Leaky roofs, power outages are symptoms of deferred maintenance at NIST

A new study found NIST is losing equipment and research hours due to run down buildings that require deferred maintenance.

National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) may be the agency that monitors other agencies’ standards, but a new report concluded NIST fell short on some standards of its own.

The report published by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (NASEM) found about 63% of NIST research facilities failed to meet federally established standards for acceptable building conditions.

The state of the 1950s and 1960s-era buildings significantly hinder NIST’s research mission. The agency’s two primary facilities are in Gaithersburg, Maryland and Boulder, Colorado and 80% of that space is used as research laboratories, according the NASEM report.

“The labs have steadily deteriorated, leaving NIST with an $834 million backlog in deferred maintenance,” said Kent Rochford of the International Society of Optics and Photonics and a member of the NASEM committee at a webinar about the report on Feb. 7.

The report produced by NASEM’s committee on technical assessment of capital facility needs found that due to severe funding deficits over a span of decades, many NIST laboratories are not able to consistently provide an effective environment to support sensitive equipment and research. The report recommends a significant funding increase to support modernization and repairs for NIST facilities. In one case, the roof leaked at a research lab and caused $2.5 million in damage including ruining an electron microscope. The leak shut down work for six months.

“When you start to look at that benefit-cost ratio, the failure to fix a roof has an impact that probably has a five to seven and a half million dollar immediate consequence and additional consequences to industry. It’s a great problem that needs significant investments,” said Eric Dillinger, a vice president at Woolpert Industries and a member of the committee.

Both campuses suffer from intermittent power outages, and the central utility plant in Gaithersburg has no reserve capacity and a high volume of water and steam leaks, causing building leaks and foundation failures, according the report.

“It’s a direct result of more than 20 years of inadequate federal investment. The investments in safety capacity maintenance and major repairs (SCMM), never exceeded $100 million. And that’s an amount that’s well below the recommended 4% of current replacement value that’s required for maintenance and repairs,” said Rochford.

He said construction funding has been both erratic and unreliable, making it difficult to plan for capital improvements. The construction account got a 125% increase for fiscal 2023, but also saw a 165% increase for projects directed outside of NIST facilities.

“If you’re doing major facility construction, renovation, repurposing, upgrading, you can’t deal with uneven, unpredictable funding. This is a multi-year plan that has to be complete,”  said committee chairman Ross Corotis of University of Colorado, Boulder.

NIST’s Office of Facilities and Property Management drafted a recovery plan with funds needed for rehabbing its facilities over the next ten years. The NASEM report will be incorporated into their future planning.

“We appreciate the time and effort the NASEM committee dedicated to reviewing our facilities and the negative impact their current conditions have on NIST’s work. Modern facilities are vital to NIST achieving its mission,” said NIST in an emailed statement.

The NASEM committee agreed with the plan, but thought it needed to go further. They figured NIST should look for construction and major renovations funding of $300 million-to-$400 million annually for at least 12 years to restore lost mission capabilities and provide facilities for new programs.

“This is really the investment for recovery, and sets them up for the investments after that for sustainability. And it’s exciting that this committee felt this will bring back full recovery, and it will allow them to be sustainable after that,” said Corotis.

Deferred maintenance is not a problem unique to NIST. Agencies across the government report backlogs of underfunded maintenance projects. The American Federation of Government Employees recently reported Beltsville Agricultural Research Center in Maryland has ongoing issues with flooding, mold and power outages.

A 2019 report from Department of Interior said its facilities had a deferred maintenance backlog $16.4 billion.



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