Thursday, April 22, 2004

Digging collapsed Summit

School gets report on disruptive construction disaster

By Jennifer Edwards
The Cincinnati Enquirer

HYDE PARK - A portion of the east wing in Summit Country Day School's main building collapsed three months ago because excavation for a foundation wall for a new building undermined it.

Summit hired these firms to investigate the cause of the collapse:

•  Wiss, Janney, Esltner Associates Inc. of Chicago: The 50-year-old internationally known firm has worked on more than 60,000 projects worldwide including multiple investigations of the buildings surrounding the World Trade Center complex following Sept. 11

•  THP Limited Inc. of downtown Cincinnati: Projects include the Aronoff Center, Great American Ball Park and Vontz Center at the University of Cincinnati

•  Thelen Associates Inc., of Erlanger: The geotechnical firm has provided engineering, drilling, testing and construction review services for more than 28,000 projects including Xavier University's Cintas Center, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center garage and multiple projects for Cincinnati Public Schools

That was the essential finding of a three-month-long investigation, released Wednesday, into the cause of the Jan. 18 collapse. No one was injured at the 1,100-student school because classes were out.

"The collapse of the east wing was a frightening event," Joseph T. Devlin, head of school, said. "Understanding its causes is important to putting it behind us and moving forward."

The investigation, conducted by three local and global engineering firms, also found:

• Construction documents show the new Lower School foundation wall was to be seven to six inches to less than a foot from the existing south wall of the east wing. Actual excavation was much closer, in some cases right next to the south wall of the east wing.

• If a properly designated earth retention system had been installed before excavation along the south wall of the east wing, the collapse would not have occurred. Such a system in the area that gave out was not included in the construction design.

• Excavation was "very steep:" the slope in mid-January along the south wall of the east wing ranged from 66 to 99 degrees.

• The foundation of the south wall of the east wing is at a higher elevation than the adjacent foundation of the boiler room. The findings mirror ones Cincinnati's chief building official predicted after the Jan. 18 collapse at the prestigious private Catholic school. It toppled three stories that held classrooms, a computer lab and the library.

A pre-construction soils report prepared for Summit warned that foundations in the 114-year-old main building needed extra support during construction of an adjacent building. On Wednesday, Summit sent parents a letter, enclosed with summaries from the engineering firms outlining the findings. Parents also can meet with the engineers Tuesday at Summit.

The investigation does not assign blame, reads Summit's letter, signed by Devlin and Mark Bodnar, president of Summit's board of trustees.

Because multiple parties were involved in the design and construction of the new school before the collapse, it will take an "extensive period of time" for all to assess the legal issues associated with the responsibility of the collapse, the letter states.

Summit, the men wrote, provided the design and construction professionals with full and accurate information.

"We never suggested or authorized shortcuts in the design and construction process," the letter reads. "We would not take any chances with the safety of our students."

Parents want to know who is to blame.

"The collapse never should have happened. This is not revolutionary construction," said Frank Albi of Anderson Township. Two of his children, ages 16 and 11, attend Summit.

"The important thing is that whoever made this mistake is identified and that person or persons do not make this mistake again," he said.

Summit has replaced its architect and engineers and has a new construction team.

Turner Construction Co. of Cincinnati still is the principal contractor but has brought in a team of senior staff members and is guaranteeing that Summit will be reimbursed for all costs and losses related to the collapse.

Turner and school officials have declined to put a price tag on that work but the agreement means the school will not take legal action against Turner.

Earl Crossland, the owner and a partner of the original architecture firm that Summit fired, Voorhis, Slone, Welsh, Crossland Architects Inc. of Mason, declined comment Wednesday. Devlin said the firm was fired because school officials weren't happy with several issues but wouldn't elaborate.

Earlier this week, the main building's west and central wings were cleared for occupancy.

Students attending classes off campus since the collapse - pre-school, kindergarten and high school - will not return to campus until the fall.

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