Repairs to Whatcom County Courthouse could cost $34M

The Whatcom County Courthouse in downtown Bellingham, Wednesday Feb. 10, 2016. An architecture firm says faulty construction of a courthouse extension has led to water damage that will cost millions to repair.
The Whatcom County Courthouse in downtown Bellingham, Wednesday Feb. 10, 2016. An architecture firm says faulty construction of a courthouse extension has led to water damage that will cost millions to repair. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

It could cost taxpayers $28.3 million to $34.1 million to repair the water-damaged exterior walls of the Whatcom County Courthouse and make other repairs, according to an assessment.

If approved, the repairs would be more expensive than the final $25.8 million bill for the 90,000-square-foot courthouse extension and remodel started in 1991. That project included the installation of the walls that are now crumbling in some places due to water collecting behind the brick.

Whatcom County Council members heard the news from HKP Architects partner Brian Poppe in council chambers Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 9. HKP, which has offices in Seattle and Mount Vernon, inspected and assessed the courthouse’s three connected buildings, built in 1948, 1972 and 1991.

“I apologize to be the bearer of bad news,” Poppe started. “We investigated the walls from the outside in and the inside out. ... Drainage mechanisms that should exist in the brick walls don’t or are insufficient.”

Every time we opened a wall, we found something at variance with the as-built drawings.

Brian Poppe, HKP Architects

Brick, which is porous, requires strategically placed holes so water can escape, but the courthouse walls have too few places for water to get out.

In some places, water channels were installed improperly; in others, overhangs on the roof line that are meant to prevent water from getting into the walls do not extend far enough, causing water to collect, Poppe explained.

The architecture firm also found that in most places, the way the building was actually constructed did not match “as-built” drawings the contractor provided at the end of construction on the 1991 extension.

“Every time we opened a wall, we found something at variance with the as-built drawings,” Poppe said.

Council member Barbara Brenner, who was on council at the time the courthouse addition was finalized in 1994, asked if there was any indication the walls were intentionally not constructed as they should have been.

“Yes,” Poppe replied.

Replacement or the ‘glazed box’

Poppe outlined two major options for the courthouse: replace the walls or keep them as they are and encase the newest part of the courthouse in a glass box.

The estimates – $28.3 million for wall replacement, $34.1 million for the “glazed box” – assume the worst-case scenario that construction could happen only between 4:30 p.m. and 11 p.m. because the building still would be needed for normal business.

Both options would keep the existing walls in place for the 1948 and 1972 portions of the building and install new drainage with a new brick or stone panel veneer to protect them from the elements.

Single-pane windows in the 1948 building would be replaced.

Both options would require a secondary wall to be built inside the building to protect people from the outside work.

Under option one, the walls would be replaced in kind, and appear essentially as they do now. Workers would strip the building to the wall studs and rebuild with the proper detailing, Poppe said.

Windows and sealants would be replaced with new units to meet energy codes, and construction likely would take around 16 months.

The second option would address the water issues by building a glass “box” that would extend 30 inches from the existing wall. Failing portions of the existing wall and windows would be replaced. That would likely take 14 months to build.

Poppe also said the county could take a maintenance approach and address issues with the roofing, windows, sealants and do regular work to replace cracked bricks.

“The building hasn’t gotten better on its own, and it’s not going to get better on its own,” Poppe said.

The council was not scheduled to vote on the issue Tuesday and took no action.

1991 courthouse extension

In 1990, the county hired KMD Architects and Planners to design an extension to the courthouse and an expanded juvenile detention space.

In December 1991, Strand Hunt Construction Inc. of Kirkland, the main contractor for the project, broke ground on the six-floor, 90,000-square-foot addition and remodel of the existing 60,000-square-foot courthouse.

The project was finished in April 1994, more than a year after the expected completion date.

We’re well beyond any period of recovery.

Dan Gibson, chief civil deputy prosecuting attorney for Whatcom County

In addition to being 30 percent more expensive than the detailed estimations, the project had multiple issues.

▪  More than 100 county employees who worked in the courthouse during construction complained that they were sickened by chemical fumes and reported other construction-related hazards. About 350 reports for workers’ compensation were filed, according to articles published in The Bellingham Herald at the time.

▪  In September 1993, county Public Works Director Paul Rushing retired from his post. The next day he started work as an independent contractor overseeing the completion of the expansion.

Then-County Executive Shirley Van Zanten approved and extended the contract with Rushing without County Council approval, an action later deemed improper by state auditors.

Rushing later sued the county for the unpaid portion of his contract, and the county paid him a $30,000 settlement.

▪  On May 9, 1995, County Council voted 6-1, with Brenner dissenting, to pay a $2 million settlement to Strand.

In turn, Strand was allowed to sue KMD Architects in the county’s name to try to recover money to be paid to Strand for alleged issues with the design and oversight of the project.


Current County Executive Jack Louws told the council in January 2015 that the county had no legal recourse against Strand at this point, as the county had agreed to an out-of-court settlement with the contractor long ago.

At the Feb. 9 meeting, council members asked to get a copy of the negotiated settlement.

The Bellingham Herald asked county legal staff for a copy of any additional settlement or arbitration separate from the 1995 agreement, but an arbitration file was not found and may have been destroyed under the allowable schedule for getting rid of documents.

Regardless, the statute of limitations for that type of claim has long since lapsed, explained Dan Gibson, the county’s chief civil deputy prosecuting attorney.

“We’re well beyond any period of recovery,” Gibson said. “Whatever happened back in the ’90s may be helpful for historical curiosity’s sake, but it doesn’t address anyone who’s thinking there might be recovery at this point.”

These days, the county uses outside inspectors to ensure contractors complete all work properly.

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil