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August 29, 2014

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How did CityCenter tower flaws persist?

Failed safeguards puzzle county inspections official

Image

Sam Morris

The Harmon won’t open until 2010, but the hotel’s exterior will be finished and the building lighted when CityCenter is unveiled this year.

Clark County is investigating the consultants hired by CityCenter owner MGM Mirage to inspect the structural integrity of construction work at the site, after faulty rebar caused massive problems in the project’s Harmon tower.

CityCenter Construction

MGM Mirage's $9 billion CityCenter project, encompassing seven buildings, continues rising Thursday, Feb. 5, 2009. Launch slideshow »

Topping Out CityCenter

On Wednesday, May 14, CityCenter commemorated the "topping out" of its 57-story Vdara Condo Hotel. The opening is planned for August 2009.

Beyond the Sun

Ron Lynn, the county’s director of development services, said Wednesday that engineering consulting firm Converse Consultants repeatedly filed rebar inspection reports indicating there were no problems with The Harmon.

However, an employee of the engineer of record for the tower, Halcrow Yolles, walking the site in July, discovered rebar deficiencies. By that point, much of the reinforcing iron had been buried in concrete.

Those concerns prompted a more detailed county inspection that halted construction on the project and led to the decision Wednesday by MGM Mirage to top off the building — originally planned as a 49-story tower — at 28 floors.

Lynn said that while responsibility for the faulty rebar ultimately lies with the general contractor, Perini Building Co., and rebar subcontractor, Pacific Coast Steel, he wants to learn how an apparent systematic breakdown in the inspection process occurred.

“There are multiple levels that transpired here,” Lynn said. “You have to put the first burden on the contractors who put the work in because they are responsible by law to install it correctly. But certainly the special inspector should have caught the problem.”

The county requires project owners such as MGM Mirage to hire certified inspectors to sign off on structural elements of construction projects and submit their reports to the county.

On Wednesday morning, MGM Mirage announced it was reconfiguring the project as a 28-floor hotel rather than a 49-story building topped with condominiums, and delaying its opening to 2010. The Harmon will no longer include the planned 200 residential units that were to occupy the top floors of the building.

Lynn said the county had expected MGM Mirage to submit new plans to reconfigure the engineering design of the building. But now a shorter building will make extensive reconfiguration unnecessary, experts say.

Lynn thinks the problems stemmed from construction errors rather than a faulty design. The county had signed off on blueprints that should not have been difficult for the contractors to interpret, he said.

Outside experts said that although mistakes on large construction sites are not uncommon, the size and scope of The Harmon’s troubles — and the decision by the owner to shorten the building as a result — is.

“This is not a perfect science. Human error is involved,” said an expert who isn’t involved in the CityCenter project. “A lot of times, a mistake that isn’t caught the first time is perpetuated.”

Particularly puzzling to Lynn was the fact that the mistakes in this case were not uniform. “In some cases the number of rebar was wrong and in some places it was in the wrong place,” Lynn said.

“They were inconsistent in their errors. We don’t understand how that inconsistency could have been missed or why it was done, and that’s certainly an area of concern for us,” he said.

Lynn would like to better understand why the rebar was installed incorrectly, but his department can only sanction inspectors for violations, not contractors.

In a Notice of Violation issued Aug. 5, county inspectors said that Scott Edberg and Joseph Glenn Laurente, employees of Converse Consultants, noted in their reports to the county that all structural reinforcements complied with approved plans. But, the notice stated, “it had been found in the field that the link beams reinforcing has severely deficient items, such as reinforcing torch cut, misaligned and missing cap ties” on floors 5 through 20.

After the county issued the notice ordering that the site be shut down, officials began an investigation to determine whether Edberg and Glenn were responsible for problematic oversight at other projects at CityCenter and elsewhere.

Lynn expects to issue results of that investigation in a couple of weeks. The county could strip Edberg and Glenn of their certifications to conduct inspections in some or all areas, or require them to pass new tests.

One of the inspectors no longer works for Converse and the other has been reassigned, Lynn said.

The county could also stop Converse from conducting inspections for a time, imposing a significant monetary loss on the company.

Converse representatives did not respond to calls for comment. Pacific Coast Steel representatives also could not be reached. Perini spokeswoman Lesley Pittman said the company did not want to comment while the county investigation was ongoing.

Like many other municipalities, Clark County relies on the oversight of third-party inspectors hired by owners because it doesn’t have the manpower to examine every aspect of every building project in the county, Lynn said. Instead, the county employs as many as 14 “monitors” to spot-check the work of the third-party inspectors who submit regular reports.

In the case of The Harmon, county monitors examined rebar on the lower floors and did not find any problems because the rebar deficiencies did not occur until construction reached the fifth floor.

The county monitors who inspected the higher floors did not examine the rebar, Lynn said.

In addition to looking at the role of the third-party inspectors, Lynn said, his department may also examine its role, which he said is limited by resources. The monitors often spend much of their time inspecting buildings’ foundations rather than rebar placement because rebar is not as complicated, he said.

“We have one of the largest staffs around devoted to monitoring,” Lynn said. “But when something like this happens you have to ask how it happened and I have been asking is our level of oversight adequate. Do we need to focus more on a particular project? But particularly in these economic times, there’s just not the manpower.”

Sun reporter Liz Benston contributed to this story.

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