Texas officials are preparing to spend as much as $20 million to redo a state-owned building that began showing signs of major structural problems only a decade after it was built.
The walls of the Robert D. Moreton Building in Central Austin, which cost $8 million to construct 22 years ago, are now crumbling, cracking and separating — and the massive concrete panels that cover the building’s exterior are at risk of eventual failure.
Engineers and architects, so concerned by its condition, considered demolishing the structure but deemed that too expensive, the American-Statesman has found.
“The engineers have been very clear that this is a serious problem,” said Peter Maass, director of project management for facilities design and construction for the Texas Facilities Commission, which manages the structure. “It is certainly a disturbing kind of thing. You don’t expect buildings to do this.”
State employees began noticing possible structural problems at least a decade ago. Architects have since traced the problems to the expansion and cracking of the concrete panels, weighing more than 50,000 pounds, that form the building’s shell.
More than 500 people work in the seven-story building on the northeast corner of 49th Street and Grover Avenue and will have to relocate during the renovation, expected to take two years or more.
State officials said they hope repairs will begin next spring.
The state will pay for the work and associated expenses and has not yet sought any reimbursement from the building’s original contractor. A state-commissioned study blamed curing temperatures when the panels were made. The company that built the structure, E.E. Reed Construction, remains in business in Houston.
An E.E. Reed spokeswoman declined to comment.
Kay Molina, the facility commission’s general counsel, said any decision about whether to seek money from E.E. Reed would be “made in conjunction with the office of the attorney general” and that “is all I can state publicly at this time regarding our legal position.” Officials at the attorney general’s office referred calls to Molina.
Engineers found last year in a study — recently obtained through the Texas Public Information Act — that the problems create such a risk of falling chunks of concrete that officials have set up covered walkways to the building’s entrances and ringed its perimeter with chain-link fencing.
Carrie Williams, spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, whose offices are in the building, said that “there are some safety concerns that we need to address. We aren’t wearing hard hats or anything like that, but there is work to be done.”
Among the 35 state-owned office buildings, the Moreton building falls near the middle in age.
The average state office building is 33 years old, and about 12 across the state are older than Moreton.
Records obtained by the American-Statesman show that the state spent about $8 million in 1989 to build the office tower, which is named for a vice president emeritus and special assistant to the president of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center who died in 1992.
Today, estimates show that the repair will cost from $12 million to $15 million — excluding items such as architectural designs and moving expenses for employees — while the state would spend up to $32 million for a new structure.
Engineers in 2001 first cited concerns about the building’s outside panels, according to a 37-page report last year by Tom Green & Company Engineers Inc. But officials said the earlier review did not fully identify the scope of the issues.
More recently, crews have closely studied the outside “skin” of the building and found that the panels are suffering from a chemical delayed reaction in the curing process, “causing movement from the panels from their installed position,” the report last year said. The shifts have caused problems both inside and outside.
“The reaction has been determined to be approximately 10 percent complete, resulting in an expected further reaction to a point of partial or complete failure of the panels, each of which weighs in excess of 50,000 pounds,” the report said.
That report did not place blame, but a separate study the state commissioned in 2008 cited concrete temperatures that were too hot during curing when the panels were made.
On a recent tour of the building for the American-Statesman, Maass pointed out multiple random cracks that extend several feet on the outside panels. In offices inside, he noted large cracks extending down walls and showed how some window walls have separated from adjacent interior walls, creating significant gaps.
State officials have spent about $250,000 for what they have said were short-term repairs, including covering the panels with a sealant to minimize the risk of cracking.
But the most recent study warned that “panel deterioration is on-going, and periodic maintenance is not a solution. Near term skin replacement, or abandonment of the building and nearby site is necessary.”
In a recent memo to employees, David Lakey, commissioner for the state health services department, said officials have begun exploring where staff will go and that he realizes the move will interrupt daily commutes and create possible child care concerns for working parents.
“We hope to make this transition as smooth as possible,” he said.
Article Written by: Tony Plohetski, Austin American-Statesman