Congress takes cover

August 11, 2010

Fast-track construction has kicked into higher gear this summer on the U.S. Capitol's largest-ever expansion, a project for visitors, but ironically designed to be out of their sight.

Spurred on by post-Sept. 11 security concerns, the Architect of the Capitol Alan Hantman has jump-started an ambitious program that, when all is said and done, could translate into nearly $400 million in new construction additions. Chief among them is the new, $265 million, underground Capitol Visitor Center (CVC), which will dip 50 feet below ground adjacent to the East Front Entrance. Alone, the center represents the most extensive Capitol improvement since the House and Senate wings were added more than 140 years ago.

In gestation for nearly a decade, the three-level CVC project will draw on the original design of RTKL Associates, Baltimore. According to its design, the new CVC will add more than 580,000 sq. ft. of space to the Capitol's existing 770,000 sq. ft. In fact, the CVC's 193,000-sq.-ft. footprint will even be larger than the Capitol's 175,000-sq.-ft. footprint.

Last month, Hantman let a $99.9 million contract to Dallas-based Centex Construction Co., for the first phase of the center, scheduled for completion in early 2004. The contractor was one of four bidders to pursue the job.

Historic first for CM role on Hill

The Architect of the Capitol is using an outside construction manager for the first time. Hantman picked Gilbane Building Co., Providence, R.I., to fill the crucial CM role, under an initial $7 million contract signed in early 2001. Since then, Gilbane also has been awarded an additional $9 million worth of site work, utility relocation and security analysis.

The Boston office of structural engineer Weidlinger Associates, New York City, and mechanical engineer James Posey Associates, Baltimore, round out RTKL's team. And teamwork is key, says project manager Michael McQueen, an RTKL vice president, because the site is so tight and the "physics of working under ground are much different."

Centex President & CEO John Tarpey agrees. He cites logistics as the job's major hurdle, especially now that security precautions have ratcheted up so high. Other worries involve the site's close proximity to its landmark neighbor. In fact, he notes, the CVC will extend to within 6 feet of the Capitol.

The initial idea for an underground center dates back to the mid-1970s, but Congress did not authorize funding for its conceptual planning and design until 1991. RTKL subsequently did drawings for a design report issued in 1995.

That plan was later modified to address security needs underscored by the murder of two Capitol police officers in 1998. And last fall, after the Sept. 11 attacks, Congress hurriedly appropriated $100 million specifically for the CVC project, monies that initially were to have been raised through private donations.

Once complete, the CVC will boast two large skylights that will provide views of the Capitol, itself. They will be surrounded by space for exhibits, food service and two 250-seat theaters. In all, the CVC will have a capacity of about 5,000, large enough to handle the volume seen during peak tourist season.

Project scope increased

As noted, the initial budget for the visitor center was $265 million. After Sept. 11, Congress authorized an additional $38 million for a tunnel to connect the Capitol with the Library of Congress, plus security enhancements and other vertical transportation improvements. Congress also approved $70 million to build out the House and Senate expansion space. Those additions raised the total project cost to $373 million.

After the CVC is completed, much of the Capitol's original landscape plan, envisioned by the legendary Frederick Law Olmsted in the 1870s, will be restored. Although some trees must be removed for the project, only 14 memorial trees will be directly affected.

Centex's Tarpey says he has been amazed that "people want to work on this project because of Sept. 11. We've even had employees from sister companies say they'd like to move here to work on it."

With security concerns moving to the forefront, the schedule for restoring the Capitol dome has been stretched out. Full renovation of the dome now will await completion of the CVC.

         
 

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