With construction of the U.S. Strategic Command’s new Command and Control Facility now hitting the homestretch, engineers in charge of the $1.2 billion project are just a tad nervous.
More than four years into construction, the building’s shell is finished. Many floors, walls and ceilings are in place. The mechanical, electrical and building security systems are almost finished. The structural work is 88 percent complete.
Soon all systems will be switched on in the building, which measures nearly 1 million square feet and sits near Offutt Air Force Base’s Capehart Road entrance.
“Usually this part of the project is just fraught with risk,” Col. John Henderson, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Omaha District, said in an interview last week. “There’s an amazing number of systems that have to interact.”
The risk is magnified because the StratCom headquarters is meant to keep running smoothly even in the most dire national emergencies. Besides command and control for all U.S. nuclear and global strike forces, the building backs up both the Pentagon and the Northern Command Headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
The power can’t be interrupted, not even for a second.
“There’s almost a zero tolerance for any glitches in the system,” Henderson said. “There can’t be a blip.”
The most critical part of the building is the new operation center, built beneath a concrete plaza near the building’s entrance. It has been constructed inside a thick steel cube, encased in a concrete shell, surrounded by catwalks and scaffolding — essentially, suspended in midair, underground.
The new headquarters is designed to replace StratCom’s current office complex, built in 1957 — an era before computers and modern satellite communications — to house what was then known as the Strategic Air Command.
When it opened, the building had one mainframe computer, said Steve Callicutt, StratCom’s primary overseer on the project. Now it has 10,000 individual workstations.
Senior StratCom leaders for years sought a new building designed for today’s technology. Nebraska’s congressional delegation secured funding almost a decade ago, and workers broke ground on the project in October 2012.
Building contractor KiewitPhelps — a partnership of Omaha-based Kiewit Corp. and Colorado-based Hensel Phelps — quickly ran into drainage problems because of the high water table at the 80-acre site, which is close to the Missouri River.
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 fall 2014, engineers discovered that some of the concrete floors hadn’t been properly designed to withstand a progressive structural collapse. That took about four months to fix.
The most persistent problem, though, has been the presence of mold growing in some of the building’s heating and air-conditioning ductwork.
If left to grow in an enclosed building, mold can cause respiratory problems in people who work there.
The discovery in September 2015 startled engineers because mold infestation is typically associated with older, poorly ventilated buildings rather than ones still under construction.
Inspectors found the mold in ducts that had already been installed as well as in those stored inside semitrailers for future use. The Army Corps stopped work until large fans could be put up to keep down moisture in the half-completed building. Air-quality monitors also were added.
Engineers spent months using robot cameras to search for mold in the 3 miles of ductwork that had already been installed. (The completed building will have 12 miles of ducts.) About 4,000 feet of ductwork was infested with mold and removed — “at great cost and disruption,” Henderson said.
The corps instituted frequent and thorough inspections. The major colonies of mold are long gone.
“We inspected everything we could get access to,” Henderson said. “We’re coming across little spots of mold, and we’ve removed it.”
The threat should end once heated and chilled air is circulating throughout the HVAC system, he said, although continued inspections will be recommended just to be safe.
“Our guarantee is to turn over a mold-free building,” he added.
That turnover is expected to take place in November — 14 months late, Henderson said. After that, StratCom had planned to bring in contractors to outfit the building with $600 million worth of equipment and critical electronics for its supersensitive mission.
The number of change orders on the project stands at about 800. That’s inevitable in a one-of-a-kind project of this complexity, Henderson said, especially one that’s heavy with fast-changing technology.
“You don’t do 800 changes and 14 months without incurring some costs,” he said. “These changes aren’t necessarily bad, and they aren’t necessarily out of line.”
The cost of the corps’ share of the project had already risen from $564 million to $601 million by last spring. Henderson said more money will be needed because the final costs haven’t been tallied, but he guessed that it would amount to “a couple of percent” of the project total.
“The mold was an unanticipated black-swan event that has kind of hounded us,” he said.
The delays also could push up the cost of StratCom’s work on the building’s interior electronics and furnishings. To lessen those costs, the corps has allowed StratCom’s contractors to begin working on the site already. The current schedule calls for the building to be fully completed, and occupied, in July 2019.
Still, things have improved from a year ago, when the extent of the mold infestation wasn’t yet known.
“It’s not all rainbows and lollipops. We’ll continue to have challenges,” Henderson said. “But we’re in a way better position than we were.”
Ultimately, he said, people won’t care about the construction schedules or change orders.
“The most important thing is we have to get the quality right,” Henderson said. “We’re going to fix it, and get the job done.”