False hope plagued courthouse move-in

By Timothy J. Gibbons
Published by Florida Times-Union on June 10, 2012.

The May 14 date had been set for years.

That was the date the Duval County Unified Courthouse was to be substantially complete, the day the keys would be turned over to the city.

Instead, on that day almost four weeks ago, the undone project was still being discussed at a City Council oversight meeting.

When would it be wrapped up? they asked.

Soon, they were told.

"At this point, we see no reason the schedule is in jeopardy, " Public Works Director Jim Robinson, the senior manager on the project, told the committee.

A certificate that would let the city occupy the building would be issued in a few days, Robinson said then. The move would begin later in the week and operations should start May 29.

The move did begin, but the certificate of occupancy didn't come, and operations didn't start.

Instead, the building's fire-control system was still being tested weeks later. After passing the test Friday, the building was finally on its way to being issued a temporary certificate of occupancy - a sign of substantial completion - almost a month late.

That delay is likely to cost general contractor Turner Construction $4,000 a day in liquidated damages and has cost the justice system weeks of held-up hearings and trials.

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The weeks of confusion that followed the beginning of the move can be chalked up to poor communication, false assumptions and undue hope.

More prosaically, the situation came down to a fire-control system that just wasn't up to the job.

"The original design was a design attempting to be the most economical solution, " Robinson said. "When it was installed and tested, all the assumptions didn't pan out."

In the past weeks, as the system failed test after test, contractors responded by beefing it up, installing bigger fan motors and more smoke detectors.

The system worked in computer modeling, Robinson said, but not in real life.

"The assumptions didn't quite fit some of the circumstances, " he said. "That's engineering. It's not an exact science."

TLC Engineering for Architecture, the Orlando-based company that designed the system, did not return a message left Friday morning or Saturday, when its offices were closed.

Problems with the fire system started cropping up even before the May 14 oversight meeting, but city and construction officials thought they could get them under control before opening day.

The fire system is one of the last things tested in a building, because much of the other construction must be done first, if for no other reason than to discover any work that affects the safety system.

(One of the tests this past week, for example, found a vent that had been painted over during construction, hampering air flow.)

In the days leading up to the decision to begin moving into the building, many areas of the system had passed their tests, with the failures chalked up to easy-to-fix items like installing doors.

Three days after the council oversight meeting, though, several areas began to fail, including some that had passed pre-tests.

Inspectors began pointing out issues with the design of the system, including a chance that sprinklers would go off in areas other than the place where a fire occurred.

"It appears that the operation of the sprinklers in the central atrium zone might not operate that smoke evacuation zone, but one of the neighboring east or west zone[s], " an outside inspector, Zarko Ognjenovic, said in an e-mail, calling the situation something "potentially impacting the occupants in a real fire scenario."

By then, though, the move was on.

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On May 17, the judiciary had shut down operations at the old courthouse with the expectation that it'd be in a new home by the day after the Memorial Day holiday.

Although the original schedule was for the building to be issued a temporary certificate of occupancy once the building was substantially complete, Turner Construction instead filed for "stock and train" permission in the days leading up to the move. Temporary certificates will not be issued, inspection department regulations say, if "any life safety issues are unresolved."

Stock and train permission allows those "necessary to set up business" into the building, but does not allow it to open to the public.

Building Inspection chief Jim Schock issued the permission on May 18 - after conversations with the inspectors who handled mechanical, electrical and plumbing inspections and fire department representatives, said Planning Director Calvin Burney, Schock's boss.

"There were no objections to allowing them to move forward with stock and train, " Burney said.

It's unclear if that process is in accord with those laid out on the form, which says the form must be kept on site and signed by inspectors before bringing it in to the building supervisor. In bold, the form says not to expect supervisors to sign off for inspectors. "The supervisor has not been to the site and does not know the condition of the project, " it says.

On the form, each of the inspection types are checked off and signed "per Jim Schock." It's unclear if Schock himself signed or if it was done on his behalf.

(Schock was not doing media interviews, mayoral spokesman David DeCamp said last week before setting up a conversation with Burney.)

Fire inspectors were not involved in issuing that permission. Although the fire department has to give the go-ahead before a temporary or permanent certificate of occupancy, it doesn't have to be involved with stock and train permission, Fire Chief Martin Senterfitt said.

"The building official decides what signature is needed, " he said, referring to Schock. "In this case, he decided it [the fire marshal's signature] was not needed."

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As the week after the move went on, more problems began to crop up with the fire system.

By May 19, for example, Ognjenovic, the outside fire inspector, asked for someone to make sure that the fire system was properly connected to emergency backup power. Some fans hadn't been, and if he had to check them all "I am not sure that there is enough time left." (A representative from TLC assured him that "all needed equipment is now connected to emergency power.")

But issues kept piling up, according to emails between the participants.

By May 20, an earlier issue with a lack of pressure in the elevator shafts came back up. Another outside fire inspector, Steve Kowkabany, said he couldn't move ahead unless the issue was rectified.

"There is an unfortunate long history of fatalities from smoke spread through unprotected vertical shafts, " he wrote.

The issues reached their nadir a week ago, with a third of elevator shafts, a fifth of stairwells and a majority of smoke zones not pressurizing properly, thereby failing inspections.

"I do not think the building is safe to occupy on a full or partial occupancy basis, due to these repeated failures and inadequate performance of the smoke control systems, " Kowkabany said Monday. "I recommend completely troubleshooting the system and developing engineering solutions to the features causing the most failure modes."

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That, then, became the approach the city committed to, saying in the wake of Kowkabany's email that there would be a "complete reassessment" of the situation.

Both Turner Construction and TLC sent more senior people to the project and a raft of changes were made, ranging from software tweaks to doorway modifications. Turner took ownership of the issue, Robinson said, working systematically until the tests could be passed.

By Friday, those efforts had paid off, with the fire system finally passing inspection and a temporary certificate of occupancy on its way. By Monday, the city said, judges should be setting up shop in the new building, with the structure open to the public about a week after that.

That doesn't mean everything is done. Employees still have to be trained on new systems, and hundreds of items remain on a final punch list that will need to be dealt with in the weeks ahead.

It also doesn't mean the questions will end: Scheduled for Monday, four weeks after its last get-together, is a meeting of the council's courthouse oversight committee. The main speaker, the committee chairman said, will be a representative from Turner.


This is a showcase of the work done by Timothy J. Gibbons during a journalism career now stretching back more than a decade.

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