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Landmark Vance Federal Building Undergoes Major Work

Thu October 13, 2011 - Southeast Edition
Cindy Riley


Until the 1980s, the Vance Building was the only Federal courthouse in Birmingham. As such, it was at the center of a number of important Civil Rights cases in the 1950s and 60s. The building also was the main downtown post office until around 1971.
Until the 1980s, the Vance Building was the only Federal courthouse in Birmingham. As such, it was at the center of a number of important Civil Rights cases in the 1950s and 60s. The building also was the main downtown post office until around 1971.
Until the 1980s, the Vance Building was the only Federal courthouse in Birmingham. As such, it was at the center of a number of important Civil Rights cases in the 1950s and 60s. The building also was the main downtown post office until around 1971. The Robert S. Vance Federal Building and U.S. Federal Courthouse is undergoing a major repair and renovation that should be completed within the next 18 months.

Considered a local landmark and the backdrop for Birmingham, Ala.’s civil rights legal battles, the Robert S. Vance Federal Building and U.S. Federal Courthouse is undergoing a major repair and renovation that should be completed within the next 18 months. Located on Fifth Avenue North downtown, the existing courthouse will maintain one historic district courtroom and three bankruptcy courtrooms.

The Christman Company is part of the Hoar Christman Joint Venture retained by the General Services Administration (GSA) to provide construction management. Christman has managed detailed historic preservation work on more than 29 national landmarks, 60 other National Register buildings and two UNESCO world Heritage Sites.

“This experience allows our team to provide more detailed input to preservation related costs during the planning and quality control issues related to procurement and implementation,” said Senior Vice President Ronald Staley. “The Vance Federal Building is typical of many monumental marble federal buildings constructed in the early 20th century with a level of quality that projected an image of longevity and timeliness. The building frame and enclosure have been reused during its century of use for multiple needs. This most current rehabilitation will allow the building to be successfully used for another century without simply demolishing it, sending it to a landfill and starting over with a less monumental structure.

“It took some time to fully understand the current condition of what we could not see, such as the old underground drainage and plumbing systems and the waterproofing system, “Staley continued. “Hidden from sight, these water containment systems have failed and understanding the failure was instrumental to designing the successful solution. The Hoar Christman team worked hand-in-hand with the architect and GSA to provide investigative trades and uncover numerous hidden conditions which would have been changes once construction started. This eliminates contingency expenditures by the owner and minimizes impact to the construction schedule.”

Protection of historic fabric is a key issue during construction. The Vance structure has extensive marble floors, wainscot and stairways that are all covered during construction.

“Inserting 21st century technology into a 20th century commercial building is one of the largest challenges,” Staley explained. “Finding space while at the same time minimizing impact to historic fabric and achieving code compliance will require the construction and design team to work closely together. Our experience in historic buildings demonstrates that one inch space can be the difference between a planned piece of equipment fitting and not fitting; then becoming a significant discussion as to how best to resolve the problem.

“Having worked on these buildings for more than two decades, we have an extensive database of suppliers for the materials used in Vance. There are a few spaces which will be museum quality, such as the historic courtroom, and other new spaces which will be contemporary work space. The challenge is to make them all work as one.”

Randall Curtis, vice president of Hoar Construction’s Government Division, explained, “We were awarded this contract in August 2009 by GSA. Hoar’s expertise in working in urban area, renovation of occupied facilities and knowledge of the Birmingham market were important pieces in our being selected for this project.”

Curtis said early work packages for the boiler replacement started in December 2010. The new boiler was completed and on line in May 2011 to allow for the shut down of the central steam piping system provided by Alabama Power. Beginning in June 2011, the major renovation project began, and is scheduled to be complete in February 2013.

The project is funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) with a focus on energy efficiency. The building will be LEED silver and have significant reductions in the energy usage. New HVAC equipment, lighting, electrical systems, etc. are being provided. A cistern is being installed to allow stored rainwater to be harvested and used for irrigation and flushing of toilets.

“This building has undergone many renovations and additions throughout its history,” said Curtis. “We never know what we might find when we remove a wall or ceiling. Most of the building has a newer ceiling system installed in recent history and above that ceiling is an older plaster ceiling system with more unknown conditions covered above it. The building was originally built as a post office and we have discovered an old observation area built above the ceiling for postal inspectors to view the postal workers as they sorted the mail to make sure no mail was opened, stolen, etc.”

Quinn Evans Architects (QEA) is the architectural firm responsible for the renovation. According to architect Leora Mirvish, “We are a firm whose roots are in historic preservation. We were selected as a part of GSA’s Design Excellence program due to our extensive experience with public and civic building renovation projects.”

Mirvish believes the building is significant from a renovation standpoint.

