Library project set to resume: Firms play blame game over bungled work

Keywords Environment / Technology
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Steel erection for the troubled Central Library expansion is finally expected to begin next month, library officials say. But they acknowledge the start of construction on the six-story addition won’t signal they’ve finished fixing defects on the underground garage or resolved who’s to blame for them.

While officials say they’re confident it’s safe to build atop the garage that will serve as the foundation for the addition, they say it will continue to undergo repairs for another year or so.

The legal free-for-all over who’s responsible could take even longer to resolve. In court filings, attorneys for the library and for the companies that designed and built the garage have battled repeatedly in recent months, often over sharing seemingly straightforward information.

The two-story underground garage was supposed to cost $6.9 million, and the overall project was supposed to run $102.7 million. But library officials say cracks in the concrete and other defects already have put it a year behind schedule and will add millions of dollars to the project cost.

In a lawsuit filed in August in Marion County, library officials are trying to get to the bottom of who’s responsible for the problems and hold them financially responsible for all the cost overruns.

“All I can tell you is, we will move heaven and earth to make sure Marion County taxpayers don’t get stuck because of the incompetence of others,” said Louis Mahern, president of the library board.

Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library officials won’t predict whether they’ll be able to make up lost time. The grand reopening had been planned for the first half of 2006. Now, officials decline to estimate a date.

Attorneys for the library last May suspended the principal contractor for the garage, Dayton, Ohio-based Shook Construction, citing pervasive cracks, holes and other flaws in beams and columns. In a letter at the time, a library attorney rapped Shook for failing to report “grossly defective work” to the construction managers and for using inexperienced and untrained subcontractors.

Attorneys for Shook shot back, charging in a Boone County lawsuit in June that the problems stemmed from design flaws, including placing steel reinforcing rods too close together to allow concrete to properly fill in around them. Shook’s concrete subcontractor, Premier Concrete Construction of Plainfield, said the same thing.

Premier in August filed a notice of intent to sue the library for defamation, saying bad publicity caused it to lose existing contracts and get passed over for others it otherwise would have won, putting its survival in jeopardy.

“Before construction ever started, we raised red flags galore,” Premier President Jerry Cain told IBJ last fall. He said the standard response back from engineers, however, was to “build per plans and specs.”

Premier, which never followed through with the defamation suit, filed for bankruptcy court protection last month and is ceasing operations. Cain could not be reached for comment last week.

The structural engineer that designed the garage was New York-based Thornton-Tomasetti Group. In an interview with IBJ, library attorney Scott Treadway said: “I can tell you there are design issues, but because of litigation I can’t comment on the degree or extent.”

Treadway, a partner with Tabbert Hahn Earnest & Weddle, is striking a more combative tone in court filings. In a Jan. 20 filing, he expressed exasperation over what he called Thornton-Tomasetti’s unwillingness to turn over original design documents and design calculations, and he asked Judge Theodore Sosin to impose sanctions.

“The library has cause to believe the original design information will reveal significant design errors,” the filing said. “Thus, [Thornton-Tomasetti] is resisting to produce this information at all costs.”

Julia Blackwell Gelinas, an attorney with Locke Reynolds representing Shook Construction, said: “I do think the library has made the design issues their focus … . I think they have come to the realization there are some major design issues out there.”

But Gerard Gregerson, an attorney with Bingham McHale representing Thornton-Tomasetti, said the problems with the garage stem from either poor workmanship by Shook and its subcontractors, or failure to properly inspect the work by Patriot Engineering and Environmental of Indianapolis.

Gregory Cafouros, a partner with Kroger Gardis & Regas representing Patriot, responded that no one has provided the firm with specifics about what it allegedly did wrong, even though it is a defendant in the library’s Marion County lawsuit.

“Patriot Engineering identified and reported every construction defect they observed” to the construction-management team, Cafouros said. “But corrective action simply wasn’t taken.”

Gregerson said the library’s consultant, Skokie, Ill.-based Construction Technology Laboratories, raised concerns about the project’s design, but Thornton-Tomasetti was able to put them to rest at a January meeting. “We satisfied ourselves there are no design issues with respect to the facility,” he said.

Thornton-Tomasetti ranks as the nation’s 10th-biggest engineering and architectural firm. It has had a hand in some of the world’s largest projects, including construction of the Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia, the tallest buildings in the world.

Gregerson said Thornton-Tomasetti was fighting the library’s request that it file initial design work in open court because the information includes trade secrets that give the firm a competitive edge over rivals.

According to Gregerson, Thornton-Tomasetti in August sought a protective order under which it would provide sensitive information but keep it confidential. But he said the library still has not responded to that motion. He said Thornton-Tomasetti ultimately provided CTL and other parties what they needed through a less formal “non-dissemination agreement.”

Amid all the squabbling, attorneys for the library, project designers and contractors agree on one point: The garage will have ample strength to withstand steel erection, even with repairs continuing.

To assess the extent of the problems, CTL demolished some concrete structures and bored holes in others. Library attorney Treadway called the problems CTL found “substantial and extensive,” while attorneys for contractors used milder terms.

Part of the problem with the concrete stems from steel reinforcing rods that were installed in the wrong spots, Gregerson said. He said the investigation also found that workers had installed too few steel stirrups within beams, forcing the library to pursue reinforcements to add strength.

The firm hired by the library to make repairs, Structural Preservation Systems of Baltimore, started charging ahead with repairs about 90 days ago, Treadway said.

Library officials allowed Shook, the principal garage contractor, to return to the site last July to assist with repairs. But Treadway said the library board later decided not to involve Shook with repairs, though its workers remain on site completing work under its original contract.

Shook attorney Gelinas said the library has refused to pay the firm the approximately $1 million it is owed for investigating problems and making repairs.

“Shook does not believe it is required to work for free,” she said, arguing that most of the work stemmed from design problems.

The library and Shook may not have to try to get along much longer. Shook does not have a role in the six-story addition that will be part of the next phase of the project.

Thornton-Tomasetti does, however. Attorneys for the library and the design firm acknowledge it could be awkward operating as a team on site while continuing to tangle in court.

“I’m hoping we can work together, but it has been difficult, given the tone of some of the filings the library has made,” Gregerson said.

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