Preserving Facility-Related Institutional Memory
Spotlight: Research Universities, from "Business Briefs" department in the July/August 2011 issue of Business Officer
By Judy Maretta and Colette Sheehy
Would you tear down a building designed by Thomas Jefferson? Neither would we, at least not intentionally. At the University of Virginia (U.Va.), Charlottesville, as we construct new buildings, we also renovate, repurpose, or reassign existing facilities. To determine which treatment is best requires that we know the particular building's history. Unfortunately, at many universities—including our campus of 537 buildings—that information is difficult to find.
We set out to preserve our institutional memory by centralizing historic and essential information about facilities in an easily accessed format, which became U.Va.'s building documentation repository (BDR). Our work has evolved into a cross-functional institutional practice. Decision makers can easily access facilities data, including any potential restrictions on future assignments of space. For example, a manager can instantly review historical details, deed and gift restrictions, and funding sources—crucial factors in making sound decisions about use or disposal of the facility.
Setting Some Ground Rules
A working group of 15 departmental stakeholders determined the precise data to be stored in the new repository. Fortunately, we were able to expand on an existing historic preservation plan and a space/building database. When group members began researching several buildings to identify information valuable for current planning, they soon confirmed that most key details were not in a standardized database but in paper form or various electronic formats. Some facts resided solely in someone's memory or in a confidential file in the development office or president's office. The initial effort to find and enter documents took 14 months, and the process is ongoing.
Each department assigned an individual to research, upload, and maintain data related to its specific area of responsibility. He or she identified essential data such as official naming documents; deeds and deed restrictions; historic significance; environmental concerns; funding sources; gift restrictions; and other limitations or certifications. The document repository also includes current and historic photographs and sometimes even articles related to the buildings or their uses.
Customizing Database Components
Because the information we stored was unique to U.Va., it made sense for our IT and communications department to develop and maintain a software application to manage the repository. We also needed to incorporate existing data from our space/building database and consider various levels of access and security.
The resources required for software implementation included the cost of the server and personnel time for data collection. The Web-based application took about three months to build and about one month to test. While the cost for researching and uploading the information for the existing buildings was substantial, capturing the details for new buildings coming online is proving to be efficient because the database and defined processes are now firmly in place. Currently, 15 data stewards from various departments maintain the data, and more than 400 individuals have requested and been granted various levels of access to the BDR.
Far-reaching Facilities Tools
The University of Virginia's building documentation repository is an example of the value of engaging multiple departments to centralize essential information about buildings in an easy-to-use searchable database. An array of university administrators with varying responsibilities—including vice presidents, school leaders, and departmental space managers—are now able to consult the repository before making decisions regarding reassignment, repurposing, or demolition of buildings. This process may serve as a model for others looking to create a bridge to rich institutional history for future decision makers.