“The Vance Courthouse was built starting around 1918 as the Federal building, courthouse and post office to serve Birmingham. Originally only two stories, it was expanded by two stories in the late 1930s. Until the 1980s, it was the only Federal courthouse in Birmingham. As such, it was at the center of a number of important Civil Rights cases in the 1950s and 60s. The building also was the main downtown post office until around 1971, and like many buildings of this type, it was a hub of activity in downtown Birmingham. In 1971, additional courtrooms replaced the post office. In the early 1980s, the Hugo Black Federal Courthouse was built across the street, and it today houses the majority of the Federal courtrooms, with the Vance Courthouse serving primarily the US Bankruptcy Court since 1991, as well as the local Senate offices and a number of other agencies.

“The layers of history in this building are readily seen in its current form. Particularly at the first floor, the building has been carved up into a rabbit warren of courtrooms, offices and corridors that really lacked a sense of civic presence. From a practical standpoint, the existing courtrooms lack modern security measures (like distinct circulation paths for the public and the judiciary) that are required in today’s world. In addition, the newer Hugo Black Courthouse has recently added additional courtrooms, so some of the functions in that building are to be relocated to Vance,” Mirvish explained.

Mirvish points out that today, Birmingham, like many cities across the country, is struggling to revitalize its downtown. As a building listed in the National Register of Historic Places and as part of the Downtown Historic District, the 174,000 sq. ft. (16,165 sq m) Vance Courthouse is one example of neo-classical federal architecture that can be recognized as a true civic presence. The old courthouse was named for federal appeals court Judge Robert S. Vance in 1990, one year after he was killed by a mail bomb at his home. Its restoration will be a cornerstone for the renaissance of this part of the city.

“After GSA commissioned an initial study in 2005, Quinn Evans was selected as the architect, but funding was not initially available. Once that happened, QEA and our engineering team began the project by looking at the building and its history—more than 900 historical drawings, historical photographs and a survey of the existing conditions. On the programming side, we conducted interviews with all the building tenants and reviewed various agency requirements to develop a space program and a building plan. Identifying important historical features, and whether to restore them or reinterpret them for the building’s current function was key to the development of the final design. In addition, because of the building’s historic status, we have worked with the Alabama State Historical Commission to ensure that the historic preservation work meets the accepted standards,” said Mirvish.

“The building functioned much differently when it was built than it needs to today,” Mirvish continued. “Building codes and standards have changed. Mechanical systems today are far more complex than they were in the 1920s. In this project, some of the greatest architectural challenges were providing accessibility to disabled members of the public, as well as to regular users of the building and incorporating contemporary security measures necessary to protect the federal judiciary — and doing so in a manner that would elevate the experience of those who will use the building, creating a pleasant environment with an appropriate level of decorum suitable for the courts. In addition, as an ARRA-funded project, it was a major goal of the project to meet modern High Performance Building standards for energy efficiency, water usage and a number of other substantiality criteria.”

Subcontractor Bright Future Electric of Birmingham is currently handling electrical issues.

“We’re responsible for all electrical systems except security equipment and installation,” explained project manager Steve Jarrell. “That includes power distribution, light fixtures, lighting controls, fire alarm system, voice data wiring, audio-video systems and raceway for security. Equipment being used includes conduit benders, threaders, wire pullers, ladders and scissor lifts.”

Added Jarrell, “There are several challenges to this building. The first is that the second floor was renovated a few years ago and will not be part of this project. The occupants are staying during construction. For us, that means having to maintain all services to the space during construction. All incoming utilities to the building are going to be new, so we have to keep the existing services functional until we can bring the new services online. During demolition of the remainder of the building, we have to ensure that the services that feed the second floor are not disturbed. You can only imagine how difficult it is to distinguish between these services and all of the other stuff that has been installed in the past 100 years or so.

“The general contractor is charged with protecting the parts of the building with historic significant. Marble floors and walls and millwork around doors are covered for protection. Period light fixtures are to be removed and renovated for re-installation. Some areas of the building have grand arched ceilings that remain. Getting wiring to and through these areas will take thorough planning and careful execution to protect the finishes. Existing walls that remain are mostly masonry and have to be trenched to provide pathways for conduit. Floors on each level seem to have been installed in different eras and the construction methods are different for each. That means supporting raceways in ceiling spaces are going to be challenging.”

Jody Martin of RJ Mechanical explained, “We will be coordinating and installing the complete HVAC system for the building. It will be approximately a one-year project. We are installing a new heat recovery water chiller, dedicated outside air units, main air handling systems and duct distribution systems. Keeping the system in operation during construction will bring challenges to the project.”

Over the summer months, U.S. Bankruptcy Court and other offices began moving into nearby temporary office space to make way for the $38 million renovation. Bankruptcy courts, associated offices, the bankruptcy administrator office, as well as the offices of U.S. Senators Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions have been temporarily relocated to the nearby Financial Center office building. The U.S. Probation Office will remain in the building on one floor that has already been renovated.

The project, which included design phase services and construction phase services was intended to transform the aging structure into a high-performance green building and, according to GSA, the goal has always been to provide a workplace incorporating sustainable design principles while maintaining the existing character of the building while also supporting the quality and life of the downtown neighborhood and its surroundings. CEG