Making way for remodel

The state House of Representative’s offices finally get their turn at an upgrade this summer as the state embarks on a long-planned, $20 million rehabilitation of the historic John L. O’Brien Building.

“The building has some pretty serious problems, including issues related to ability to withstand earthquake. That’s a health and safety issue,” said Bernard Dean, deputy chief clerk of the House.

The building includes committee rooms where citizens, lobbyists and the 98 members of the House discuss proposed laws, as well as office space for the legislators upstairs.

The domed Legislative Building and the the John Cherberg Building, which houses the Senate, have both had complete renovations in the last five years, including new electrical wiring, plumbing and air conditioning systems.

But spending $20 million to improve space for legislative staff in the middle of a recession didn’t come without some political swipes this year.

On the second-to-last day of the legislative session, advocates for social services pointed to the O’Brien project as something that could be cut to balance the budget instead of reducing health care programs.

The same day, legislators asked state crews to take down a large sign outside the O’Brien Building showing the project’s cost.

Rep. Hans Dunshee, the lead construction budget writer in the House, said at the time that the budget for building projects uses payments like a house mortgage – not enough to rescue more expensive medical services. O’Brien has been scheduled for major repair since the 2001 Nisqually Earthquake, he added.

“The building is old and sick,” Dunshee said.

A month later the sign is back up, and the project is under way, but revamping O’Brien will take more time than the Cherberg project, which finished on time and under budget in 2006.

That’s because lawmakers in Cherberg were able to move into temporary buildings leftover from the Legislative Building project next door.

Those modular buildings have since been removed. So the O’Brien project will be done in four phases, starting with the basement this summer.

“It’s an interesting project, and people are residing in the building while it’s occurring,” said Marziah Kiehn-Sandford, the state’s senior manager on the project.

About 170 people work in the building during the off-season, and as many as 320 pack its offices during winter legislative sessions. While few people have been relocated for the basement overhaul this year, later phases of the project will require shuffling whole offices – moving to the west end of the building to rehabilitate the east end, and vice versa.

“It’s about the only way you can do a complete building remodel while people are still working in the building,” said Kiehn-Sandford.

The project is funded for its first three phases, which will be done after each legislative session through 2011. If the final stage of the project is funded, the rehabilitation is scheduled to be complete in November 2012.

“Certainly, it would have been helpful to have the project in a shorter period of time, but this is what the members elected to fund,” Dean said.