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Miami airport's stylish Concourse H marred by failures

Sporting a wavy roofline, airy atrium and snazzy terrazzo floors, Concourse H at Miami International Airport was a 1998 architectural prize winner. The concourse also is a monument to what's gone wrong with the airport's $5.4 billion construction program.

Concourse H, one of the first big projects to be completed, was plagued by slipshod planning and design, costly delays and runaway costs. A repeat performance as the massive expansion program progresses could add millions of dollars in unexpected expense and debt. Problems that emerged during Concourse H construction included: The concourse's massive "ski-slope" roof buckled and nearly collapsed because of an engineering goof. Not enough structural support. Fire marshals red-tagged the place for inadequate fire alarms, sprinklers and emergency exits. Building plans approved by airport inspectors didn't include required safety protection. Snarled by two years of construction delays, the concourse took longer to finish than Miami's tallest skyscraper, First Union Financial Center. When finished, the concourse cost 60 percent more than budgeted by the airport. The final bill: $46 million, $18 million more than promised because of costly add-ons and mistakes. Airport construction managers say that since Concourse H was designed, they have intensified quality control inspections. Glitches are to be expected in a construction program of such magnitude, they say. "Each airport has a very unique design, " said Narinder Jolly, the airport's acting construction chief. "Occasionally things can happen. Each project puts together hundreds of people - architects, engineers, carpenters - who have never worked together before." Ongoing construction at Miami International is the most expensive public works program in county history. Targeted for completion in 2005, the expansion will double the size of the terminal, build a fourth runway and add more parking, among other improvements. Since 1994, when the program was launched, the price tag has shot up 38 percent to $5.4 billion and is expected to go far higher. Across the airport, Miami-Dade's aviation department has accepted shoddy work, then paid to have it fixed, records show. New roofs on cargo buildings leaked. Concrete runway ramps cracked. Fire sprinklers weren't hooked up to water. The Federal Aviation Administration, which is subsidizing airport expansion, is worried. "Our greater concern has been for several years with the method used by Dade County to ensure that quality assurance is proper and adequate, " an FAA inspector wrote in 1996 after discovering deep cracks in newly poured aircraft ramps. ROOF FAILURE At Concourse H, the airport paid $400,000 for the massive roof failure blamed on an engineering mistake. Insurance covered the failure, yet the airport has yet to file a claim. The trouble started May 1, 1995, when construction crews started tearing down the concrete forms for the signature "ski slope" roof. It began to buckle. "Superintendent Jack Burnworth noted a considerable drop in the slab, " the project architect reported. "He immediately ordered his crew to restore the form work to avoid further deflection." Reminiscent of a ski jump, the roof was a massive slab of reinforced cement: 20 feet wide, 40 feet long and 8 inches thick. Even with the forms back in place, the slab developed deep horizontal cracks overnight. Supporting columns began to bend. STEEL OMITTED The slab was supposed to be supported by structural steel channels - but they were left out of blueprints by a subcontractor hired by the architect. "Our engineer blew it, " said Daniel Perez-Zarraga, a principal of Perez & Perez Architects Planners, the project architects. Perez-Zarraga said he expected the county to demand compensation from his company. "I said, 'No problem, " he said. "There was no doubt that our engineer left out the structural steel. But nothing ever happened." The airport also could have filed a claim against a policy it purchased for $8.1 million to cover architectural and engineering flaws. It was too much trouble, according to Richard Perez, the airport's construction chief until his resignation last year. "It is a cumbersome and unfamiliar process, " he wrote in response to questions from The Herald. "I presume the department is still pursuing these claims." PAYING FOR ERRORS Overall, the airport has paid $946,000 for design errors blamed on Perez & Perez, according to a 1998 report by county auditors. Miami-Dade commissioners didn't know. Airport officials buried the cost of the mistakes in a series of requests to the County Commission for an extra $13 million to complete Concourse H. Miami-Dade commissioners approved the contract changes, after reviewing documents that made no mention of the roof failure. Other snags at Concourse H developed as construction progressed. The most serious: The building permit was approved without a thorough review by the fire department. Problems emerged during a 1996 safety inspection: Alarms installed on the second and third floors lacked required strobe lights to alert people who are hearing impaired. They've since been installed. The fire department said the architect erred in deciding that aircraft gates could be used as fire escapes. A new exit had to be added. Sprinkler heads were missing above and beneath stairs and escalators, as well as in the concourse's atrium. Cost of installation: $134,697. Finally, computer and communications cables strung through the ceiling were insulated with materials that could emit deadly gases if they melted and burned in a fire. The replacement cost: $50,563. FIRM PROTESTED Perez & Perez protested the added safety features, saying the fire department had signed off on its plans in 1992. The fire department, however, could not find records supporting the architect's contention. Perez-Zarraga said the fire department constantly flip-flopped on the safety requirements. "There was always a struggle with the fire department, " he said. "You start working with whom the department assigned to the project. Then the next guy assigned interprets the code differently." After months of debate, the fire department prevailed. To this day, Concourse H doesn't have final approval. The fire department insists that the concourse's windows need a "deluge" sprinkler system to keep the glass cool if a fire breaks out during aircraft refueling. PLANNING BLAMED Perez-Zarraga said bad planning is to blame. He said airport planners cut the deluge system from the plans because it cost $850,000. "We were asked by the county to take it out as a cost-saving measure, " he said. While trying to save money on safety features, airport managers drove up costs by continually changing the design of Concourse H, even during construction. "Changes in airport administration, county managers and county commissioners slow things down, " said Perez-Zarraga, who has worked at the airport since the early 1980s. "As a general rule, the changes result in a overall review of the construction program. And the price goes up." First conceived in 1986 as an $8 million project, Concourse H was redesigned four times. In 1989, a $30 million design was approved - only to be shelved when longtime aviation director Richard Judy retired. Two years later, then-aviation director Rick Elder resurrected the project with a $25 million budget. WORK DELAYED When Elder quit, the project was in chaos, Perez-Zarraga said. Construction was delayed while the county commission wrangled for six months over which contractor should get the work. The final bid price for the project: $28 million. When finished four years later, the concourse cost $18 million more. Even while under construction, the county kept changing the design, Perez-Zarraga said. The airport paid $782,000 - $1,000 a day - to general contractor Centex-Rooney Construction to cover the "indirect" cost of crews and equipment that were idled during design changes. VIP LOUNGE The biggest change in mid-construction: expanding the concourse's "Crown Room Club, " a VIP lounge and office center for Delta Air Lines passengers. Ordered two months after construction began, the revision added $4 million to the cost and more than a year to the construction timetable. Perez-Zarraga said costly structural steel had to be scrapped and new beams ordered. The architect said the Crown Room would have cost considerably less had the airport responded more quickly to Delta's request for a bigger room. The airline had first approached the airport in 1992, a year before construction started. The request was forgotten while the airport was embroiled in a political dispute. Elder, in trouble at County Hall over a dispute with American Airlines, was forced out in 1993. Concourse H was finally finished in March 1998. One of the last snags really took the cake. A ribbon-cutting ceremony had to be pushed back a week because it conflicted with a county commission meeting. The airport was left with a $200 cake - and no VIPs to eat it. Airport staffers were summoned so it wouldn't go to waste. "The cake for today's postponed Grand Opening has arrived, " an internal e-mail announcement said. "Have a piece of history!"

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