The project to renovate the Cannon House Office Building could climb more than $100 million over budget, a process that has, in part, been delayed by the discovery of hazardous materials and a fluid list of changes requested by the Architect of the Capitol that deviates from the original plan.
Terrell Dorn, managing director for infrastructure operations at the Government Accountability Office, notes in testimony submitted for Tuesday’s House Administration Committee oversight hearing on the Cannon project that the Architect of the Capitol expects the total building renovation cost to increase substantially from the initial estimate.
The Architect of the Capitol reported in June that it expected the project’s cost to increase by 10 percent to 15 percent, for a total of about $828 million to $866 million, compared with its initial estimate of $753 million, Dorn writes.
“The project is experiencing cost pressures from the greater-than-anticipated risks and ineffective mitigations stemming from unforeseen conditions, design issues, and scope changes,” he adds.
Brian Abt, who oversees the Cannon Renewal Project for Clark Construction Group, says in prepared testimony for Tuesday’s hearing that Phase 1 of construction — which has yet to be finished — was delayed partly by the Architect of the Capitol’s numerous requests to change the original design plans and by the discovery of a contaminant — polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs).
Included in Abt’s written testimony is an exhibit documenting “unforeseen hazardous materials encountered in mortar of the exterior stone facade” at the Cannon building’s New Jersey Avenue facade restoration site in March 2018. It notes that caulking containing hazardous materials was discovered in masonry joints of certain areas of the facade and was then tested, removed and disposed of in compliance with federal standards.
A May 2018 letter from the Architect of the Capitol’s Acquisition and Material Management Division to Clark Construction, included as part of Abt’s testimony, said the company could proceed with the PCB Caulk removal at the New Jersey Avenue facade for a total of $100,000.
Thomas J. Carroll III, the acting Architect of the Capitol, alludes to the environmental challenges in his prepared testimony for Tuesday’s hearing.
“As you are aware, there was limited original documentation on Cannon, so surprises in the original structure were bound to arise. Unforeseen site conditions such as the unexpected need for hazardous material removals and more extensive exterior stone restoration were significant,” Carroll’s testimony reads.
Abt declined to comment. A spokesperson for the Architect of the Capitol did not respond to a request for comment.
Before being banned by the EPA in 1979, PCBs were used commercially in caulking, electrical transformers and capacitors. It is a well-known issue that should be tested for, said Paul Anastas, a Yale University chemistry professor and former EPA official.
“It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to anybody that there would be PCB in the caulk,” Anastas said.
The EPA’s peer-reviewed cancer reassessment concluded that PCBs are probable human carcinogens, according to the agency’s website. Like asbestos and lead, PCBs pose a heightened risk if the substance is disturbed and becomes respirable, Anastas said.
“One, it doesn’t surprise me. Two, yup, it really is toxic and needs to be remediated,” Anastas said. “Three, it surprises me that they can do it as cheaply as $100,000, but the use of the word ‘unforeseen’ over and over again is a little surprising to me.”
Moving the goal post
Abt recounts several instances in which the Architect of the Capitol requested changes to the original design plans that further delayed a particular component of the project.
In one instance, the original plans called for a food service space to accommodate limited service and prepackaged foods. But during Phase 1, the plan changed in favor of a hot-food service vendor. This led to the installation of additional food service equipment, such as a walk-in cooler and hot and cold service tables. Further, the work, authorized in September 2018, required significant additional mechanical and electrical improvements, along with hazardous material abatement. The work was completed in February 2019, and the exhibit shows an image of the Au Bon Pain that opened in April in Cannon.
Abt also notes that in August 2018, 20 months into Phase 1, the Architect of the Capitol made changes to existing design plans for the Budget Committee and Homeland Security Committee hearing rooms. The additions included new infrastructure for power, lighting, audio-visual connectivity and display. The plaster walls contained hazardous material, and work enclosures were installed to contain it during the removal.
Cannon, built in 1908, is the oldest congressional office building. It has been plagued by serious environmental, health, safety and operational issues, according to the Architect of the Capitol.
The overhaul project began with Phase 0 in January 2015, and Phase 4, the final step, is expected to be completed in 2024. Phase 1, described by Abt as the “most complex,” began in January 2017 and was expected to be completed by November 2018. It is still not yet complete, according to Abt’s testimony.
“Now, all that remains of Phase 1 is the completion of approximately 150 ‘punch-list’ items, out of thousands already completed, which we are working to finish with minimal inconvenience to occupants. Many of these items involve long lead materials such as door hardware and require special access to perform the work,” Abt says in his testimony.