Four thousand feet of mold-infested ductwork has now been removed from the U.S. Strategic Command’s new headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base, military officials say.
But the mold problems and earlier construction glitches have added 11 months and potentially “tens of millions” of dollars to the $1.2 billion project.
“It’s a troubled project,” said Col. John Henderson, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Omaha District, which is overseeing the StratCom project. “None of this is good news. But we’re working through it.”
The corps’ quality-assurance inspectors discovered the mold in the insulation lining some ducts last September and temporarily halted installation of parts of the heating and air-conditioning system. After sending robot cameras through the ducts for several months as well as conducting other tests, engineers determined that mold had taken root in about 7 percent of the building’s ductwork.
“We removed all that at great cost and disruption,” Henderson said. “We have to guarantee that this isn’t going to be a sick building.”
The moldy ductwork may be gone, but the cost and disruption will continue for quite a while. As recently as December, the corps had expected to turn the new building over to StratCom for occupancy by the end of 2016. Now that date has been pushed back to October 2017, Henderson said. Construction is 75 percent complete.
No one has yet determined how much the mold problem will cost because the expenses are still adding up, Henderson said. The corps and the building contractor, KiewitPhelps, now agree that the company’s early estimate of $55 million was probably too high. KiewitPhelps is a partnership of the Omaha-based Kiewit Corp. and the Colorado-based Hensel Phelps.
But a series of setbacks and construction changes already had prompted the corps last year to ask Congress to raise its authorized spending for the construction portion of the project from $564 million to $601 million.
The remainder of the total $1.2 billion price tag is slated for furnishings and sophisticated electronics and communications gear for StratCom’s sensitive military mission. It’s possible that costs for that stage of the project could also go up because of the delays, Henderson said.
“It is too early to comment on how those potential delays may affect USSTRATCOM missions and our move into the facility,” Maj. Matt Miller, a StratCom spokesman, wrote in a statement. “We are confident, however, that (the corps and the contractors) will come to a satisfactory solution.”
The mold problem was the latest of three significant construction setbacks on the new StratCom headquarters since workers broke ground on the project in October 2012.
Early on, the high water table on the 80-acre site — a short distance from the Missouri River — caused problems during the construction of the building’s underground command center. Water seeped in at some of the anchor points that stabilized a bathtub-like retention wall designed to surround the command center and keep it dry. Shoring up the anchors took several months.
Then, in the fall of 2014, engineers discovered that some of the concrete floors hadn’t been properly designed to withstand a progressive structural collapse of the type that brought down the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City after a domestic terrorist bomb explosion in 1995. It took about four months to repair the problem.
The mold problems turned up following the wet summer of 2015. Mold occurs naturally in the environment, experts say, but it can spread on surfaces that are damp or dirty. If left to grow in an enclosed building, mold can cause respiratory problems in people who work there.
“It can be debilitating if you’re exposed to it for a long time,” said Kent Rawhouser, president of the Indoor Air Quality Association.
When work was halted last year, about one-fourth of the planned 60,000 linear feet of ductwork had been installed, said Matt Bird, the corps’ project manager.
Mold eventually was found in already-installed ducts as well as in some that were staged inside the building and some that were stored in trailers at the worksite.
“The true success is that this was caught,” Bird said. “We had to get it out, destroy it and replace it.”
The corps has hired a consultant to determine how the mold got into the ducts and is awaiting the final report. Henderson believes it will show a combination of factors caused the infestation.
“When the environment is right, it’s going to grow,” Henderson said. “I’m not sure we’re ever going to put a finger on a smoking gun.”
Now the corps and KiewitPhelps have moved to shorten the time between manufacture and installation of the lined ductwork. Henderson said the materials are no longer stored at the construction site. And extra inspectors have been hired to make certain the new ductwork is free of mold.
“We’ve made sure that at every point in the supply chain, these (damp) conditions don’t exist,” he said.
While the costs of delay continue to add up, the corps and KiewitPhelps are at odds over who ultimately will pay them.
In a World-Herald story published Dec. 8, 2015, the corps and StratCom both asserted that KiewitPhelps would be held responsible, because it had failed to control temperature and humidity at the job site. The contractor declined comment at the time.
But in a letter to the corps, dated the following day, a KiewitPhelps representative asserted that the design of the ductwork was defective. The letter said the company “respectfully disagrees that the moldy ductwork is its responsibility.”
Henderson said the contract between KiewitPhelps and the corps includes a process for resolving such disputes, and that the two parties are still working closely together.
“We’re not trying to run anybody out of business,” Henderson said. “We’re trying to make decisions that are based on scientifically based facts.”
KiewitPhelps declined an interview request, but company spokesman Tom Janssen released a brief statement.
“(KiewitPhelps and the corps) differ on the cause and financial responsibility, and the subsequent schedule and cost impacts,” the statement said. “We are working collaboratively ... to settle these issues.”
Henderson said the corps estimates that actual spending on the StratCom project is running about 6 percent above initial projections, including some additional spending to deal with the moldy ductwork. That overrun, he said, isn’t especially large considering the size and uniqueness of the super-secure, 916,000-square-foot complex, which eventually will house about 3,500 workers.
“It’s a prototype,” he said. “It’s one of a kind.”
By comparison, the now-infamous Denver VA hospital construction project — which the corps’ Omaha District was recently called on to take over from the VA — is more than 180 percent over its budget.
Ultimately, Henderson said, the important thing is to get the StratCom project done right.
“Five or 10 years from now, people will forget that it was (a few) months late,” Henderson said. “But if it’s moldy, or the foundation’s sinking, that will be with that building forever.”
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