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CVC Watch

With construction work at the Capitol Visitor Center now 91 percent complete, acting Architect of the Capitol Stephen Ayers told lawmakers last week that the most complex challenges that remain involve the commissioning and testing of the structure’s complex fire, security and life-safety systems, a process that could take several months. [IMGCAP(1)]

And although AOC project teams “are continuing to make progress, the contractor continues to miss scheduled activities or ‘milestones,’” Ayers said in prepared testimony before House and Senate appropriators. “The fact that a significant number of milestones were missed, in my mind, serves as an indicator that the overall schedule is not realistic given the risks and uncertainty associated with the integration of the fire and security systems and the building systems.”

Therefore, Ayers explained, his agency likely would not be able to obtain a certificate of occupancy for the new building until spring of 2008 with a full opening coming sometime in the following months. For now, at least, that estimate is in line with predictions made by the Government Accountability Office, which is helping Congress to oversee the project.

“We believe most of the delays for fire alarms are behind us,” Ayers told members of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch. However, “it has contributed to significant delays thus far.”

In the past year alone, issues relating to the design, redesign and installation of the CVC’s life-safety systems were cited as major reasons behind two announced delays that pushed back the projected opening date by about six months.

In February 2006, Ayers’ predecessor, Alan Hantman, explained to Congress that a three-month delay could be blamed on issues facing the fire and life-safety system as well as problems with stone delivery at the project site.

“The CVC life-safety systems are extraordinarily complex,” Hantman said at the time. “They include more than 5,000 smoke detection and alarm devices, security devices, a smoke evacuation system, state-of-the-art public address and warning systems, and the full integration of all these systems with emergency generators, as well. This complexity is a result of the sensitivity of the building itself from a security perspective, the fact that it lies completely below ground, and that it serves as a place of public assembly.”

Hantman said the fire marshal overseeing the CVC stated that there are “no parallels to this project that he is aware of. Existing codes do not really address our unique circumstances.”

And then in June 2006, Hantman announced that a two-and-a-half-month delay was necessary because the facility’s fire marshal, the Capitol Police and the AOC had to come to an agreement on changes in the testing process for the fire and life-safety systems.

But the issue can be traced as far back as early September 2005, when Hantman referred to the fire and life-safety systems as “the beta test site for some of the things in security for chem-bio concerns that have never been done before.”

Last week, Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), who chairs the legislative branch panel, said that on her first tour of the CVC two weeks ago, she was impressed by the facility.

“I have no doubt once the building opens it will be a tremendous source of pride for this institution,” she said.

However, Landrieu noted, “While we’re anxious to get in, we don’t want to short-circuit this testing process.”