Story written by the Sun-Sentinel's Brittany Wallman
The very courthouse menace that prompted construction of a new, 20-story court tower is now delaying its opening: mold.
In documents and interviews provided in response to a public records request, Broward officials revealed a stunning series of events that soaked the new $197 million tower with rainwater, and then toilet water, and provided the wet conditions for mold and other contaminants to grow.
Walls, floors and ceilings were ripped out, repairs made, and independent tests showed air quality returned to normal, top county officials say.
But the county’s worries linger. County officials haven’t publicly discussed the floods or mold, but said in an interview that they won’t open the new courthouse until their air quality concerns are put to rest.
Employees in the old courthouse are clamoring to get out, complaining that mold there is making them sick. The new courthouse is more than a year late in opening.
“We want to make sure that when we get in the building that there isn’t any contamination,” assistant public works Director Steve Hammond said. “ ... We’re very committed to making sure that once we get in, that everyone’s going to have a safe, healthy environment. That’s right now our predominant concern.”
The troubles began after a June 2014 rainstorm, he said.
The building wasn’t fully sealed, Hammond said, and rain ruined some materials, including drywall. It spilled down parts of a massive, five-story, decorative mural wall that stretches from lobby to top floor. The blue acrylic work’s assembly is complex, a sandwich of plywood, metal and drywall, some of which had to be replaced.
Then in January, when the tower was almost complete, there was a mishap in the fifth floor men’s bathroom. A toilet overflowed.
Construction crews were gone for the night, and mishap became catastrophe.
Portions of the ceilings, carpets, tiles and walls on floors three, four and five — clerk of courts office space — were soaked, Hammond said. And water spilled down the back of the decorative atrium wall that had previously been wet.
Within days, before the damage could be removed, mold grew on it.
“It’s very insidious,’’ Hammond said of what he termed “microbial contamination.” “It’s very quick-growing.”
Hammond, Risk Management Director John Burkholder, assistant county administrator Alphonso Jefferson and assistant county attorney Mike Kerr said there is no evidence of a pervasive air quality problem in the new building. Kerr emphasized that not all mold is harmful, and mold is prevalent in South Florida buildings.
But the freak accident with the toilet led to some troubling discoveries.
Because of the quick mold growth, Hammond said, the county launched an exhaustive search for mold and water intrusion in the new tower.
“It was so reactive,” Hammond said, “the stuff grew so quickly, it was like, OK, I want to be sure that I can answer everyone and say, ‘We’ve taken care of everything, we’ve surveyed the building. We know what’s in the building.’ ”
Workers returned to the sites of 68 other “water events” to check for water stains or other signs of moisture. Those small accidents, spills and leaks were considered normal construction setbacks, Hammond said, but some required drywall to be ripped out, or ceiling tiles replaced. For example, workers in a ceiling elbowed the fire sprinklers, starting a small leak.
Some new leaks and mold growth were found, and repaired, county officials said.
In every instance, the source of water was discovered and addressed, and “everything that got wet was taken out,” said Derek Bixby, project superintendent at The Weitz Co., which was hired to manage the construction project.
In August, another toilet overflowed, but Jefferson said it wasn’t as damaging. A county memo says it flooded parts of the first and second floors.
Over the months since the January flood, the county brought in experts, and so did insurance companies.
Burkholder said the toilet flood is an accepted insurance claim. An email from the contractor to County Administrator Bertha Henry estimated the cost at $609,350. The toilet’s flush handle, whose failure caused the flood, was removed and sent for examination for possible manufacturing flaws.
Hammond said there are three major troubles that must be resolved before the courthouse can open:
MOLD: Mold was found Oct. 28 on the decorative atrium wall that has twice been doused with water. Last week, workers bored holes in walls so that a camera could be dropped in to photograph the wall’s backing. Visible mold spots, some the size of softballs or grapefruits, Hammond said, and a larger one approximately four feet by five feet, were discovered. The county was relieved it wasn’t worse. He said the materials are currently being replaced and air testing will be done.
WATER: Air is condensing to water inside air-conditioning closets that are stacked on every floor. The condensation dripped onto drywall and led to some microbial contamination, Hammond said. It was all ripped out and replaced. But the condensation continues. The county hired a forensic engineering firm, Thornton Tomasetti, to try to solve the mystery. County officials worry that the condensation could lead to the growth of contaminants.
WINDOW SILLS: Scratches, gouges and dents mar the interior appearance of window sills throughout the courthouse, county officials said. They insist work to repair them be done before employees move in, because it involves toxic materials.
The builder, James A. Cummings Inc., owned by Tutor Perini Corp., says the county could have occupied the courthouse in June, when a temporary certificate of occupancy was granted. A final certificate was issued on Sept. 13.
“There’s nothing that prevents the county from occupying the building,” said Danny Hoisman, CEO of Cummings and executive vice president of Tutor-Perini Building Corp. “There’s no work that needs to be done at the courthouse that can’t be performed with people there.”
Even before the flood and subsequent mold, the job suffered numerous delays: unexpected utilities under Courthouse Drive, troubles with pedestrian walkways that didn’t line up with the new tower, design flaws in the air-conditioning system and judges’ requests for changes to all of the courtrooms and hearing rooms.
For instance, Chief Judge Peter Weinstein said the judges would have been seated only one foot off the ground, and those appearing in court would tower over them.
Weinstein said he was aware of a problem with water intrusion. He said he was told “there was some kind of a leak and it’s been mitigated.”
Jefferson said the county is vigilant about potential contaminants in the new building, because of complaints at the old courthouse. Employees there, including judges and State Attorney’s Office prosecutors and support staff, say they have rashes, respiratory problems and other illnesses.
“If someone wants to say the county is being overly cautious, I say, so be it,” Jefferson said, “because we want to see that this building is done right.”
The building was scheduled to open in June 2015. There is no estimated opening date now. Furniture is expected to be moved into the building this month.
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