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Judge: Tampa federal courthouse's window frames in backward

The 17-story Sam M. Gibbons U.S. Courthouse at 801 N Florida Ave. in Tampa cost $85 million to build 13 years ago. It is named for the former congressman from Tampa.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

The 17-story Sam M. Gibbons U.S. Courthouse at 801 N Florida Ave. in Tampa cost $85 million to build 13 years ago. It is named for the former congressman from Tampa.

TAMPA — Federal judges figured the workers who built their gleaming, downtown courthouse 13 years ago knew how to install a window.

But now one of the most costly repairs in that building's history is under way to fix one big, befuddling problem.

Window frames were installed backward.

The frames directed water into rather than out of the facility, said U.S. District Judge James Moody Jr., who heads a facilities committee at the Sam M. Gibbons U.S. Courthouse.

Moody said the fix and related waterproofing to be completed this year will cost more than $20 million — a significant slice of the $85 million it took to build the 17-story building.

"It's hard to understand how a builder can be hired for a structure of this size and magnitude and not know how to put windows in," Moody said Thursday.

If only that were it.

Workers tearing up walls to fix the windows soon discovered that insulation to prevent fire and smoke from spreading between floors was missing in some places, Moody said.

An investigation to determine how much is missing is expected to be completed by March, said a spokesman for the General Services Administration, which oversaw construction and is the building's landlord.

Moody said he was puzzled why a GSA supervisor who oversaw construction never spotted the missing insulation.

"It's something that's easy to see before the walls are put in," Moody said.

An answer is elusive. GSA refuses to explain, citing potential litigation with Clark Construction Group, the building's general contractor.

The GSA acknowledges that "installation defects" caused water leakage at windows, which must be removed and reset. But GSA spokesman Gregory Andrews said neither the frames nor windows are backward, though Moody and other court officials say otherwise.

Don't blame us, Clark Construction officials say.

Sid Jordan, chief operating officer for Clark's northern and southern divisions, said in a statement that other contractors have worked in the building in the last 12 years.

"During construction and before taking possession of the building," Jordan said, "GSA and the architect conducted thorough inspections, determined the project was complete and accepted it for occupancy."

Clark does extensive work for both federal, state and local governments. It was awarded the contract to build a new headquarters for U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base, one of numerous local projects.

The courthouse is part of the Middle District of Florida, which covers 35 counties from the Georgia state line to Naples.

Current repairs are actually the second phase of building waterproofing. A GSA spokesman said that when efforts to make the building more energy efficient are added, the total cost comes to $36 million. Much of the work is financed by federal stimulus money.

Whether that figure includes repair costs from previous years is unclear. This is, after all, a building suffering from the bricks-and-mortar equivalent of a demonic possession.

The courthouse opened months late and millions over budget. Broken pipes, a leaking roof and an inoperative prisoner elevator are among numerous faults that have been addressed.

One noteworthy defect involved judges' benches that were too low for them to see everyone in court. It cost $1 million to raise them 6 inches.

Some employees in the facility also suffered respiratory problems caused by mold and mildew, a side effect of water leakage. GSA said that problem is now fixed.

And let's not forget the turkey vultures.

Wires had to be installed to give the vultures a tiny electric shock so they wouldn't roost and poop on the building.

In 1998, it cost $25,000 to clean the mess the vultures left.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., toured the building in 2009 after complaints that repairs had stalled. He suffered his own mild respiratory reaction during the tour and said he would "raise Cain" to make the GSA address problems more rapidly.

"This is inexcusable," Nelson said Friday. "This is a compounding of errors between the general contractor and the GSA for not properly supervising or following up."

Nelson sent a letter Friday to GSA demanding more information. "As the cost of fixing these problems appears to be mounting, I wish to reiterate my concern that taxpayers shouldn't be on the hook to fix a builder's mistakes," Nelson wrote.

GSA officials declined to say what steps have been taken to collect from Clark, and the company did not say what, if anything, it had done.

Judge Moody said he suspects that if the GSA moved to collect anything from Clark at this point, statute of limitation problems might prevent litigation.

Moody won't say if he thinks this round of repairs will be it.

He said, "Let's be optimistic."

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com.

Judge: Tampa federal courthouse's window frames in backward 01/21/11 [Last modified: Friday, January 21, 2011 10:59pm]
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