Tech Success: NIH manages nicely with VFA

Agency: National Institutes of Health

Service provider: VFA Inc., Boston

Goal: NIH needed to more uniformly assess and summarize the physical conditions of the buildings at its 27 campuses. Such assessments would lead to more exact budget forecasts and more informed priority designations for building repair.

Obstacle: NIH has many types of buildings, from research labs to administrative offices, dispersed around the country. As a result, assessments were being done by different consulting firms or in-house personnel, leading to fluctuations of evaluation standards.

Payoff: More exact assessments of the costs and severity of building repairs. Also, NIH's engineering services' department can submit more precise budget requirements for upcoming years.

Solution: Using an agencywide integrated solution of software and assessment services, VFA will give NIH a unified picture of the conditions of all of its buildings. On the software side, VFA's Web-based software maintains a repository of detailed building information. NIH employees and systems can access information anywhere. On the consulting side, the company's in-person condition assessments are geared to building life-cycle planning.

Peter Cholakis, vice president of marketing for VFA Inc.

Firm brings facilities service onto Web

From a retirement home for research-lab primates to the world's largest medical library, the National Institutes of Health has a staggering variety and number of buildings to maintain.

To keep up with repairs and plan ahead, NIH must complete a "condition assessment" of its research laboratories, hospitals and administration buildings -- 9 million square feet of building space across 27 campuses -- on a three-year cycle. Building deficiencies are prioritized according to whether they need to be fixed immediately or within a few years, allowing the agency to plan budget forecasts.

While NIH was able to do this work using numerous engineering firms and its own staff, agency officials wanted to adopt uniform procedures to make the assessments more accurate and less costly. So the agency turned to the facility management software and services from VFA Inc., Boston, formerly known as Vanderweil Facility Advisors.

What appealed to NIH was VFA's integrated approach. "We found lots of companies that could do facility assessment and lots of companies that had software to manage the information, but very few had both," said Ed Bain, chief of resource management in NIH's division of engineering services.

The agency selected VFA based on the success of a pilot project, completed in September 2001. The organizationwide service, commissioned in August, was obtained through a General Services Administration schedule, and will cost approximately $500,000 a year, Bain said.

Under this agreement, VFA will assess buildings and then allow NIH to access the data via the Web from an application service provider-styled setup. Approximately 30 percent of the cost is for software, and the rest goes for assessments, said Peter Cholakis, vice president of marketing for VFA.

Before using VFA's services, NIH had a grab bag of approaches, Bain said. The assessments conducted by the engineering companies and in-house staff resulted in an assortment of reporting methods and cost estimates.

For instance, one animal laboratory in Montana requested $1 million to repair a leak. Another assessment team found that the repairs requested were mostly cosmetic. The building was an old one, and the staff felt it needed to be spruced up as well as patched up.

"That could have been fixed for a lot less than what they were asking," Bain said.

NIH looked at a number of offers that integrated the assessments and software, such as one by Facility Engineering Associates P.C., Fairfax, Va. VFA appealed to NIH because it could offer the comprehensive manpower coverage the agency needed.

"This allows NIH to level the playing field. VFA assigns NIH an assessment team to look at all the buildings. It's the same set of eyes, so it's consistent," Bain said. As a result, overestimates such as the one in Montana can be minimized.

The agency also found VFA's work with GSA to be a selling point. GSA uses the service to assess building conditions of its border stations. The software allows the agency to detail NIH's current and deferred building maintenance plans to Congress.

Thus far, NIH has been pleased with the results. Bain said one VFA assessment of an office building cost about $80,000, compared to more than twice that previously charged by an engineering firm.

"We're getting a better bang for our buck right now with VFA," he said.

VFA is a firm of 60 professional architects, engineers and software developers who have assessed more than 11,000 properties since 1998.

Built on an Oracle Corp.-based database platform, VFA's software keeps detailed data such as gross square footage and code compliance. VFA software also interfaces with a database of repair cost estimates offered by R.S. Means Company Inc., Kingston, Mass., which is considered to be the construction industry standard for building costs.

Cholakis said VFA's service would appeal particularly to government systems integrators who bid operation and maintenance contracts of military bases. The software allows integrators to offer independent audits for competitions under the Office of Management and Budget Circular A-76, which dictates rules for public-private competitions for government work.

Raytheon Co., Lexington Mass., used the services for a $300 million base operations support contract for the Guam Naval Base, Cholakis said.

VFA also has worked for the Army Health Facility Planning Agency to assess 26 facilities. VFA's services also are used by the Texas Department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation to keep tabs on its 1,500 hospitals, schools and state centers.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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