August recess is peak construction season for the nearly $60 million restoration of the Capitol Dome.
Up to now, the majority of the work on the 8.9 million pound cast-iron structure that has topped the Capitol for more than 150 years took place at night and on weekends to ensure minimal disruption to congressional business, events and public tours.
With members of the House and Senate back home in their districts, construction crews have been piecing together the vast scaffolding structure that will encase the 288 foot edifice for approximately two years. On a recent weekday morning, sunlight beamed from the neon yellow safety vests of two workers maneuvering around a narrow catwalk just below the cupola that caps the Dome. The two moving specks were barely visible from the plaza on the East Front, 210 feet below.
From the West Front, up to a dozen workers could be seen crawling between the Dome and the large, vertical scaffold tower on the grounds. Scaffolding is now visible about 85 feet above the floor of the Rotunda on the peristyle level. It should stretch all the way to the iconic Statue of Freedom by the end of 2014.
Architect of the Capitol Stephen T. Ayers has expressed confidence the project will be completed in time for inauguration festivities in 2017. It's still on pace for that deadline, according to Justin Kieffer, a communications specialist in the AOC's Project Management Division.
Ayers has said he's "pretty confident" this phase of the project will not exceed its $59.55 million budget. When the project was announced in October , Ayers pointed to the 2012 restoration of the Dome skirt — completed on budget and in time to accommodate preparations for 2013 inaugural work — as experience to guide this restoration project.
In March, the Government Accountability Office questioned the reliability of the AOC's estimate for complete restoration of the Dome. The GAO said the $125 million price tag was “substantially comprehensive and well documented, but lacking key analysis that support accurate and credible estimates,” in a report requested by House appropriators who allocate money for AOC projects.
Those crunching the numbers for the AOC did not use the most up-to-date figures from completed phases of the multi-year restoration project — such as the 2012 rehabilitation of the Dome skirt — when analyzing costs, according to the report. Instead of looking at raw labor and material costs from that work, the AOC relied on historical records and an industry database to support Dome estimates, the GAO found.
The AOC responded in April, Kieffer said in response to questions from CQ Roll Call, by issuing instructions to its project managers "to begin implementing actions to more fully address practices described in GAO’s guide that will be cost effective and add value to cost estimates in line with GAO’s recommendation."
For major construction projects, that means performing quantitative sensitivity and risk assessments, and continuing to obtain independent second cost estimates. Kieffer said the AOC’s project managers have begun implementing these actions and completing sensitivity and risk assessment for projects.
In a media briefing during the preparation phase of the project, Ayers identified scaffolding as one of the riskiest parts. He said getting the scaffolding installed and eventually taking it back down would be "just a massive logistical effort that’s probably one of the biggest risks on the job."
Next up is lead paint abatement. About a dozen layers of lead-based paint must be stripped off, captured and contained. To do so, paint blasting will be done in phases, inside white enclosures that will move around the Dome. Kieffer said that phase will begin in the fall.