|By Kevin Leininger, The News-Sentinel,
Fort Wayne, Ind.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Dec. 18, 2008 - Dave Fuller has been in the construction business 29 years -- the last nine as Allen County's building commissioner. So when he says he's "never seen anything this bad in terms of the quality of workmanship," you know it's serious.
So serious, in fact, that his department in May shut down work on an 80-room hotel at West Jefferson Boulevard and Interstate 69, leaving the Fort Wayne owners with the multimillion-dollar choice of correcting a staggering series of contractor blunders or tearing the whole thing down and starting from scratch.
Either way, Scott Kammerer expects a new Homewood Suites by Hilton hotel to be open a year from now -- by which time he hopes to understand how supposedly trained and licensed professionals could have spent $2.6 million of the original $5.4 million construction budget on a building that has sunk by as many as five inches on one end, and may continue to settle unless something is done.
Although construction started last summer, Kammerer didn't suspect a problem until April, when he noticed cracks in one of the seven-floor hotel's cinder-block stair towers. And if you're wondering why the first of many obvious construction flaws was detected by a hotel employee instead of the general contractor, you're not alone.
"We had never used the contractor before, but they were known to our architect, and the job was competitively bid," said Kammerer, spokesman for Super Host Hospitality, which owns the new hotel and the Hilton Garden Inn next door. The contractor was Condor Concepts of Elgin, Ill., whose actions -- or lack thereof -- have caused Fuller's office to change its procedure for dealing with unknown, out-of-town builders.
Jim McClain, a local structural engineer hired in July to assess what went wrong, has produced a list of at least 14 design and construction deficiencies, the most serious of which was the failure to compensate for the unstable soil that has turned a would-be hotel into a leaning tower of Aboite -- without the tourism benefits. Part of the soil problem, he said, was caused by the pre-construction removal of underground water-storage tanks and the failure to properly compact the soil afterward.
But other problems are not as easily explained. Parts of the foundation were poured improperly, McClain said, and adequate foundations were not provided at all under the stair towers. The towers were not adequately anchored to the rest of the building, possibly allowing shifting, and some electrical work was not done as designed, Fuller said. The superstructure is questionable, and because the unfinished building has been exposed to the weather for months, the exterior insulation has been damaged beyond repair.
Local contractor Phil Sheets said it would cost about $2.3 million to correct those and other problems -- not to mention the expense of completing the project. The other option would be to tear the half-finished shell down at a cost of about $300,000 and start all over again. "I'm not sure (the contractors) knew what they were doing. I've never seen anything like it," he said.
Kammerer isn't sure which option owners will choose, but said the hotel will be built, one way or another, because the demand for more rooms there is still strong, despite the sluggish economy. In fact, he said, the slowdown may result in lower construction costs than originally estimated.
It will take a lot of time, lawyers and money to sort all this out. But Fuller, whose office is responsible for making sure contractors follow code and produce safe buildings, has taken action already.
In the past, he said, the county has awarded single-use building permits to out-of-town contractors such as Condor Concepts. Such permits will be limited in the future, however, awarded mostly to firms used regularly by large national companies such as Wal-Mart. "There was no reason for us to suspect there would be a problem (with Condor)," Fuller said. Condor officials did not return a call seeking comment.
Fuller and Kammerer agreed county inspectors could not have been expected to detect the hotel's construction problems before so much work had been completed. Requesting inspections at certain points during construction was the general contractor's job.
Those inspections are designed to protect the public, yes. But they can also detect little problems before they become big, expensive, embarrassing ones. Contractors, take note.
A quick update on my column week ago about the proposal to build 50 rent-to-own homes in the city's Renaissance Pointe project:
Just three days after my column ran, the Indianapolis Star reported a similar project there has run into trouble, with some residents being denied the chance to purchase their homes even after paying rent for the required 15-year period.
That won't happen if the homes are built in Fort Wayne, according to city Director of Development John Urbahns. Purchase terms will be specified and assured in contracts signed up-front, he said.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. E-mail Kevin Leininger at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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