sunday, november 20, 2011 B the denver post B denverpost.com
“How did a school project with so get through … without anyone «
and pledged to pay for repairs. School district officials, meanwhile, say they are committed to safety and careful oversight. But already, reverberations are being felt well beyond this town of 2,500. Two state agencies are reviewing other Neenan school projects, including work in eight districts financed with $150 million in state money. Over little more than a decade, Neenan has built or upgraded nearly 100 schools in Colorado, most in rural districts. And the failures in Meeker invite questions about the state’s ability to spot whether other schools were designed to safety standards.
Building the Meeker school Meeker is in the White River Valley, at the gateway to the Flat Tops Wilderness in the northwest part of the state. Ranchers here gather before 6 a.m. at Go-Fer Foods for coffee, and bright orange banners welcome elk hunters in the fall. The town is subject to the boom-and-bust cycle of oil and gas, and things were booming in 2008 — prompting the school district to get serious about its aging, overcrowded elementary school built in the 1930s. The district sought bids for an assessment of its buildings, but the two that came back were too high, said Dan Evig, the superintendent at the time. Then, Evig said, one of his principals attended a Colorado Association of School Executives conference and met a representative of the Neenan Co. The Fort Collins-based business was founded in 1973 by David Neenan, a big thinker who survived a near-bankruptcy and reinvented his company with a term he trademarked — “archistruction” — that consolidates development, design and construction. Neenan branched into school projects in the late 1990s and soon found its niche: rural Colorado schools lacking the know-how to finance and build big-capital projects. In Meeker, Neenan’s traveling salesman for school projects, Don Weidinger, became a presence at meetings and functions — even a bull sale at the school board president’s cattle ranch. He made a convincing case. In April 2008, the district hired Neenan for an assessment of its school buildings and a schematic design, complete with guaranteed cost information so school officials could take concrete information to voters. The contract required the district to pay Neenan $9,500 for the study if it did not ultimately select the company as its school designer and builder. Seven months later, Meeker voters approved a $24 million bond issue for the new elementary school and fixes at the middle and high schools. The district first fielded bids to hire an owner’s representative to oversee the project. A divided board chose Jim West of Vanir Construction Management Inc., who had worked on two other Neenan school projects. The district signed a $218,360 contract for West’s services and expenses. West’s ties to Neenan bothered Ben Rogers, a school board member at the time. “As far as I was concerned, he was an insider,” Rogers said. West told The Post he has worked with many different contractors and does not think working with Neenan “prejudiced my opinion in any way.” Shortly after hiring West, the district handed the design and construction contract to Neenan — without putting it out to competitive bid. Meeker school Superintendent Susan Goettel said the district decided to hire a company that could offer both design and construction and then chose Neenan without a competitive bid — which it has discretion to do — because of limited options in the area. Rogers, however, said at least one other company expressed interest. And Neenan has faced competition for other school projects. Meeker school board president Mary Strang declined to respond to questions for this story, saying the district’s attorney recommended the superintendent alone do the talking. “We are part of the school district,” Strang said. “We stand together, and that’s where we are.” Calls to other school board members were not returned. “There are a lot of disappointed people who spent a lot of money, put a lot of faith in the school board,” said Michele Morgan, a Meeker parent and innkeeper. “The board has to take the heat.” Earlier this month, Strang was voted off the Meeker school board after more than two decades. Another incumbent, Ed Coryell, also was ousted. Voter turnout set a record.
