Mortar mix failure forces crews to replace 60,000 square feet of tile at state Capitol

Published: Friday, May 9 2014 1:38 p.m. MDT

Construction workers replace the tile floors inside the state Capitol Wednesday, May 7, 2014, in Salt Lake City.

Hugh Carey, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — A rambunctious group of schoolchildren in the Capitol rotunda Thursday didn't seem to notice the sheets of plastic taped along the floors above, where work is underway to replace all of the historic building's tile floors.

Like so many other visitors, they were too busy looking at the Capitol's grand marble staircases and other features to be distracted by the closed areas where the floors are being ripped up and replaced.

The work is being paid for with a $4.4 million insurance settlement and an undisclosed amount from the construction companies in charge of the $250 million restoration of the Capitol completed in 2008.

The floors throughout the Capitol are being ripped up because of the failure of a mortar mixture that was used to lay tile throughout the building six years ago. It was supposed to last at least 50 years.

To minimize disruption, work crews arrive at 6 p.m. and leave at 4 a.m., taking Fridays and Saturdays off so as not to disturb the wedding receptions and other events typically held those evenings.

The project began after the 2014 Utah Legislature ended in mid-March, and it will be halted for the 2015 session. The work won't be done until the end of next year, with a total of 60,000 square feet of new small hexagonal-shaped tiles in place.

"That's a lot," said Terry Wright, senior vice president of Jacobsen Construction, who is overseeing the project to replace the flooring, that began to settle erratically about two years ago.

"People were coming in saying they saw a tile that looked loose or popped up," said Allyson Gamble, executive director of the Capitol Preservation Board. At first, building maintenance fixed tiles that seemed to be shifting.

But as more problem areas surfaced, Gamble said it was clear there was something seriously wrong. A tile expert was brought in and samples were taken from more than two dozen sites before the mortar mix was blamed.

"Nobody wanted to jump to any conclusions," Gamble said. "I don't think any of us thought the tile would have to be taken out and replaced because that's a lot of tile. I think we were looking for solutions."

Wright said the work was done by a subcontractor hired by the joint venture between Jacobsen and Hunt Construction Group that handled the four-year seismic retrofit and remodeling of the nearly century-old building.

That subcontractor went out of business, Wright said, and now the joint venture is picking up any cost beyond the insurance settlement. He declined to disclose how much the project will ultimately cost.

The expense, likely to be a relatively small piece of the $500 million in business Jacobsen does annually, is worth it, he said, because "you can lose your reputation overnight. You have to protect and take care of it."

The work that's going on behind the plastic panels on the Capitol's first, third and fourth floors is exacting. A new mortar formula has been developed with a different ratio of sand to cement with some acrylic mixed in.

There was no way to save the tiles installed during the restoration, Wright said, so new ones are being fired at a Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, plant, this time to precise specifications to ensure all are the same custom "Utah white" color.

Wright said batches are being checked on site under a special lamp to avoid what appear to be lighter and darker sections in the existing floor, a result of slight differences in firing temperatures.

The tiles, which are accented with a Greek key design border, were designed to match those in place when the building was dedicated in 1916. Wright said replacing the tile this time around with something more modern was never a consideration.

"My deal is to make it the way it was supposed to be, not to challenge the historic look," he said.

The building itself also makes the project more difficult. The marble throughout the building must be protected, along with other historically accurate finishes, with foam and plastic coverings.

Wright said he's already ordered some of the special marble used in the Capitol, just in case there's some damage. So far, thanks in part to regular worker training in the care of the building, nothing's been scraped or dented, he said.

State employees are also being alerted to when parts of the building will be off-limits due to construction and work is being scheduled around interim legislative meetings, to make sure there are enough committee rooms available.

The first portions of the building ready to be reopened with new tile are restrooms for lawmakers in an area that's not accessible to the public. Tile is also being laid just outside a committee room on the fourth floor.

Gamble said the project has not reduced the number of weddings and other events being booked for a fee at the Capitol, but her staff is spending more time to make sure those who want to rent space understand there's work underway.

"Boy, the Capitol is being used, I'll tell you that," she said, noting there are a dozen weddings scheduled in the building next month. "We're more scheduled this year than we ever have been."

Email: lisa@deseretnews.com, Twitter: DNewsPolitics

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