenance issue will be brought under control.

Stone said that the MIT Corporation has been informed of the issue and understands its importance. They and other stakeholders, she said, “are going to begin to develop mechanisms to find funding to get this done … they’re committed to finding answers. It’s a very positive story.”

“I believe it is my generation’s responsibility to come to grips with this issue and provide a roadmap for how to renew MIT,” Amster said.