"If You Can't Maintain It, Don't Build It"
Urban Crossroads #37

                A broken pavement in the Sports City district of Amman. (Paul Tate)

                A broken pavement in the Sports City district of Amman. (Paul Tate)

A young Jordanian architect who is studying abroad recently told me that one of the most useful and enjoyable courses he has taken dealt with the development of tourist facilities. The course instructor, who has had some experience in our region, emphasized a simple rule for the construction of new projects: "if you can't maintain it, don't build it."

Unfortunately, maintenance is not one of our points of strength in Jordan. Problems relating to poor or non-existent maintenance are widespread. Not too long ago, I read with sympathy a column in this newspaper that criticized maintenance problems at Amman's Queen Alia International Airport. Not only do we Jordanians deserve a well-maintained airport, but for many visitors to Jordan, this airport is both the first and last place they use during their stay here. A poorly maintained airport will have a negative impact on the country's image abroad, especially since Jordan is developing tourism as an important component of its economy and also emphasizes openness to the outside world.

Maintenance problems of course do not begin or end with the airport. They are visible all around us, especially in our public buildings and also our public spaces. When constructing buildings in Jordan, as with other developing-world countries, a common approach is to concentrate on completing the building, but not on giving attention to what happens to it afterwards. Consequently, no plans are developed and no resources are put aside for upkeep and maintenance. What often takes place is that the building gradually is run into the ground. If the funds exist, eventually it will be abandoned for a newer building. If not, its users will have to deal with a dysfunctional physical setting that is coming apart at the seams.

The field of facilities management has emerged to deal with buildings once they are completed. Experts in this area consider a wide range of issues affecting buildings, including waste disposal, energy efficiency, as well as upkeep and maintenance. Their expertise even is brought in during the planning phases of buildings, and they make recommendations regarding the design and materials used so that a building would serve its owners and users in the most cost-effective manner.

Accordingly, buildings above a certain size will require a maintenance staff, which may be in-house and dedicated to maintenance and upkeep on a continuous basis, or may be part of a maintenance company that is contracted to make maintenance inspection and follow-up visits. The maintenance staff would inspect the building regularly according to a specially prepared checklist. This would allow them to identify maintenance problems and to address them before they get out of hand. Prevention always is better than treatment. These issues rarely are taken into consideration in Jordan, where the field of facilities management barely exists. The decline of our buildings therefore usually begins the moment they are completed.

In many cases, not having a building at all is far better than having an un-maintained or even a poorly maintained one. We very much can do without more buildings that end up as dysfunctional white elephants, and serve as reminders of inadequate upkeep and maintenance capacities. Even building types that are needed for the efficient and healthy functioning of society do not have to be conceived as large-scale and elaborate construction projects, for many of society's activities, whether administrative, economic, cultural, or educational, can be carried out most effectively and efficiently in simple and basic premises, which also are easier to maintain. On a related note, investing in our human resources usually is far more rewarding than investing in big expensive buildings that we cannot take care of. Whenever the choice is between developing minds or constructing buildings, we should give prominence to the former over the latter. We are a society with extremely limited resources, and we should be very careful as to how we allocate these resources.

As countries of the developing world strive to move forward, there is no shortage of useful mottos to follow. Amongst those, "if you can't maintain it, don't build it" should be given prominence.

Mohammad al-Asad

April 8, 2005