The new Opera House in Oslo has lead to an onslaught of grand, expensive new cultural centres being built all over the country. Photo: Thinkstock

Project lust and monument building

We build too many new buildings, and don’t take enough care of the ones we have— resulting in monument building and project lust.

ARCHITECTURE: Operating and maintaining old buildings does not get the same attention as new construction of monumental structures. This pattern is repeated time and again, from roads and railways to hospitals and schools. With hospitals, it can be so bad that it almost seems as if you have to construct a new building to get new equipment.

That’s what Nils Olsson observes in his feature article in the Norwegian national newspaper Dagens Næringsliv from 11 September. He is a professor at the Department of Production and Quality Engineering at NTNU. This article has been republished with permission from Dagens Næringsliv.

Infrastructure management is neglected

Big projects and new buildings are in. These monumental structures convey status, attract attention, and show results – which means that we’re spending too much time on new building projects, and too little time maintaining the buildings that we already have. There are two reasons why we spend our resources on new projects and building monuments: partly because new projects and buildings are sexy and visible, and partly because the public sector stimulates new building through project packages.

Operating and maintaining old buildings does not get same attention as building new monuments. This is a pattern that appears in the building of everything from roads and railways to hospitals and schools. The Association of Consulting Engineers, Norway has published several summaries of the maintenance backlog in Norwegian infrastructures and buildings. The latest summary, published in 2015, showed a backlog of 2600 billion kroner. That is almost half of what is in the Norwegian Government Pension Fund. We aren’t as rich as we thought.

Nils Olsson. Foto: NTNU

Nils Olsson. Photo: NTNU

Huge effort needed to solve the problem

Infrastructure problems that come from lack of maintenance are usually addressed via large projects. The lack of maintenance and upgrades over long periods require a huge effort. New, high-speed trains are much sexier than keeping the old ones alive.

Within the hospital system, this mentality is so widespread that you practically have build something new to get funding for equipment. Upgrades are only considered when they are a part of large investments. Daily operations run on starvation diets, and have to work with what they have. And while users wait for new projects to be finished, they get a sub-par product in the form of worn-out hospitals, bad indoor climates in schools, and poor quality roads.

Started a frenzy

The new Opera House in Oslo has led to an onslaught in which grand, expensive cultural buildings are being constructed all over our country. When Oslo got a pretty new building, suddenly all other municipalities wanted one, too. Indirectly, this means that municipalities suddenly can’t afford things like daily operations and maintenance.

We have spent a lot of time researching national investments. Before budgets are decided, projects are carefully examined to make sure that they’re properly prepared and have a realistic cost estimate. One checkpoint is to take a look at the ‘zero-alternative’, or what it would cost to maintain what we have instead of building something new. But this isn’t very popular. People ask “Why don’t we get anything?”

New building projects are seen as gift to the public, a way to show that a community is being shown interest. Good maintenance doesn’t give the same kick. It doesn’t show that the government cares about your community in the same way. Some people almost consider good maintenance to be negative— by keeping older buildings going, you can’t invest in something new and grand.

What is the solution?

What can we do about this?

What is and isn’t considered sexy is difficult to change, and it takes time. Incentives can be dealt with. We can move money from investment to maintenance. We can reward projects that give good results over time when it comes to operations and maintenance.

Nils Olsson has been the leader of several research projects on railway maintenance and quality assurance of large national investments.