Faces of Facilities

Faces of Facilities: Dave Irvin from Florida State University

For facilities management professionals, the pandemic is not only a major challenge, but also a rare opportunity—a chance to prove just how important their work is.

That’s according to Dave Irvin, Associate Vice President of Facilities at Florida State University (FSU). As the latest participant in our “Faces of Facilities” profile series, Irvin explained he started his current role a little over a year ago.

“It’s a unique experience to agree to become head of facilities for an institution when you don’t have a chance to actually see the facilities until your first day on the job,” he said. “Because of COVID, both Florida State and I took a leap of faith. I am so fortunate they were willing to take that chance.” 

Although Irvin is new-ish to FSU, he has been in facilities management for over 30 years. He’s led large facilities teams at five different universities, including the University of Houston and the University of Tennessee. Irvin also currently serves as National Board Chair of APPA, a major organization for educational facilities professionals. 

As a leading research institution based in Tallahassee, Fla., FSU ranks among the Top 20 public universities in the United States and has about 43,000 students. In his role, Irvin oversees a facilities team of almost 1,000 workers who maintain more than 1,000 acres and 300 buildings.

To learn more about Irvin’s career and his take on the importance of facilities management, please check out his interview below.

How did you get your start in the field?

Like many, I did not start in facilities management. I often kid that few kindergarteners list the three things they want to be when they grow up as a police officer, a fire fighter, and a facilities manager.

After college at the University of Nebraska and Oxford and degrees in Architecture and Planning, I started as a design architect in private practice. I soon felt, however, that I could be a much better architect if I understood the owner’s perspective. A friend suggested I apply for a job as campus architect and facilities manager at a small university in Kansas: “It will give you great experience doing lots of things and really learning what it takes to oversee facilities.”

I applied, was chosen, and found my true love. I’ve never looked back and LOVE what we do.

What’s your best mistake, and what did you learn from it?

Great question—we all learn much more from our mistakes than our success.

Early in my career I was sent to a job site as our firm’s project manager. Just out of college, needing to direct seasoned veterans, I was scared to death. I thought I needed to project confidence, so I went in guns blazing thinking I could “fake it until I make it.” Of course, I went down in flames!

Afterwards a long-time contractor (who soon became a mentor) pulled me aside and said, “Son, never be afraid to admit what you don’t know. And NEVER be afraid to ask for help. Rely on the talent around you.”

I learned then a lesson I have always kept in mind: The team you have surrounding you is the most important ingredient for any success. Be honest and engage them. They are the most valuable resource we have!

What are some of the biggest facilities management issues at your organization? Are there any unique FM challenges (or benefits) compared to some other organizations?

Many of my colleagues would answer budgets, lack of resources, or deferred maintenance. Those are all tough issues, of course, but they are issues we in facilities management have faced for decades. While challenging, we will continue to be resourceful and creative in meeting them.

For me the biggest issues, challenges, AND opportunities always comes back to our people. They have literally been on the front lines throughout these past two unprecedented years. They are exhausted, overwhelmed, and looking for how they go forward. Forty percent of our positions are vacant, so they are covering multiple jobs. The Great Resignation complicates these problems even more.

How do we support, value, reward, and embrace our team? How do they connect to the mission of our institutions and understand how critical their roles are to that success? How do we provide them engaging, compelling career paths that lift up both them and our organization? How can those paths provide work/life balance in a diverse, equitable, and inclusive Facilities Family?  

Tough questions, but I’m excited about tackling them! I know the answers will lead to better facilities teams and greater success.

How did the COVID-19 pandemic change the way you operate? Were there any specific steps you took to address the health and safety issues?

Like many, Florida State went virtual in March 2020, but the facilities team remained on site. Suddenly many of the tasks we have always handled assumed dramatic urgency. Customers who never thought about HVAC or custodial services were asking about MR-13 filters and cleaning protocols.

We shifted our custodians away from cleaning individual offices to enhanced cleaning of restrooms, elevators, lobbies, and public spaces. We developed a “COVID Team” to stay on the forefront of CDC and industry guidance and respond as spaces had COVID-positive individuals or to answer health and safety inquires. We increased airflow and air changes, recommissioned buildings so their systems worked optimally, upgraded to medical-grade filters, and deployed over 15,000 individual room purifiers across campus.

Plus we dramatically increased our communications on all media platforms.  

Virtual was a mode many on campus doubted could be fully successful. Instead we learned that in many ways virtual platforms can provide valuable tools to enhance and augment what we deliver and how we exceed our mission. Many of the lessons learned in the Crucible of Crisis are now leading us to re-examine how we use space, what our facilities need to be, how those facilities celebrate our brand, and how we need to reorient our facilities team to embrace that future.

Many of these changes are now acknowledged best practices. We do not anticipate going back to what we did in 2019. Instead we are embracing these changes. Our customers demand nothing less as we envision facilities for 2030.

What are some of the main compliance issues you as an FM pro have to deal with? And just how important is staying compliant in your role?

Health and safety compliance has a much greater urgency with many more anxious about how we ensure not only compliance but heightened standards. What we have experienced these past two years has placed facilities front and center, making compliance more urgent, more a focus, and much more public.

All of that is good. It is incumbent upon us as facilities leaders to direct and focus this attention toward those goals we have all championed for years.

What’s your favorite part about working in the industry? What’s your least favorite part, and how would you change it?

My favorite part of our industry? We never have a dull day! Just when we believe we’ve seen everything and solved everything, a pandemic, supply chain issues, or the Great Resignation requires our leadership. We are continually challenged, which means we can continually learn!

I love what we do! We get to be at the center of EVERYTHING. We can make a real difference to so many!

My least favorite part? There aren’t enough hours to do everything we’d like.

How would I change that? I’m working on cloning but not sure I’ll get it down.

How can company leaders make facilities management a value within their organization?

Luckily, I believe the pandemic dramatically illustrated the value of facilities management, elevating our importance and what we bring. We moved from merely being a necessary cost to a service center to an acknowledgement we are central to the mission of our institutions.

We moved from wishing we had a seat at the table to heading the table. Our challenge is continually leading and providing the professionalism, commitment, talent, and passion our teams bring to create solutions.

Where do you see the industry heading in five years? Are you noticing any major trends?

Where our industry heads in the next five years is in many ways up to us. Unparalleled times give us unparalleled opportunities. If we embrace them, facilities management can be central to exciting changes. We have a seat at the table. How will we use it will determine where our industry can head.

What are you most proud of?

I’m incredibly proud of our people! They are AMAZING. They continually give their all, lead into change, and find new solutions! There is no one I would rather have in a crisis or on our life raft if we were stranded.

Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?

Go for it! There are resources and people willing to help. That community is what makes this industry so special!

You get out of facilities management what you put into it. Dive into the deep end! You won’t regret it!

Anything else you’d like to add?

It’s easy to be disheartened and pessimistic. While none of us would have wished to go through what we have experienced, I am emerging excited and re-energized! As tragic as this pandemic has been, it can lead to renewal, change, and unlimited possibilities. We only have to envision them.

How lucky are we that we can lead facilities and have a key role in building those new futures?

Are you or a colleague an FM professional interested in being profiled for the “Faces of Facilities” series? Please contact Editor Joe Bebon at JBebon@BLR.com