Security Tops Contractors’ Concern at Capitol

Mon January 19, 2004 - Southeast Edition
Giles Lambertson

In the shadow of the United States Capitol dome at the east end of Constitution Avenue, a massive excavation and construction project continues after nearly 18 months.

What is not as visible as the project itself is the huge amount of coordination and management being poured into a hole in the ground that will become the Capitol Visitor Center.

The underground facility ultimately will cost about $500 million, much more than originally intended. Those good intentions date back to the early 1990s and were overtaken by two events: the 1998 killing of two Capitol Police officers by an intruder and the terrorist attacks on Washington and New York City in 2001.

Those incidents ramped up the costs in direct proportion to perceived new security needs. The project also evolved; the proposed center became a multidimensional facility that will serve visitors as well as the people who more or less live there: senators and congressmen.

Tracking all this expansion and evolution is Alan M. Hantman, the Capitol architect, whose office supervises construction. Aides of key United States lawmakers walk the job site every Friday at 10 a.m. with Hantman and other Architect of the Capitol office personnel and several construction company representatives.

How do all the disparate private and public agendas mesh?

Quite well, said on-site executives, who credit professionalism and patriotism for fostering a cooperative spirit.

The scope and complexity of the project is summed up in the fact that for the first time the Office of the Architect contracted with a construction management company to keep tabs on procurement, cost and quality of workmanship. The hiring came at the suggestion of the U.S. General Accounting Office.

A Rhode Island firm, Gilbane Building Company, was hired by the architect.

Gilbane is familiar with Washington, having worked on the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum and the Vietnam Memorial, among others.

Numbers suggest the scope of the project:

• The center will contain approximately 600,000 sq. ft. (54,000 sq m), an area nearly two-thirds as large as the Capitol itself;

• Hauled off site were an estimated 50,000 truckloads of excavated soil, a total of more than 500,000 cu. yds. (380,000 cu m);

• Some 130 steel columns 50 ft. (15.2 m) high are being erected to hold an upper deck covering nearly 200,000 sq. ft. (18,000 sq m) of underground offices and tourist areas;

• Some 3,500 line items had to be integrated and coordinated, a process complicated by the fact the first and second phases of the project were awarded to two contractors whose work will overlap;

• One-sixth of the project is a truck tunnel from a nearby avenue for use by service trucks and as an emergency exit for Capitol lawmakers.

Those numbers and details only tell part of the story of managing the project. The rest of it concerns the proximity of construction to a U.S. Capitol that continues to be a hub of activity.

“I always maintain when I take people out on site that even more critical than doing all this is keeping the Capitol functioning,” said Tom Fontana, project communications officer of the Architect of the Capitol office.

Staying on schedule is just part of the job, in other words. Just as important is the need to mitigate the noise of construction, to interrupt tourist activities as little as possible and to minimize disruption of the work going on in the Senate and House.

Communicating with the elected men and women working inside the Capitol is not an insignificant part of the job.

Fontana told the story of a nine-month construction project at the Department of Defense Pentagon that sat for a year after a high-ranking employee of the building got upset over a parking space.

“Never underestimate the importance of communication,” he said.

And then there are the project’s security needs in a post-Sept. 11 world.

The effect of heightened security on the overall project can be seen in its impact on the excavation of the site.

Cherry Hill Construction Company of Jessup, MD, moved off site each day as many as 500 truckloads of dirt. Before each of Cherry Hill’s 80 unloaded trucks could return to the site, it was stopped two blocks away and X-rayed by Capitol Police to thwart a terrorist bombing.

Multiply by 500 the minutes consumed in that X-raying process and in a second checkpoint examination at the gate and one can begin to visualize how security concerns added to the project’s management worries.

“The hole didn’t get any larger,” David Openshaw, executive vice president of Cherry Hill, said in December, as his company’s work on the site neared an end. “Our feeling was, if we don’t dig it today, we’ll dig it tomorrow.”

Bob Frew, project executive of Centex Construction Company in Fairfax, VA, also seemed unruffled by security anxieties. Centex is general contractor of the project’s $100 million Sequence 1.

“Obviously, we are working within six feet of the nation’s capitol, so we anticipated some extra security requirements,” he said. “Capitol Police have been very accommodating in working out ways to make the site secure and also letting us do our work.”

Frew said everyone on the job recognizes that the need to keep the job site secure and the need to keep the adjacent Capitol working were not mutually exclusive. This especially is true on the extensions of the project into the Capitol itself.

“You can’t be in there jack-hammering, or creating a lot of dust just any time,” Frew said. “Some of it has to be done in off hours.”

Frew said coordinating work through the Architect of the Capitol office has brought a common understanding of what can be done and how. He adds that construction work in and around high-profile public buildings typically requires such understanding –– and some extra personnel to manage it.

“We have staffing that is not unique to this project, but is common to this kind of project,” he said, citing fulltime safety and quality control managers. “Not all projects have that. It is something this project deserved.”

Normally, Peiner SK415 tower cranes are the most imposing sight on a construction job, reaching down from impressive heights to lift steel girders and columns into place. The Williams Steel and Erecting Company cranes have an incidental presence on this site, however, because nearby is what Frew called “the dome of a building that is among the most recognized in the world.”

Furthermore, when they consider that the dome was the assumed target of a fourth airliner hijacked on Sept. 11, the special relationship to the job grows.

“It is a privilege to be working on this, a privilege to work on a project that is an important thing for the nation. There is a high degree of patriotism,” Frew said.

The 52-year-old Centex supervisor said people working on the project are “passionate” about it, noting that the feeling seems to be pervasive throughout the work force.

Such feeling brings a cohesiveness to planning and execution. Simply put, Frew said, “it brings everyone together.”

Consequently, difficulties are resolved more quickly. Team efforts are more easily organized. Going the extra mile is more easily done.

Fontana, in the Architect of the Capitol office, said the sense of common purpose is helping the transition between Centex and Manhattan Holdings Inc., which was awarded the contract for the $144 million Sequence 2.

Centex had bid on the second phase as well. The transition from one sequence to the other is expected to take a year. That’s an interminable time for interaction between two general contractors if tensions exist.

“When Sequence 2 went to another contractor,” Fontana said of the situation,“we knew there would be some disappointment. “You always hope professionalism wins out.

“And it did. They both have been really good about it,” he said.

Fontana is not surprised by the cooperative spirit evident in the project given the professional approach of the contractors and the special circumstances.

Fontana knows something about special circumstances.

His 17 years as a communications officer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were capped by a renovation project at the Pentagon. One fall day in 2001, he told an immediate superior that he had accepted a job in the Architect of the Capitol’s office. The date: Sept. 10.

The next day, after a hijacked airliner slammed into the Pentagon, Fontana agreed to stay on. The damaged section of the five-sided building was to be reconstructed in record time as a memorial to those who died there, and he wanted to be part of it. The reconstruction was finished on schedule.

“With that type of spirit and coordination and selflessness, it’s amazing what you can get done,” Fontana said of the Pentagon work, adding that “you feel a little of that here now at the Capitol.”

The Capitol Visitor Center is scheduled to be done — or nearly so — by September 2005. However, the plaza steelwork and ground-level deck are to be complete by January’s inaugural of the next president. That scheduled completion date, just a year away, looms large as contractors and subcontractors rush to meet the deadline.

“It is nothing short of mayhem,” Fontana said, even if the mayhem is inspired and highly-managed.

Photo courtesy of The Architect of the Capitol, Capitol Visitor Center