Cleaning Preserves Buildings For The Future

In my early 20’s, I had the opportunity to visit Athens, Greece, considered to be the birthplace of Western civilization. Walking through the streets and ruins was an awe-inspiring experience. After all, many of the things in our modern civilization can be traced back to the ancient Greeks, including philosophy, architecture, urban planning and, yes, even sanitation.

Just take a minute to consider how many wars, famines, pandemics, droughts and catastrophes have happened since the still-standing ruins were built in Athens. The fact that they are still around is a testament to the civilization that built them.

Historically, many of the roots of our basic societal norms started with ancient Greeks. Certainly, the foundations of our knowledge of sanitization, cleanliness and hygiene can be traced back to the emphasis that those before us placed upon bathing, trash removal and removal of sewage from our living areas. Professionals of archaeology have also spent a lot of time looking at the way ancient civilizations built their dwellings. This all gives us insight into what made human society tick.

It is humbling to see the Parthenon in person. For me, it is also a reminder of how temporary many things in Western civilization have become — particularly our built environments.

I often wonder what it’s going to be like in 2,500 years, when archaeologists of the future are digging through our structures, our sewage and our trash in an attempt to gain insight into who we were as a civilization. What will our buildings say about the way we built them; the way we maintained them; the way we cleaned them? Will we be regarded as a society that emphasized cleanliness and hygiene, as our ancient predecessors had? Or will we be remembered as a throwaway culture that our future generations have torn down and built over?

The way our buildings were designed in the past used to leave me with little hope, since cleaning has historically been an afterthought in large facility design. We usually have to overcome an abundance of storage space issues; logistical issues with too many horizontal or high, unreachable surfaces; restrooms that are inaccessible to cleaning equipment; and outlets that are spread too far apart. This is usually exacerbated by the use of above- and on-the-floor surfaces that are difficult to clean. With that in mind, it is not too difficult to understand that we run our buildings to failure every 30 to 50 years.

This is not a set-up for discouragement. In fact, it’s quite to the contrary. I’ve recently noticed an encouraging trend of building designers seeking input from their cleaning departments on how to better design new facilities so as to be easily maintained.

I was recently invited to take part in one of these brainstorming events. The first question that was asked was, “We can design something beautiful, but how do we design it to look beautiful AND be cleanable?”

When I was finished picking my jaw up off of the floor, I had an important realization: our society is temporary. Historically speaking, the odds are against us as a civilization to exist for another 2,500 years. What we build and what we maintain are a reflection of our society, and our buildings provide the basis for conclusions about our culture. When the archaeologists of the future are sifting through our trash and digging up our old buildings, what will the way we cleaned them say about us as a civilization? 
Ben Walker is the Director of Business Development for ManageMen, Inc., a leading cleaning industry consultancy specializing in training, transitions, auditing and educational materials. In addition to his consulting work, Walker is the author of ISSA’s best selling book: 612 Cleaning Times and Tasks.