Safety concerns surface Meeker Elementary School had been open seven weeks when roofers doing maintenance work on Oct. 4, 2010, found something amiss: dirt piled against the outside of a gym wall had caused the wall to shift. Roof-joist seats connected to the top of the precast wall had failed, according to a letter Neenan sent to the Colorado Department of Public Safety. The gym was closed for more than a month while Neenan made repairs and built a retaining wall to push soil away from the building. To make sure the repair was sound, the dis-
A retaining wall, left, was built along the gym at Meeker Elementary School to keep soil away from a wall that had leaned. Addressing that problem unraveled a series of structural issues that shuttered the school. At right, Hallie Blunt and her children, Cade, 5, and Connor, 6, right, arrive for class at the Meeker School District Administration building in October, where some grade-school students have been moved since the school closed. Below, Connor joins displaced first-graders in a classroom. Photos by Craig F. Walker, The Denver Post
trict hired a third-party structural engineer, Luke Studer of Steamboat Springs. Studer eventually signed off on the gym fix, which was covered under Neenan’s two-year warranty. But something else caught his attention, the engineer said in an interview with The Post. Studer noticed that details in the gym roof were similar to those in the rest of the building. And he couldn’t figure out how the design would resist “lateral loads” — forces from the side. High winds and earthquakes are the most likely forces. Heavy snow piling up on one side of a roof is another. In a well-designed building, the force from a lateral load is transferred from the point of pressure to the braces and beams, spreading the load through the building. “It looked wrong,” Studer said of the Neenan design. “Then ensued a long period of heavy discussion.” On Nov. 4, 2010, Studer wrote to Superintendent Goettel expressing concern and urging her to get more information from Neenan. Unsatisfied with the company’s response, Studer recommended Dec. 16 that the district hire a larger engineering firm to review the school’s design. Neenan’s structural engineer, Gary Howell, struck back. In a Jan. 17 letter, Howell accused Studer of “ungrounded assessments” and “unjustified recommendations.” He also accused Studer of straying beyond what he was asked to review and violating the Structural Engineers Association of Colorado’s code of ethics by impugning a fellow engineer’s work. Howell made clear that Neenan did not recommend a review of the building and would not pay for it. The two engineers continued their pointed back-and-forth into the spring. Studer went so far as to call one part of the building — a single brace in the middle of a long corridor — “a giant ‘teeter-totter.’ ” But Howell, in late May, continued to insist Neenan “asserts the building is stable and safe to occupy.” At a school board meeting in June, West, the district’s owner representative, questioned why Neenan did not have information readily available to answer Studer’s concerns. West told the board that in his past experiences with Neenan, the company had been responsive and willing to make changes and fixes. Finally, in mid-July, Meeker School District
RE-1 hired Structural Consultants Inc. of Denver to review the structural integrity of the grade school. The findings, laid out in an Aug. 2 report, were devastating: Neenan had designed the building to a seismic safety occupancy category of 1 instead of 3, the required standard for schools. A category 1 building presents “a low hazard to human life in the event of failure.” The school, in other words, was designed to seismic standards for structures such as barns and storage sheds. But the report’s criticisms did not stop there. SCI found girders that could bend under a maximum load, steel columns that were too slender and a roof connection one-fourth as strong as it needed to be. It also found basic information on snow, wind and earthquake resistance criteria was missing. The biggest problem, though, was the lack of bracing in the walls of the classroom wing to prevent a collapse in case of an earthquake or
Randy Myers, president
The Neenan Co. The Neenan Co. has its headquarters in Fort Collins in an airy building without interior doors where architects, designers and engineers work together as teams on construction projects. The company has built more than 1,000 buildings and expects revenues of about $150 million this year. Besides rural schools, its Colorado projects include the New Belgium Brewing Co. in Fort Collins, YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park, the Peakview Tower in Englewood and an addition to the Grand Junction VA Medical Center.
fierce windstorm — an “immediate structural concern,” SCI said. By then, nine months had passed since Studer had first warned Meeker officials that their new school might not be safe. The school had been occupied by 350 children for an entire school year.
“We made a mistake” The school board decided to shutter the school until repairs were made and move students to other district schools and the administration building. In an interview, Goettel defended the district’s response to Studer’s red flags. “Please know we never had a concern for our students or staff’s safety in that building,” she said. “We were gathering information throughout that process. We were actively seeking answers.” Neenan president Randy Myers acknowledges, in retrospect, that the school was unsafe to occupy. “I guess considering the information we now know of, no, it wasn’t,” he said. “And that was not OK. I never want to put our clients in any type of position like that again.” Myers said Neenan still cannot explain why Howell, its structural engineer, designed the building improperly. Howell was hired in December 2007, in part because the company had run into issues with outside structural engineers who “caused us some losses,” Myers said. The company has done its own structural engineering on about 35 percent to 40 percent of its school projects in Colorado and used outside help on the rest, he said. Neenan hired a second structural engineer in the past year because of an uptick in business, but Howell was the only one working on Meeker, Myers said. Myers said Neenan has not taken disciplinary action against Howell “at this time,” saying the company is focused on fixing the school. He would not make Howell available for an interview. “We admit we made a mistake,” Myers said, “and we’re ready to fix it.” Neenan has found no problems in the design criteria of 21 other school projects in which it has done the structural engineering, Myers said. He said Howell worked on the majority of them. The company has requested records from the state to review other projects, he said.