Most Washington state House members are moving into newly rehabilitated offices inside the John L. O’Brien Building, next door to the state Capitol, this month.
The moves by 64 of the House’s 98 members bring an end to a $49.4 million overhaul of their Depression-era building, which became both an earthquake and fire risk after the region’s destructive earthquake in 2001.
The massive rehabilitation is designed to overcome those problems and upgrade the building’s technology, electrical, plumbing, heating and energy-saving systems. And reactions so far are pretty good.
“Its virtue is it won’t kill you,” said House Capital Budget Committee chairman Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, who arranged the project’s financing. “It has shear walls in case of earthquakes. It’s much more energy efficient. The shortcoming is we don’t have anywhere the space per member that the Senate has, and we’re shoehorned in there.’’
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The project also includes about $1.9 million in furniture, and members now have new wood doors with glass that also bear their names painted on. The furniture costs include about $350,000 for custom-made desks, tables and other items that are in keeping with the neo-classical revival style of the original sandstone building and its interior’s Art Deco touches.
But another $400,000 for new chairs was dropped from the budget, according to House Chief Clerk Barbara Baker.
The timing of the project is awkward, ending as lawmakers begin a special session to cut $2 billion in state operating costs. But planning on the project began before the recession and construction began in spring 2009, according to Baker.
In the meantime, the project has provided the equivalent of 300 to 400 steady jobs – and up to 2,000 different people had jobs of varying duration in different specialties, according to Jamie Tiegs, project manager for Tumwater based general contractor Berschauer Phillips Construction. Of those, about 15 were full-time Berschauer Phillips employees, Tiegs said.
It also has generated about $2.7 million in state and local sales tax revenues on the labor and materials used, according to Andy Stepelton, legislative facilities director.
The project originally was meant to run in four phases that ended in November 2012, and costs in 2008 were pegged at $47.7 million. But that was without new furnishings, which means the project is technically under budget.
So far, lawmakers and staffers moving back have given O’Brien good marks, even though some are getting used to the new floor plan and crews are doing finishing touches.
“I love it. It’s done very nicely. What I like is it is more uniform with the size of offices,” Republican Rep. Bill Hinkle of Cle Elum said after moving into a fourth-floor office that looks out at the domed Capitol. “It’s professionally done. It has the unique feeling of being new and (also) a rehabilitated building.’’
“What can I say?” added Rep. Eileen Cody, D-Seattle, who is the longest continuously serving House member. “I’m glad to have real walls and not worry about the lobbyists eavesdropping,” which she had last year in her temporary quarters.
Staffers also are happy. “I like my desk. It’s spacious,” said Caitlin Lopez, legislative assistant to Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Enumclaw. Lopez inhabits a plain-looking cloth-covered cubicle in a third-floor hallway.
O’Brien typically serves about 350 legislators and staffers during sessions, plus hundreds of lobbyists and members of the public that attend hearings.
First-year Democratic Rep. Chris Reykdal of Tumwater and his legislative assistant, Justin Montermini, said they are glad just to have a permanent home. Reykdal was elected a year ago to represent Thurston County’s 22nd district, which meant he and Montermini were stuck in a modular building during early 2011 and had to improvise more recently after the portables were removed.
“It is nice to have a place to meet with constituents. Given that those of us in the 22nd district don’t have the added cost of a separate district office, it is nice to finally have a place that members of our community can sit down and have dialogue about issues,” Reykdal said Wednesday.
“During interim, I borrowed another members’ office,” Reykdal added. “Often I meet in area coffee shops and will continue to that on a regular basis. It’s good for those businesses.”
Dunshee worked with Baker, Stepelton and other legislative staffers in deciding how to approach the project – including an ill-starred experiment in 2009 to do the job in four phases with portions of O’Brien getting rebuilt while other parts stayed in use.
Legislative staffers complained of severe noise and air quality problems, and the concept was jettisoned. That led to rental of modular buildings last fall that freed up the building for Berchauer Phillips and shaved a full year off the timeline, which in turn cut some construction costs.
THE BOTTOM LINE
A weak economy also led to lower-cost bids than budgeted, according to Stepelton. That lets the state finish the job for $6 million less than his $55.5 million worst-case scenario.
Stepelton said furnishing costs are running about $1.9 million, less than the $3 million once budgeted. But Baker said the lawmakers’ custom-made desks are expected to last more than 75 years, and lawmakers and staffers are reusing chairs that could have cost $400,000 more to replace.
O’Brien holds about two-thirds of the House’s 98 members, and each of the 64 now have a new desk, credenza, hutch, corner piece and round table – costing about $4,941 per set and built locally by Martin Furniture Manufacturing.
That cost is far less than the $7,500 or more Baker said she was able to price for far less durable furniture built in China. Dan Martin, owner of the Thurston County-based firm, copied details from House Speaker Frank Chopp’s historic desk in the Legislative Building and also incorporated some of O’Brien’s interior styling.
“We tried to pull some details out of the building, some rosettes, some fluting on the pedestals (and) on the corners. It kind of tied in with the details of the marble,’’ Martin said.
Martin happens to be the third generation in his family to work on Capitol Campus structures. His grandfather G.D. “George” Martin was a plumbing contractor when the monument-style buildings were being built in 1920s, and his father, Jack, made furniture in the 1980s that is now being replaced.
Policy staffers that use O’Brien’s second floor also got new furniture, but it is much cheaper and was built by prison inmates in the state Corrections Industries program. Legislative aides have new cubicles that are more typically found in modern offices, and Stepelton said those are not expected to last more than 15 years.
The O’Brien project follows similar overhauls of the historic Legislative Building, which cost $118.5 million and began after the Nisqually Earthquake in 2001, and the Senate’s Cherberg offices a few years later.
Like the Cherberg project, it included shear walls to protect against earthquake damage, reconfigured floor plans and offices, upgraded fire sprinklers, utilities and communications equipment.