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Science Center Sues Architects

Daniel D'Ambrosio

November 03, 2009

On July 28, 2009, famed architect Cesar Pelli was feted in a reception at the recently opened Connecticut Science Center, the iconic, glass-walled building his firm was chosen to design. Pelli received fans, signed books, and presented a slide show about the center's construction.

But what most guests at the reception presumably did not know is that exactly two weeks earlier, on July 14, the science center had filed a lawsuit against Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, Inc., alleging the firm had "substantially and repeatedly" breached its contract. The lawsuit alleges Pelli's architectural plans for the science center were "incomplete, ambiguous and flawed." It alleges Pelli failed to design systems and structures that met building codes, and delayed the project and increased costs "in substantial and numerous ways."

In a Dec. 14, 2004, agreement between Pelli and the science center, upcoming construction of the center was described as being on a "fast track," which would result in the building being completed by Jan. 31., 2008. The $165 million center didn't open, however, until June 12, 2009, nearly a year and a half after the original agreed-upon date.

President and Chief Executive Officer Matt Fleury has also faced challenges in meeting the operating budget for the center roughly $8 million annually. Faced with a budget crisis of its own, the Rell administration threatened to pull all of the $2.5 million in support it had committed to for the first two years of the science center's operation, but ended up budgeting a total of $1.35 million, or a little more than half the promised amount.

Fleury said the science center already took steps in September to reduce operating expenses by ramping up its education programs more slowly, and by not giving raises to staff, who have gone more than a year without any increases.

"I think every organization is asking its team to do more with less. That certainly includes us," said Fleury. "The staff has taken on that challenge beautifully. We hope we can continue to satisfy our visitors while we defer some things until a little later."

The science center's spectacular roof, often described as a "magic carpet," presented the most high-profile failure in the construction process, when special state inspectors noticed in November 2007 the recently installed roof was sagging significantly. To fix it, the roof had to be removed and shored up with special hidden supports, a process that took nearly six months to complete. The lawsuit notes that about 30 tons of additional steel were required to fix the roof, hardly the small "glitch" the problem was characterized as in early press coverage.

A second example of design disaster given in the lawsuit, and not covered in the press, was the so-called "wind girts," which serve the "vital function" of connecting the science center's metal wall panels to its steel structure. The design of the wind girts, says the lawsuit, was "wholly inadequate, incomplete and lacking in necessary detail," requiring significant work to redesign, fabricate and install new girts.

Summing up, the lawsuit states that Pelli issued approximately 438 bulletins for design changes or clarifications on the project's plans that were made necessary by the original design's errors or omissions. Of that total number of bulletins, the lawsuit says 338 were issued "after [Pelli] represented the design was complete."

In addition, the lawsuit states that Whiting-Turner Contracting Co., the general contractor for the center, had to serve Pelli with about 1,322 formal written requests for information, further slowing and complicating the construction process.

"As a direct and proximate result of the forgoing the Science Center has suffered damages including but not limited to increased costs and expenses, time delays, lost profits and other economic damages substantially in excess of $10 million," states the lawsuit.

Matt Fleury said last week he wants to recover as much of that $10-million-plus as possible.

"We're now employing appropriate contractual and legal mechanisms to address the issues of liability and damages incurred by our institution as a result of these errors and fixing them," said Fleury.

The lawsuit also asks for the science center's legal fees to be covered, along with "reputational damages in an amount to be determined at trial" and any other relief the court deems "just and equitable." What the total settlement might be once the lawsuit is settled, either through mediation or at trial, is yet to be determined.

House Republican Leader Larry Cafero of Norwalk was unaware of the lawsuit, but said that if the science center does not recover the money it says it spent fixing problems with Pelli's plans it will only add to the "fiscal morass" of the state budget.

Cafero pointed to Comptroller Nancy Wyman's announcement Monday that the state is already $624 million in the hole for the budget agreed to on Oct. 2, in addition to the state losing 9,200 businesses since January. He said legislators were supportive of the science center's role as "one of the pillars of Adriaen's Landing" the multi-billion dollar project to remake downtown Hartford but that the legislature faces tough choices.

"We have to cut spending," said Cafero. "We can't take care of this [state budget] crisis going forward by relying on one-shot revenue sources like the Rainy Day Fund and borrowing money."

Attorney Jane Milas of the New Haven law firm Garcia & Milas, which specializes in construction law and is representing the science center, explained that filing the lawsuit does not preclude mediation. She said both actions can proceed "in tandem." While no mediation hearings have been scheduled, both parties Pelli and the science center are "actively pursuing" mediation, according to Milas.

Pelli is also actively trying to spread the blame around, dragging 11 of its subcontractors into the lawsuit. They include: Whiting Turner, the general contractor; Cives Corporation, which fabricated and installed elements of the roof; Thornton Tomasetti, which designed the roof; and Persohn/Hahn, an elevator consultant.

Another high-profile failure came a month after the center opened, when the elevator got stuck between the third floor of the parking garage and the science center lobby, stranding 21 people for more than an hour.

According to the lawsuit, Persohn/Hahn, based in Houston, was not registered with the Connecticut Secretary of State, and did not receive a certificate of authority to conduct business in the state.

Seth Klaskin, director of the commercial recording division in the Secretary of State's office, confirmed he had no record of Persohn/Hahn, but said there are certain exemptions from registering for firms working on one-time-only projects. Klaskin could not confirm whether or not Persohn/Hahn fell under that exemption, and the Houston firm could not be reached for comment.

Pelli Clarke Pelli, a very well-known architectural firm with major projects around the world, declined to comment on the lawsuit. Cesar Pelli, the former dean of the School of Architecture at Yale University, beat out several other high-profile architects to land the science center project, including London-based Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi*-born architect who was the first woman to win the Pritzker Prize; and Moshe Safdie and Associates, the Boston architectural firm that designed the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.

Donald Doeg of the Hartford offices of Updike, Kelly & Spellacy, one of the attorneys representing Pelli, said the claims in the lawsuit are "very broad and vague in certain areas," making it difficult for him to comment until he has more details about what is being alleged.

"I think everybody associated with the project would like to see the problems resolved," said Doeg.

The science center, which is geared toward getting school-age children excited about the sciences with hands-on exhibits, has had a "terrific reception" from the state, with visitors coming from all 169 towns and cities across Connecticut, according to Fleury.

"We've served over 130,000 visitors, as we had expected to do by about this time," said Fleury. "Given an environment with a persistently depressed economy and swine flu, and being a brand new institution, I think we're all very happy to be where we are."

* In the original and print version of this article, we mistakenly wrote that Zaha Hadid was Iranian-born, not Iraqi-born. We regret the error.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Advocate.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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