MC's Physical Plant staff raising the bar

MC's Physical Plant staff raising the bar

The story below was written for the Daily Times' Feb. 28 "Progress Never Sleeps" special section, which includes feature stories on residents whose jobs are more frequently at night or at times and places when most readers would not encounter them.

Feb. 28, 2012
Contact: Karen B. Eldridge, Director of Communications

Donna Holmes’ day at Maryville College begins at 4 a.m. in the classrooms, studios and galleries of the Clayton Center for the Arts.

After four hours of cleaning in the three-story building (which includes a 250-seat recital hall), she moves on to clean Gibson Hall, the four-story residence hall that is home to 150 students.

A housekeeper who’s been on the College’s Physical Plant staff since March 23, 1988, Holmes is considered a veteran of the department and has cleaned, dusted, polished, swept and vacuumed every building on campus, but she prefers to work in facilities that promise interaction with students and in structures that have been recently constructed or renovated.

“I like to take a new building and keep it looking that way,” she said, smiling.

Meeting expectations

Holmes’ attitude is not uncommon among the College’s 36-person Physical Plant staff, according to Physical Plant Director Andy McCall, who also joined the MC staff in 1988. In the last decade, employees have been raising the bar for cleanliness, attractiveness and maintenance of campus facilities.

“Six years ago, we felt that the Physical Plant needed more documentation of what we were trying to accomplish, so we put together a survey based on APPA [Association of Physical Plant Administrators] standards and sent it out to faculty, staff and Cabinet members,” McCall explained.

APPA groups standards into levels 1 through 5. For example, a level 1 standard (termed “Orderly”) for cleaning requires that floors and base mouldings “shine and/or are bright and clean;” a level 4 (termed “Moderate”) describes floors that are swept clean but dull.

“In our survey, we described the levels and asked people to tell us where they thought we were, and we also asked people to indicate which level they would like to see us perform at.”

Questions were asked of each of the distinct areas within Physical Plant: custodial services, grounds and maintenance.

“The report back was a very detailed piece of information that had a lot of good feedback,” McCall said, “and the answers weren’t as bad as we thought they were going to be.”

But based on what survey participants said the College’s standards should be in different areas, staff members committed to raising the bar. Using the APPA standards, McCall and supervisors put together an operating services handbook and developed schedules for routine duties like mopping, mowing and painting.

APPA standards weren’t the only forces pushing the staff to raise the bar. The College’s investments in renovations, new construction and landscaping had the same effect, McCall said.

In the last six years, the College has constructed Gibson Hall for student housing, renovated the Alumni Gymnasium for use as a large multipurpose facility, renovated the Thaw Hall basement for classroom and office space and assumed ownership and upkeep of the Nathalia Wright House and Chilhowee Club, which are both located off campus. A $3 million Campus Beautification and Improvement Plan carried out in 2002 and 2003 expanded areas for landscaping, which greatly impacted the work of the grounds crew.

“Once things are made nice, you want to keep it that way,” McCall said. “Expectations go up.”

And of course, the opening of the $47-million Clayton Center for the Arts in early 2010 added more to the department’s responsibilities.

“The Clayton Center is a whole new ballgame for us,” McCall said. “That building came with a different set of dynamics and higher expectations. Its usage is not like anything we’ve ever had on campus, and that [William Baxter Lee III Grand] foyer – we’ve never had anything like that.

“We’re learning daily how to manage the facility.”

But the physical plant director said he feels good about the progress. As an example, McCall points to the time it now takes his staff to erect the orchestra shell on the Nita Eckles West stage. When the Center first opened, the job took four hours. These days, it’s up in less than two hours.

Overseeing lawns, fields and forests

The Maryville College campus occupies roughly 320 acres, and it’s the job of Grounds Superintendent Robert Early and six full-time employees to make sure that lawns are mowed, trees are pruned, flower beds are weeded and College Woods trails are maintained.

Currently, Early is overseeing the preparation of acreage in the College Woods that, in the spring, will become sites for two apple and pear orchards. A collaboration of McCall, Maryville College biology professor Dr. Drew Crain and Mountain Challenge Director Bruce Guillaume ’76, the orchard project was proposed as another way that the College could meet educational, wellness and stewardship goals. Students will be involved in the maintenance of the orchard and eventually, the harvest.

Keeping the College’s six athletic fields in tip-top condition is also a responsibility of the grounds crew.

“Actually, we probably spend more money and time on game fields as we do the rest of the campus grounds,” McCall said, explaining the various related jobs – regularly mowing the fields, aerating them, fertilizing them, overseeding them and striping them for games.

Working with the College’s athletics staff and turf specialists at the University of Tennessee, the MC grounds crew developed a master plan for the ball fields.

“We raised the bar with the purchase of a top dresser,” McCall said. “All of our fields are Bermuda grass, and the top dresser spreads a layer of sand that promotes healthy growth.”

Keeping up with industry standards

Constantly evaluating where the Physical Plant operations are and where they need to be, McCall and his supervisors stay informed about industry standards and “best practices.”

For example, the housekeeping crews have adopted “green cleaning” practices and are now using environmentally friendly products and cleaning techniques. Not only are staff members reporting better health as a result; supervisors are reporting savings to their budgets.

The department is buying better equipment to do the jobs and working toward regular maintenance of equipment and facilities. McCall said he has one staff member trained in a software program that keeps up with intervals for tasks like changing air filters in HVAC units and servicing the department’s fleet of automobiles.

In terms of maintenance, McCall said much of the department’s work is still reactionary. His long-term goal is to implement a preventative maintenance program that would put projects, repairs and replacements on a cycle.

“It’s still hard to quantify the savings, but everyone agrees that preventative maintenance pays for itself.”

Moving toward a 24-hour operation

In addition to outlining standards for which the Physical Plant staff could strive, the 2006 survey made McCall and supervisors look closely at their personnel.

“We realized that to accomplish what the campus wanted us to be, we were short of labor,” he explained.

In the last six years, the Physical Plant department has added employees, and it’s close to becoming a 24-hour operation. While the majority of employees work 7:30 a.m. until 4 p.m., steam plant operators Jim Finley, Steve McCulloch and Charlie Goodson work in shifts around the clock.

The addition of the Clayton Center and its heavy use in the evening is pushing administrators to discuss seriously a second shift for housekeeping. An afternoon and night crew could spend more time on floor care of the whole campus, McCall pointed out.

Dana Smith, Maryville College’s vice president and treasurer since 2008, is the Cabinet officer to whom the Physical Plant reports. He said he agrees that the department needs to move to a 24-hour operation to meet the campus’ and community’s needs and expectations.

But he said he’s extremely pleased with the work that’s being conducted from early morning until late evening.

“I am humbled and impressed by the level of commitment by our Physical Plant employees,” he said. “They have really raised the bar of performance on this campus.”

Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the fall 2016 semester is 1,197.