Capitol ‘guts’ upgrades could cost ‘tens of millions’

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — After tackling more “sexy” projects like restoration of the Michigan Capitol dome, the commission tasked with managing the historic building is turning its attention to the “guts.”

Vice Chair John Truscott and Christman Construction Project Chairman Chad Clark on Thursday took reporters through the bowels of the 137-year-old Capitol, highlighting decrepit innards they say may require “tens of millions” of dollars in repairs.

Evidence of potential dangers include a two-foot crack snaking through a cement foundation wall supporting steam pipes in the south broiler, which Clark said jeopardizes the structural integrity of a room that houses most of the building’s outdated heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems.

A trash can collects water leaking from a circulating pump in the north attic directly above the House chambers, and a separate storm water roof drain pipe has been patched to close what had been a sizable hole.

“You can imagine if we had a nice rain like we had last night come through, all that water comes through here and goes down four floors worth of decorative paint and decorative plaster,” Clark told reporters. “That was something that was caught.”

All told, the cost of updating the guts of the Michigan Capitol will surely exceed the $3 million in annual tobacco tax revenue legislators approved for Capitol maintenance in a 2014 law, Truscott said.

Some of the potential upgrades under consideration, such as moving to a geothermal heating and cooling system, could potentially save the state in long-term costs, he said.

“The technology is changing so rapidly right now, so we’re looking at energy efficiency as part of this, because we do have pretty heft energy bills.”

The commission will likely finalize a project plan by the end of the year and may eventually request additional funding from the Legislature or consider bonding, which Truscott said could be complicated because there is not a single entity that owns the building, which is generally open to the public year round.

“The people of Michigan (own it), but from a banking perspective, Wall Street won’t accept that,” he said.

Aging innards

The Capitol tour was shaky from the start; the ground floor meeting room where reporters gathered was vibrating from what Clark said was a bad bearing on an air conditioning unit below.

Clark and Christman colleagues guided reporters through a virtual reality tour of a four-and-a-half-foot-tall sub-basement using an Oculus Rift development-kit model.

A fire suppression system ran directly over top electrical gear, one of several features considered a code violation by modern standards, Clark said. He noted some of the mortar joints are falling out.

“It’s a very moist environment in this sub-basement,” he said. “Not a good spot for your electrical gear, so that’s one of the things that will be accomplished through this project.”

From there reporters toured an attic above the House chambers and a boiler room far below where most of the building’s heating and cooling equipment originates.

There, an “antique” compressor tells pumps and fans to stop and start when needed, as gauged by a series of pneumatic tubes that weave their way around the Capitol.

“Find another one, because I have never seen one until I worked at the Capitol before,” said Clark, calling it a prime example of outdated technology in the building.

The aging systems and original lack of moisture barriers produce radical humidity fluctuations inside, Clark explained, leading paint to flake from parts of the building, including the famous “muses” that adorn the interior of the Capitol rotunda.

Restoration work

Created in 2013, the Michigan Capitol Commission has taken over management of the building and led some of its largest restoration projects since a massive overhaul from 1989 to 1992.

Some of the internal systems and equipment were updated in the 1990 restoration, but not all of it. None of the modern technology was native to the building and has essentially been squeezed into tight spaces over the decades.

“When this building was built, you had gas lights, water and sewer. That was it,” said Ron Staley of Christman, who helped lead the restoration project 25 years ago.

“There was no forced ventilation. (Architect) Elijah Myers’ system was all gravity. That’s part of the reason for the dome, is you open the windows and that acts like a big chimney to let the hot air out.”

In addition to the roughly $6.5 million dome restoration project, the commission recently added new ground-floor tiles and lighting fixtures in doors. Outside, new historic-themed lampposts dot the lawn, and security bollards were added at some sidewalk entrances.

Each project requires adherence to special regulations because the building is registered as a National Historic Landmark.

“We have a 19th-century building and we’re trying to bring in 21st-century technologies,” said Rob Blackshaw, director of facility operations for the commission.

“So all that is taken under consideration in terms of energy efficiencies, how we’re going to protect historic fabrics in the building and make sure we’re code compliant to today’s rules, not yesterday’s rules.”