The Department of Defense is investigating cost overruns and scheduling delays in the construction of U.S. Strategic Command’s massive new $1.3 billion headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base.
Auditors have been to Omaha at least twice in recent weeks. They toured the new headquarters Feb. 14, said Maj. Gen. Rick Evans, the director of StratCom’s program manager office.
Congress ordered the investigation after the cost of constructing the building jumped nearly 10 percent, and the project fell at least 20 months behind schedule. Problems included mold, design flaws and the fact that the building was redesigned after construction began.
The building is scheduled to be turned over to StratCom this summer, said Col. John Hudson, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Omaha District, which is managing the project. Construction on the building’s structure is now 97 percent complete.
The order was tucked into the 2018 defense authorization bill, which was passed by Congress late last fall and signed into law by President Donald Trump on Dec. 12.
It directs the Pentagon’s inspector general to submit a report within 180 days “on design errors and omissions related to the construction” of the new facility, which is near Offutt’s Capehart Road entry gate. It is believed to be the largest building project in Nebraska history, with its cost about the same as the Dallas Cowboys’ massive indoor stadium, which opened in 2009.
“It is not unexpected for a project the scope and size of the new U.S. Strategic Command facility on Offutt Air Force Base to be under review,” Hudson said in a statement. “The cost and time growths are within acceptable ranges for a project of this size, and (the Corps) is not currently concerned about the ongoing inspection.”
The Corps’ Omaha District selected Kiewit Corp. of Omaha and Hensel Phelps of Greeley, Colorado, to serve jointly as the prime contractor on the project through a joint venture called Kiewit Phelps. That portion of the project, originally contracted for $564 million, has jumped to $617 million after a series of design and construction setbacks, Hudson said.
StratCom itself is in charge of the rest of the project, which includes $679 million to outfit the building with some of the world’s most advanced electronics and communication gear. Evans said that part of the project has barely started but will move forward quickly once the Corps turns over the project.
“We’ve spent a lot of energy and effort to keep costs under control,” Hudson said. “Given the complexity and uniqueness of this facility, this is not an excessive cost growth.”
The bill directs the inspector general to identify “specific reasons” for the delay and cost overruns at the headquarters, and list any actions taken to prevent them in the future. It also asks the inspector general to identify anyone — inside or outside the government — who has been held responsible or punished for the delays and overruns.
Nebraska U.S. Sen. Deb Fischer, who serves on the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement that she supports the audit.
“The provision … allows for lessons learned through the project to be applied on future construction efforts throughout the Department of Defense,” Fischer said. “This will help ensure efficient and responsible use of taxpayer dollars.”
A spokeswoman for her office said the provision was put in the bill by the committee’s chairman, Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
The new StratCom headquarters will house nearly 4,000 military and civilian employees whose job is to anticipate and deter large-scale threats facing the United States and its allies. That job includes planning for and, if necessary, executing a nuclear war.
It will replace StratCom’s current facility, the Curtis LeMay Building, which was built in 1957. Besides being flood-prone, the LeMay Building was constructed in an era before computers, and its electrical and cooling systems are strained by the 10,000 computer work stations now operating there.
After years of lobbying by StratCom leaders and Nebraska’s congressional delegation, Congress approved design funds in 2009 and construction funds beginning in 2012.
The troubles started at the very beginning. All of the original construction bids exceeded the original cost estimate. The Corps sent architects back to the drawing board to cut the square footage from a planned 1.1 million square feet to 916,000.
“They shortened the building, and whacked off a floor,” Hudson said.
Construction moved ahead even as plans were being remade. Engineers figured out how to accommodate StratCom’s workers in a smaller building and what adjustments needed to be made to the heating and air conditioning, plumbing and electrical systems. All of that work required a flurry of change orders, many of which added to the cost of the facility. The Corps and Kiewit Phelps didn’t always agree on how to implement those changes, Hudson said.
In an interview with The World-Herald last September, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said construction probably shouldn’t have started before the Corps worked out all the design problems.
“There were some really very questionable decisions about how to do the contracting and how to do design,” Wilson said. “That’s made it a very difficult contract to manage.”
The Corps also realized early on that drainage would cause problems on a site that’s so close to the Missouri River. Water bubbles up to within 24 feet of the surface, while the headquarters building includes several subterranean floors. Engineers decided to drill down to bedrock and pour a concrete trench underneath the building, allowing groundwater to drain away and keeping the foundation dry.
But water seeped in at some of the anchor points that stabilized a bathtub-like retention wall designed to surround the command center and keep it dry. Shoring up the anchors took several months.
In October 2014, the Corps discovered that the design of the building’s concrete floors wasn’t strong enough to prevent a progressive collapse, like the one that occurred in the 1995 terrorist attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The concrete hadn’t yet been poured, but some metal reinforcement bars had to be removed, and the floors redesigned.
Then in September 2015, inspectors discovered mold growing inside some of the 60,000 feet of Fiberglas-lined heating and air-conditioning ductwork. Work slowed while the existing ducts were checked for mold colonies, which apparently had thrived because of dampness and dirt. Eventually about 4,000 feet of ductwork was torn out and replaced. An outside firm was hired to conduct inspections, which continue to this day.
No mold has been found for about a year, said Matt Bird, senior project manager for the Corps.
The mold may be gone, but a dispute between the Corps and Kiewit Phelps continues. They disagree over whether the brand of liner used was correct and whether the design of the ductwork was defective. The Corps contends mold wouldn’t have grown in the ducts if it had been stored properly before it was installed.
Tom Janssen, a Kiewit spokesman, said the firm expects to complete its work at the site by the end of June. He said Kiewit Phelps has provided documents requested for the audit and, like the Corps, views the investigation as routine.
“It is normal and expected for contractors on large government projects to validate project costs,” Janssen said.
The Corps now hopes its biggest problems are behind it. The building’s north wing is essentially complete, Hudson said, while some finishing work still remains in the south wing. The biggest outstanding item is connecting a sophisticated security system that must work in tandem with StratCom’s multiple computer systems, emergency lighting and fire alarms. It also must be coordinated with redundant backup systems so there is no chance of complete failure.
The Corps hopes to finish its work by August and turn the keys over to StratCom. The original completion date was September 2016.
“It’s coming together,” Hudson said. “A few months from now, it’s all going to be in our rearview mirror.”
StratCom, though, still has a lot of work to do. Evans said workers will spend 18 to 20 months outfitting the building.
“The Corps delivers a building. We turn it into a combat-ready command-and-control facility,” Evans said.
He expects it will take until the end of 2019 to move StratCom’s employees and command functions into the new building. The process, he said, must be precisely choreographed to ensure the command operates without a pause.
“This is not an easy project,” Evans said. “But maybe we can see the end of the tunnel.”