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Fellsmere Elementary: Big problems with new building

Photo: The 900 building at Fellsmere Elementary has been plagued with mold, leaks and cracking stucco.

A slew of anonymous and on-the-record complaints about health hazards at Fellsmere Elementary spurred Vero Beach 32963 to investigate first mold and now the shoddy condition of the school’s new classroom building and cafeteria/auditorium, completed less than two years ago as part of a $9.7 million campus renovation.

The new building, known as the 900 building, has been plagued with mold, leaks and cracking stucco, almost from the day it was “finished.”

The nearby 700 building, where a new kitchen and expanded cafeteria/auditorium were built as part of the same renovation project has similar problems; in addition, it was somehow built without being tied into the school’s new million-dollar climate control system, adding to moisture and mold problems.

The problems suggest a lack of checks and balances in the district’s bidding and construction process.

The bidding process for the new two-story, 25,000-square-foot 900 building was overseen and the contractor selected not by a panel of engineers or construction managers, but by a committee composed of an elementary school principal and departmental staff from food service, facilities, finance and ESE (exceptional student education).

Astonishingly, neither the county nor the city of Fellsmere approved the plans for the 900 building, inspected it during construction or had any say in issuing the occupancy permit that allowed students to be placed in the humid, leaky structure.

A lack of transparency and effective communication has allowed the problems to fester. Although the school district’s website puts parents at the top of its organization chart, the district has not informed parents about ongoing problems with the new building.

The school board has not been informed, either, according to Charles Searcy, the only board member who responded to calls for comment. He said he was unaware of any problems with the new building and that nothing has been mentioned by district personnel at public school board meetings or elsewhere.

District building inspector and code enforcement officer Scott Ganger found 15 violations in the 900 building in his “Annual Fire Safety, Casualty and Sanitation” inspection on Oct. 1, 2015. Sixteen code violations were documented in the 700 building, including five in the cafetorium and kitchen area.

Mold was found in both buildings over the past year. After 10 works order requests cited problems with air quality and mold in the 700 building, a facilities staffer was allowed to investigate. He found the humidity control system was giving false data to the central HVAC control panel. The control system was replaced, but it’s still hooked up to an old HVAC system, not the new heating and cooling system installed two years ago, according to district physical plant director John Earman.

Although the 700 building gets the most communal use of any building on the campus, housing art rooms and the cafeteria/auditorium, it is the only one not hooked into the new central HVAC plant, which consumed about $1 million of the $9.7 million project cost, according to Sanders.

Sanders said moisture problems in the 900 building began within four months of completion. In response, the mastic around the sealed windows was checked. The frame, head, jamb and sill of the windows are flush with the stucco, with no lip or rim to shed water, making it imperative that seals are tight. Adjustments were made until the windows withstood pressure-washing tests, Sanders said. 

Still, small puddles formed inside the building.

The next remediation effort was to lower the grade around the building so that the sod was no longer in contact with the stucco. As built under district supervision, without county oversight, the sod was in contact with the stucco, which can allow moisture to wick into a building.

Puddles continued to form after the grade was changed, Sanders said.

The next step was to call out the contractor, Pirtle/Pinnacle construction, two local companies that teamed up to win the building contract. The company’s workers examined the entire stucco exterior, tapping to find hollow places where moisture might accumulate. Areas that sounded hollow were marked with orange spray paint (always a good look) as part of a plan to remove and replace the bubbled stucco over spring break, between March 21 and 25.

Sanders said the contractors “were under a tight schedule” and “may have been rushed” during the original construction. There are three layers to stucco and each is supposed to “cure” before the next layer is applied. The stucco subcontractor, Applegate Construction of Lake Worth, was new and unknown to Pirtle/Pinnacle, Sanders said, and may not have allowed proper time for curing.

It is not known, yet, if the stucco repair will cure the moisture problem.

Pirtle, Pinnacle and Applegate all refused to comment about problems at the new building, but Sanders said the district has done a number of previous projects with Pirtle/Pinnacle and has been satisfied with the work.

The process used to deliver the project, “Contract Manager at Risk,” cuts out third-party and public oversight. Unlike a sealed bid opened in public, the contractor is queried on qualifications and selected by the owner. The construction management firm acts as a consultant to the owner during the design phase and then acts as the general contractor during the construction phase. The construction manager also acts as materials vendor.

The construction management journal CM eJournal reports that this method makes it impossible to know how close the delivery cost comes to what could have been achieved through a competitive-bid process, and suppresses competition.

Sanders said an architect was hired to do “20 to 40 percent drawings” for the new building, but it is unclear if the architect provided supervision throughout the project.

On the basis of the “20 to 40 percent drawings,” a legal ad was placed “soliciting professional qualifications and letters of interest from qualified firms” that elicited 13 responses.

An unidentified selection committee chose six finalists who were evaluated by the school principal and district staff committee, which chose Pirtle/Pinnacle. 

Originally slated to cost $8.9 million, the renovation ended up costing an extra $800,000, for a total of $9.7 million.

Indian River County community development director Stan Boling confirmed that the county does not oversee school district building plans. A county committee looks at the site plan as it relates to road and sidewalk impacts, but not at construction details.

A records request to determine who signed the certificate of occupancy for the 900 building was not fulfilled in time for this article, so it is unknown for the moment if the original design architect was used to compare the design with the end result.