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Mt. Lebanon School Board: Renovation project within budget

Wednesday, June 19, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

The Mt. Lebanon School Board is reassuring residents that changes to the $109.65 million high school renovation project remain within budget, even as board members leave open the possibility of legal action later over some of the project's problems.

The board approved $354,934 in change orders for the project at Monday's meeting, bringing total spending on unforeseen changes to $1.6 million of the district's $4.27 million budget for such contingencies. The three-year project to add athletics and academic wings, upgrade the fine arts wing and historic part of the school along Cochran Road and demolish two other wings is about 42 percent complete, while the contingency budget is 37 percent spent.

“The percentage of change orders used is still lagging behind the percentage of completion for the project,” said Board President Elaine Cappucci. “These are not things we are adding to the project's scope. These are things that happen and need to be addressed.”

The largest change order approved this week — and the largest so far for the project, after credits and reimbursements were accounted for — was $150,000 to winterize parts of the building so weather- and temperature-dependent work could continue into the winter months because of to delays earlier in the project. Combined with $75,000 approved last month, the total cost of winterization would be $225,000.

Board members in previous meetings asked solicitor Tom Peterson about recovering some costs through litigation or settlements, if the district can prove the changes were because of someone else's mistakes.

Peterson and Cappucci emphasized that the time to do so was after the project's completion, scheduled for 2015.

“These are things that really have to be done to construct the building ... to make it a functioning building,” Cappucci said. “If we stopped (for every change order) to argue about whose fault it is or who would pay for it, it would stop everything. The approval of a change order is not the approval of who will ultimately pay for it.”

Many changes have been because of unforeseen issues that crop up with renovating and expanding a building with parts dating to the 1920s, such as $12,848 to remove asbestos in unexpected places, $278,363 after workers struck a buried power line not shown on maps (an expense later covered by the district's insurance) or $55,000 to replace old walls that were supposed to stay but started to crumble.

But other changes have upset observers and board members who said they resulted from apparent gaps in the project's planning.

One example is $10,500 for water lines after earlier revisions moved boilers and chillers to another part of the building but didn't move the water lines to feed them. Another $26,900 was approved in May to reinforce roof joists in the new athletic wing and to support condensing units on its roof; $23,192 was OK'd in February to reroute a duct that was designed to go right through an elevator shaft; and a total $13,818 was approved the same month to install and power sump pumps missing from other elevator shafts.

Jeff Burd, the Ross-based publisher of several construction-industry magazines and watcher of many construction bid processes, said breaking a project up into separately bid pieces, as Mt. Lebanon did when the initial bids were over budget, can disguise errors in the design.

For example, a heating, ventilation and air conditioning contractor wouldn't be responsible for making sure the general contractor's structural steel was sufficient to support his condensers, he said.

Contractors would stick very closely to the plans they were presented with in the interest of submitting the lowest bid — even if the plans are incorrect, Burd said.

“You're going to bid to the plans and specs, which means you're going to bid to the omissions,” Burd said.

“The only thing I can tell the public is that we stay on top of (change orders) as tightly and closely as we can,” said school board member Dan Remely, who sits on the school renovation committee.

He said the district could haggle more over some of the changes, but that risked putting the project further behind schedule.

“We're not letting (the contractors) get away with anything on us, but we're doing what we can to keep the project moving forward,” Remely said.

Matthew Santoni is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5625 or msantoni@tribweb.com.

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