FM Frequency: A Place Called Subiaco

By Charles C. Carpenter, CFM
From the July 2013 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

Director of Maintenance Sam Little (right) inspects equipment with Br. Anselm Allen. (Photo: Br. Jude Schmitt O.S.B.)
Director of Maintenance Sam Little (right) inspects equipment with Br. Anselm Allen. (Photo: Br. Jude Schmitt OSB.)

Nonprofits have always faced many challenges. By the nature of these organizations, they exist and operate to serve a purpose without the revenue streams that for-profits take for granted. Often, when nonprofit budgets are tight, it is the facilities that suffer first. For most nonprofits, expert facility management (FM) is a challenge.

A nonprofit can serve many purposes: conference center, education, hospitality, house of worship, senior living, summer camp, airport, or winery. How about all of the above? Throw in some holy cows, a water treatment plant, and a few other diverse activities, and you’ll find yourself at a place called Subiaco.

Subiaco Abbey and Academy, nestled in the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains of northwest Arkansas, is a Benedictine monastic community founded in 1878. The monks of Subiaco believe in a balanced life of work and prayer. The facility confronts many of the same challenges facing other nonprofits today, which leads to a little more work and a lot more prayer.

The facilities of Subiaco have evolved over the years, with buildings added to keep up with the growth of the boarding school/academy and monastery. In 1927, the interior of the main campus building was largely destroyed by fire, causing most of the academy students to be sent home. The onset of the Great Depression created many challenges in restoring the main building to its previous vibrancy.

In the 1950s and 60s, the alumni of Subiaco Academy spurred a building boom. New buildings spread across the campus, including the first one to feature air conditioning. Today, over 20 acres of manicured grounds make up the main campus, which includes 40 buildings (16 with HVAC systems).

Many of the old structures have been modernized to keep up with changing culture and technology. Renovations created a new senior care center for aging monks. While the pre-World War II sawmill and carpentry shop has been computerized. Still, the main building remains the anchor of the campus with sections enjoying their third or fourth round of alterations.

Facility operations at Subiaco had to modernize too. At the heart of those operations is Sam Little, the director of maintenance. Fourteen years ago, Sam assumed a job that had been in the hands of a monk for over 100 years.

Subiaco owns over 1,500 acres of land serving a multitude of purposes, and this requires a diverse set of maintenance plans. Repairs might be dictated by school holidays or collection baskets. Electricity (at 12,470 volts) and natural gas are purchased and delivered wholesale. The monastery owns and maintains the town of Subiaco’s water supply.

One of the early challenges for Little was to establish a preventive maintenance program for buildings and equipment. He had to work within a budget largely based on the generosity of others and a labor pool that was sometimes “volunteered.” Little was able to convince the monks to invest in efficiency improvements. He also set up an energy management system for virtually all systems on campus, which has dramatically cut utility bills. The early 20th century monks probable never envisioned HVAC, let alone Cat5 cabling, in these facilities.

While most of the buildings at Subiaco are in great shape, they present challenges. Little says, “I wish the high-pitched clay tile roofs were more accessible. When leaks develop, it is a major expense to repair due to crane rental, as the slope is very steep [and] walking on it is not really a good option.” Meanwhile, the 100′ tall structures require tuck-pointing and waterproofing on their sandstone exteriors, which Little says is endless work.

In the old days, the monks were appointed to different jobs, not necessarily with formal training. Back then, a monk might be a plumber, cook and student dormitory dean.

While Little has been able to hire a staff that includes master plumbers and electricians, you will still find monks who fulfill FM roles. At any given moment, Br. Jude Schmitt OSB could be locksmithing, maintaining the computer network, or working the carpentry shop. Br. Eric Loran OSB helps with a fleet of over 40 vehicles and handles telecom issues. Br. Anselm Allen OSB maintains his license to be the weekend water plant and steam boiler operator and is the Abbey Fire Chief.

And, Little still works with unskilled labor. Novices (those discerning the monastic life) and young monks often perform construction demolition. Academy students may be assigned to clean buses or rake leaves. And volunteer groups arrive at all times of the year to repair pasture fences, make peanut brittle, install sprinkler system, or whatever they are called to do.

Toward the end of the 20th century, a drop in vocations and school enrollment affected Subiaco’s finances. To adjust, they modernized by converting student dorms into semi-private rooms, replacing minimalist monk quarters with private ones, and adding air conditioning across campus. When FM needs money for improvements, Little says, “they figure out a way.”

Subiaco has found new income streams by using gifts of the land to its advantage. The monks sustainably manage their forests and produce timber. A donation of certified Black Angus cattle is now a blue-ribbon herd. Pepper seeds from a former mission in Belize grew into a popular hot sauce. The carpentry shop markets intricate wood pieces. And a conference center addition can hold corporate gatherings, or even a Buddhist retreat.

Little is proud of how far FM has come, with most projects completed in-house. When something big comes along, like building a dorm, the work is still contracted out. The next big project: increasing water supply. While the monks pray for rain, Little will expand one of the reservoir lakes… just in case.

Carpenter, an alumnus of Subiaco Academy, received his first exposure to facility management work as a Freshman Dean at Subiaco.