OFF THE RAILS
The Civic Center(s) saga never seems to find a suitable conclusion.
Both Inyo and Mono Counties were able to complete new Civic Center buildings in the past year, succeeding in their attempts to consolidate county departments into one location close to population centers.
And both were able to do so while saving money on the back end and staying on schedule for the most part.
There are three components of project management and construction: schedule, price, and quality. Common wisdom says you can pick two of the three, leaving the third lacking.
In the case of the Civic Centers, picking time and budget over quality has led to some less-than-optimal outcomes at both buildings.
According to Inyo County Administrative (CAO) Officer Leslie Chapman, the blocks Civic Center in Bishop weren’t sealed well enough to keep rain from coming in during recent storms, in addition to unspecified issues with the building’s roof and mechanical systems.
“The first thing is watching it and doing damage control,” Chapman said of the leaking,
“We had one of the companies that do [flood] clean up on call, and we didn’t have to call them out.”
In the meantime, Chapman said that the county plans to have supplies on hand to deal with the leaks.
“The builder is going to be in town in a couple of weeks, we’ll walk through with him and figure out what needs to be done to correct [the issues]. We’ll work our way through it and get it sealed up for future storms.”
Inyo County currently leases the building from a seperate owner who was responsible for its construction.
Chapman said that the building has a “skeleton crew” of county staff working there right now due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and that the building remains open to the public.
“Actually it’s kind of good,” Chapman said, “We found out that there’s a problem and we can fix it … If we found out five years down the road, that would be a different issue.”
Mono County’s Civic Center issues stem, in some part, from design oversights, and like Inyo, the recent storms exposed a number of those problems.
At the January 4 meeting of the Mono County Board of Supervisors, County Facilities Manager Joe Blanchard gave a rundown of the storm impacts on the building.
Blanchard said that staff was able to keep walkways clear and, in tandem with Black Gold Asphalt, kept the parking lots clear, but added, “It was a challenge.”
In terms of keeping the county’s vehicle fleet available, “We were not able to keep up with [the snow],” Blanchard said, “Many of those were buried fairly deeply.”
In addition, Blanchard listed the mechanical yard roof, generators and back entrances as “impacted” with staff still working to clear those areas at the time of the meeting.
While contractors were able to clear the north and south facing roofs, the main roof was “still holding snow”, resulting in closures to keep people out of what Blanchard called “a danger zone.”
At the time of the meeting, snow rails still had not been installed along the roof. “Obviously, without the snow rails, we can’t judge when the snow is going to come off [the roof],” Blanchard said.
The building’s mechanical yard is positioned directly under the north-facing roof, which feeds onto another roof above a building exit and then into the yard. According to Blanchard, the county is working with the building contractor to put in stop-gap measures before determining a long term solution (i.e moving the exit, closing off the mechanical area).
At the Supervisors meeting the following week, County Public Works Director Tony Dublino updated the Board on the Civic Center again.
According to Dublino, staff had been successful in removing snow from critical areas around the building and had relocated a number of county vehicles back to Bridgeport.
“A lot of the department heads that own vehicles are now acutely aware…of the need to relocate them during storms,” Dublino said.
The storm, he said, “helped us to understand what the real needs are going to be in terms of staffing.”
“When 395 closes, that compromises our ability to get staff to the building. When storms move in, we’re going to need more than one staff member.”
Only one member of the county’s facilities staff was able to reach the Civic Center during the storm, as many live in Bridgeport and were unable to get through the road closures.
The snow rails were in the installation process, and Dublino said that “those are going to change the issues dramatically once we have them fully installed.”
Speaking with Dublino after the meeting, he told The Sheet that the staff shortage presented a real problem during the holiday storms; one person isn’t enough to keep the elements at bay.
The other major issue is the building’s design: “There were some design decisions made specifically related to the location of the mechanical strucutre, HVAC units, all of that,” he explained.
“Those decisions are essentially proving less than ideal because of the location … somewhere where the roof is shedding snow. You do not want snow shed onto the mechanical structure,” he continued.
Dublino said that the original contractors are designing reinforcements for the mechanical yard that would enclose one side of it.
“It’s a matter of figuring out just how much in resources we need when a major snow storm rolls through Mammoth and lands on that facility,” Dublino told The Sheet. “Maybe there are folks that, I’m sure, have built a lot of buildings and structures in Mammoth who would do a better job at figuring that out in advance. We’re trying to figure it out storm-by-storm.”
The snow rails proved to be more of a headache than anticipated. The county had them designed and pulled the requisite permits needed to make the addition possible, but “when they arrived, they did not fit on the seams and had to be reordered,” Dublino explained.
“There’s not a whole lot to say about that aside from the fact that it was less than ideal,” he concluded.
“Looking at different calculations about how to manage snow on the property… clearly, installing the snow rails is the most significant step that we can take,” Dublino said, “It really changes the timing of when snow comes off the roof and allows us to control the timing instead of being at the whim of nature.”
Will the changes to the design impact the overall budget? No, as Dublino explained that the county withheld funds from the contractor due to the fact that the necessary changes should’ve been included in the original design.
“When the snow came off the roof last January, smashed into the mechanical yard and damaged the wall of the mechanical yard, we had standing to withhold the funds,” Dublino said.
In addition to the snow rails and mechanical yard reinforcement, Dublino said that one of the HVAC units is creating a persistent leak; the unit in question is literally sucking snow into the building, which then melts.
The Sheet spoke with former County Engineer Garrett Higerd, now with Mammoth Community Water District, about the design process that he had taken part in while still with the county.
Higerd explained that the Civic Center project was completed via a design-build process, as opposed to the more common design-bid-build process.
In design-build, the project is condensed into two phases in order to maximize efficiency; the design process takes place just ahead of the building process. The building is still being designed while construction begins.
“You’re barely one step ahead of yourself and then you’re constantly just trying to get out ahead of yourself enough to be able to address the most urgent matter at hand from the construction side” Higerd explained.
The design-build process, he said, “was effective in that it helped to expedite delivery of the project … it helped to ensure that project came in on budget or at least close to on budget.”
“But through the process,” he continued, “what happened was there were a lot of different junctures along the way where certain things ended up being value-engineered out of the project.”
Higerd said that the Civic Center is ultimately a benefit to the public due to the quick schedule, low budget, and its availability of services.
“It’s kind of like the county got it built just in time, but it’s now having to live with the items that were value-engineered out,” he said.
Roebbelen, the construction contractor hired to build the Civic Center, underestimated the cost of getting labor to build in Mammoth via the design-build process, Higerd said.
The state legislature, when writing the law that allows for design-build processes, added a requirement for a “skilled and trained workforce,” meaning workers who had attended a union-sanctioned trade school.
“We don’t have any of those in the Eastern Sierra,” Higerd said. “In order for the subcontractors to meet that requirement, they had to come from out of the area.”
Higerd said that the budget was a driving force behind design changes and the process as a whole.
“Snow rails was a hot topic and my personal position on snow rails … was that they were mandatory and needed to be included,” he said, likening himself to a broken record on the matter.
“To be honest, I don’t think I would ever really want to do design-build just because of the pressure it puts on the amenities that you need in your building, the pressure to somehow make the budget work,” Higerd said.
That budget came down from the Board of Supervisors and was stressed throughout the process by then-Mono County CAO Leslie Chapman, according to Higerd.
“It was a process of going through it and feeling like we’re just getting dragged along here and more and more things are coming out, and I’m like, ‘Hey, this isn’t an option, we have to have that,’ and I guess we’ll find out if that was optional or not,” Higerd said.