The team from Western Waterproofing Co. of Seattle looks like tiny dots on the dome, which is the tallest self-supporting masonry dome in the nation and the fourth-tallest in the world.
If you want to see a masonry structure of grander scale, you need to travel the globe to St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London or St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Among those working on the $1.14 million project are job superintendent Eric Strock and foreman Shane Paullus. Each has extensive experience with the state’s iconic Legislative Building.
“You can’t find a more high-profile job site,” Strock said of the Capitol cleaning job.
Strock first worked on the state Capitol in 1987, following in the footsteps of his father, Bob, who first helped clean and maintain the dome in the 1970s.
“I’ve been on this building four different times,” the younger Strock, 46, recalled. “And after the 2001 Nisqually earthquake, I was all over this building.”
Paullus also was part of the earthquake repair and rehabilitation project that took three years to complete, at a cost of $120 million. One of his most vivid memories is hauling 100-pound blocks of sandstone up the 264 steps from the fourth floor to the top of the dome to replace the blocks damaged in the earthquake.
It originally cost about $7.4 million to build and furnish the state Capitol, which was completed in 1928. The building contains some 173 million pounds of sandstone, brick, concrete and steel. Replicating the Legislative Building today would cost approximately $1 billion, according to a state Department of Enterprise Services fact sheet about the Capitol.
The Pacific Northwest weather and air pollution do take their toll on the building’s sandstone exterior. Typically, the state ponies up the money to clean the building every five years. But the deep economic recession and ensuing state budget crunch caused a three-year delay in the routine maintenance.
The current project, which is scheduled to be complete in November, also calls for crews to remove and replace mortar on the building’s fourth floor and the dome. Wear and tear on the mortar has allowed water to leak inside the building, causing water stains and requiring repairs to some office walls. It’s possible that the delays in maintenance added to the leak problems.
While the cleaning looks like a dangerous, daunting task, the bigger challenge is rigging the building to provide workers safe access to every square inch of the exterior.
“Logistically, it’s hard to rig the building because everything that touches the building has to have protection on it,” Strock said. The extra protection is required because the sandstone is a temperamental, soft stone that has to be handled with care to avoid damage.
It took more than a week to rig the building, which includes placing the scaffolding, tying back cables, slings, booms and sling ladders to support the crews.
“It’s a delicate dance – staging the job without tripping over anybody,” Strock said.
By comparison, the actual cleaning is straightforward. The sandstone is pressure-washed at 400 pounds per square inch of pressure, hand-scrubbed with water but no cleaning agents, then pressure-washed again three times, then hand-scrubbed again.
The work may sound tedious, but the workplace setting is enough to keep a worker’s adrenaline flowing. Not everyone is cut out to work dangling from support systems one or two hundred feet off the ground.
“When I started this work, I was afraid of heights,” Paullus, 41, recalled. “But you get over it through the training you receive.”
“All the workers are afraid of these heights,” Strock added.
The job, which began a few weeks ago, has not been without incident. Early the morning Aug. 9 a work platform gave way, leaving a worker dangling from the life line attached to his safety harness some 40 feet above the ground. Fortunately, he was pulled to safety by co-workers within about two minutes. No one was injured.
While the state Department of Labor and Industries has yet to release the results of its investigation, Strock confirmed that human error, not equipment failure, was at the root of the incident.
A large pin that holds segments of the platform together had not been properly secured in place, Strock said. The company’s own review of the incident has led to new protocols that require two workers, not one, to double-check that the pin is properly fastened before the mobile platforms are pressed into service.
The new safety measure will be incorporated into all the company’s job sites, Strock said.
“No one got hurt; that’s the most important thing,” Strock said. “We’ve addressed the problem and gone forward from there.”
Come November, the state Capitol will once again take on the look of the regal building that it is.
“It’s going to look good when we’re done, no doubt about it,” Strock said.