The exterior of Whatcom County Courthouse is crumbling away because water has been collecting inside the walls.
The county executive and council indicated on Tuesday, Jan. 27, that they were prepared to start planning what Executive Jack Louws called a “multimillion-dollar project” to replace the entire facade.
Council heard on Tuesday a sobering report from HKP Architects, which for the past four months has been inspecting the outside walls of the courthouse from top to bottom, inside and out.
The consultant found several construction flaws, all with the same result: too much water getting behind the brick, and water pooling inside the exterior walls.
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The culprit, according to a presentation given to council by Brian Poppe of HKP, was the construction company that did the most recent exterior courthouse renovation, in 1991.
Construction drawings, likely provided by the contractor at the time of the renovation, include cross sections of exterior walls done correctly. But the drawings consistently did not match what actually was built, Poppe said.
“Nearly every time we opened a wall, we found something different from the construction drawings,” he said.
Normally, rainwater will find its way behind a brick wall on a building. A crucial job of the contractor is to install simple water-collection systems along small holes in the brick so the water can escape. Instead, the contractor, Strand Inc. of Kirkland, built inadequate or ineffective solutions — or no solutions at all — leading to evidence that the 23-year-old facade is beginning to fail, Poppe said.
HKP workers conducting the recent inspection were able to remove some bricks with their hands. Water has rusted the steel supports of the brick wall, destroying the brick and worsening the leaks.
Poppe asked the council for another $80,000 to conduct further inspections to see if any of the modular brick panels can be saved. Louws and council members said they didn’t see a reason to spend more money to learn what they already knew.
“Ultimately, we’re going to have to put an entire new skin or exterior surface on this building,” council member Pete Kremen said. “I think we should just go ahead. ... We already know that it’s an abomination.”
In addition, Louws said, more than half of the double-paned, hermetically sealed windows leak, so probably all of the windows will have to be replaced.
The uppermost part of the courthouse roof, from the 1948 section of the building, is in “the most dire need” of being replaced, Poppe said. That work will be complicated by the generator and mechanical rooms installed on that part of the roof.
During Tuesday’s discussion, Louws referred to the building repair — now inevitable, but before Tuesday not even on council’s radar — as a “multimillion-dollar project.” If the county retains the firm, HKP Architects will provide a more detailed cost estimate.
Louws explained to a disgruntled council that the county had no legal recourse against Strand Inc. The county agreed to an out-of-court settlement with the contractor long ago, he said. Strand hasn’t done any other building construction for the county and might no longer be in business, officials said.
These days, the county uses outside inspectors to ensure that contractors complete all work properly.
“We have a lot better controls in place than we had in ’91,” Louws said.