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Buildings Don’t Last Forever: Key Challenges for Managers of Aging Buildings


Building owners and users continue to extract benefits from the 72% of U.S. buildings that are 20+ years old…but at what cost?

As facility operating costs go up, maintenance backlogs increase, and budgets get tighter, the effort and costs that go into operating and upgrading older buildings are increasing. The problem encompasses a large number of building owners and users, namely because 72% of current U.S. buildings are more than 20 years old and were built with little concern for energy savings.

While cost is one of the biggest challenges for aging buildings, the need to draw as much life as possible out of outdated systems, while conserving electricity and energy is another big issue keeping building and maintenance managers up at night. 

Drilling Down to the Pain Points

Much like an older home would present unique challenges for its owner, aging buildings create interesting difficulties for the companies that operate in them. According to a recent Grainger survey, 77% of companies say that inefficient energy use is the biggest challenge to older lighting systems, while the biggest issue with older electrical systems is the fact that they may not be compliant with regulations or building codes (according to 54% of respondents). Another 50% cited inefficient energy usage as the primary issue with their electrical systems.

The biggest obstacles with plumbing systems are frequent malfunctions (42% of respondents say this) and the fact that older and newer materials do not integrate with each other (41%). The biggest challenges to HVAC systems are inefficient energy usage (64%), unavailability or discontinuation of parts (55%), and frequent breakdowns (53%). When it comes to the building’s exterior and shell, the biggest problems include mitigating leaks, water pooling, pests, and insects—all while delivering a safe environment for guests, tenants, and employees.

It’s no secret that costs are one of the biggest challenges of operating out of an aging building, but both time constraints and outdated systems also pose their own set of hurdles. “When we can’t get parts anymore or replacements don’t last or don’t work, then we move to upgrade,” one respondent points out.

“Similar to an old car—I want to keep my car as long as possible until everything starts breaking down a little bit, at what time do I start looking for a new car because it’s too much.  You have to make an engineering judgment on everything.”

Time for an Upgrade

According to survey respondents, finding older parts or new ones that will integrate with older systems; creating more efficient energy usage (particularly in lighting, electrical, and HVAC); and maintaining a safe environment for workers are all regular concerns in their older buildings. Other key issues include determining lower costs and figuring out how those reductions impact the changes that are being made to older buildings.

Older buildings often can’t support the smart, intelligent technologies that so many companies rely on today. “A building with incompatible legacy systems, proprietary system architectures, and dysfunctional operating processes,” Schneider Electric points out, “has costly consequences, not only from an operational perspective but also in its attractiveness for tenants.” The company also says that in general, buildings between 25 to 50 years old require about $110 per gross square foot of the building to maintain versus $20 gross per square foot for those 10 years old or younger.

Asked what typically prompts them to upgrade their older buildings, respondents say the main drivers include the need for emergency repairs (62% of customers say this), a broken part for which there are no replacements (62%), a planned renovation taking place in a certain area of the building (48%), or the change in a building’s use (40%).

The First Line of Defense

The good news is that an ounce of prevention usually goes a long way when managing older facilities. After all, buildings don’t just fall apart overnight. “Deterioration is a slow process that takes its toll over time, which is good news for facilities managers,” Control Solutions points out in Managing an Aging Building: How to Assess and Plan for Upgrades. “It means you have time to assess and plan for upgrades before they become costly repairs that interrupt operations.”

As buildings age, they face normal wear-and-tear. Seen as a major pain point for 71% of survey respondents for example, roofs age differently based on their type, climate, and maintenance history. The National Roofing Contractors Association and industry professionals recommend performing a roof inspection twice a year, once when the weather is at its hottest and once when at its coldest. The same approach should be used for the building’s lighting, electrical, and HVAC systems, all of which should be inspected regularly to ensure the highest levels of functionality, safety, and energy conservation.

Calling facilities managers, the “first line of defense” in an aging building, Control Solutions says these professionals know their facilities and assets better than anyone else. “The best FMs will act before equipment malfunctions or buildings deteriorate,” the company writes. “Whether because of codes, regulations, or breakdown, buildings—especially those approaching the 30-year mark—will need to be updated to some degree. It’s up to the facility manager to assess structures and assets on a regular basis to address and plan for needed upgrades.”

The information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only and is based on information available as of the initial date of publication. No representation is made that the information or references are complete or remain current. This article is not a substitute for review of current applicable government regulations, industry standards, or other standards specific to your business and/or activities and should not be construed as legal advice or opinion. Readers with specific questions should refer to the applicable standards or consult with an attorney.