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June 28, 2007

Cathedral cleaning progresses



The sound of water in motion.

Moist, misty breezes.

If it weren’t for the constant hum of compressors in the background, and the fact that some of the sand and spray is indoors, maybe 4200 Fifth Ave. would seem like the seashore this summer. Even the raingear-clad contractors look as if they could have just stepped off a lobster boat, if you look beyond their protective respirators.

The gleaming whiteness of the Cathedral of Learning might prompt a few people to put on sunglasses to avoid the glare as the structure emerges floor by floor from beneath 70 years’ worth of industrial grime, but for those with offices in the Cathedral, the past few months haven’t exactly been a day at the beach.

Since March, when workers from Forest Hills-based Cost Co. embarked on Pitt’s $4.8 million project to refurbish the landmark’s exterior, the project has dampened a few rooms, relocated some Cathedral employees and provided challenges and even a few chuckles as contractors and Pitt employees try to co-exist in close proximity until the project wraps up in late summer.

“Everyone involved in this project is partaking in history,” said Phil Hieber, Facilities Management’s Cathedral cleaning project manager, commending both Facilities Management workers and the building’s occupants for the way they’re working together to minimize the impact of the Cathedral’s first-ever exterior cleaning and restoration project.

Most of the building’s occupants are weathering the inconvenience well. “They see the light at the end of the tunnel,” said Cost Co. foreman/superintendent Jim Koppert. “They know it’s not an easy task.”

While most such projects start at the top of a building and work downward, the Cathedral’s nesting peregrine falcons, Dorothy and Erie, have called the shots for this project’s schedule.

The pair, who have nested outside the Cathedral’s 40th floor for years, hatched four chicks this spring, forcing the contractors to alter their typical top-down protocol in order to avoid disturbing the young birds.

“The birds regulate the schedule,” Koppert said. Fortunately, the Cathedral’s Gothic Revival architecture, with some two dozen different roof levels, has allowed crews to simply start on the many lower portions of the building, said Cost. Co. project manager Tony DeChellis.

Work earlier this week continued from the 32nd floor down, with crews preparing to begin work on the section from the 38th floor down. That includes the tallest sheer face of the Cathedral — some 320 feet from the 38th to the 12th floor on the eastern side of the building — and will take about a month, DeChellis said.

The peregrine delays that prevent work higher up are day-to-day, Koppert said, expecting that by July 1 at the latest the nest will be cleared. For now, the baby birds still are testing their wings — departing during the day, but returning at night, he said.

Cost Co. workers are finding themselves caught between the schedules of peregrine chicks and fledglings of the human sort as they hope to finish the job a little early, before the Aug. 22 start of Arrival Survival, when thousands of returning students converge on Oakland as residence halls reopen.

In the meantime, Facilities Management has kept its wet-vacs on high alert and stocked up on absorbent tubes called “socks” to contain any water that seeps inside. Employees have moved their belongings away from building windows or risked having them soaked by the high-pressure water that workers are blasting at the building to dislodge the dirt that’s blackened the exterior.

The pre-soaking to loosen the grime typically is what can allow moisture to get inside, said DeChellis.

While the western facade is cleaner thanks to the fact that it faces incoming weather and wind-driven rain, it takes just about as long as the other sides to clean, although it may require slightly less pre-soaking, DeChellis said. The bottom line is that every square inch of the exterior must be cleaned, he said. In addition to cleaning, workers are pointing, patching and caulking the exterior as part of the project. They’ve even discovered several pieces of ornamentation missing and are having them re-fabricated.

Facilities Management has fielded some 145 calls about water, odors or other problems related to the project, Pitt’s Hieber said last week.

Many floors have experienced what he termed “minor water infiltration,” adding that the areas that have sustained the most damage are on the 4th, 5th and 7th floors where plaster repairs, painting and carpet replacement have been necessary.

Extra Facilities Management personnel have been put on duty, he said. Building employees have been very cooperative in alerting Facilities staff when there’s a problem, Hieber said.

“Response time is extremely critical to mitigate major problems we could have if we didn’t respond quickly,” he said, adding that when a call comes in, crews dispatched by radio make complaints about leaks or odors a priority.

In addition to responding when Cathedral occupants spot a problem, Facilities Management employees are keeping an eye on the conditions in vacant offices and monitoring potential problem areas to minimize damage.

Jennifer Maynard, assistant to the associate dean of the College of General Studies, said that the Cathedral’s 4th floor was indeed a problem area for the best part of May. “It was the soaking process that was the problem, causing some floor leaks and carpet damage. But that’s stopped now. We’re still in clean-up mode: We’re waiting for things to dry before they re-paint.”

Maynard said she had to call Facilities Management a number of times during May. “But they responded immediately each time. We felt like we were being taken care of.”

Liz Wyman, administrative assistant at the Office for the Measurement and Evaluation of Teaching on the Cathedral’s ground floor, said some water came in through the ceiling and ruined some blank Scantron sheets, but no data were damaged. “It wasn’t a huge mess,” she said.

She added that Facilities Management has been keeping a close eye when water is being sprayed on OMET’s side of the building to prevent a recurrence. “They’ve taken really good care of us,” she said.

Fiore Pugliano, an English department adviser/lecturer, said his area on the 6th floor had minor damage over the course of about four days. Water came in and was trapped in a dropped ceiling, soaking the insulation and bringing down two ceiling tiles.

Because spring term had ended, disruption to the advising center where Pugliano’s office is located was negligible. The only real inconvenience, Pugliano said, was that he had to remove his window air conditioner while the outside crew was working nearby. “Otherwise, it might have sucked in some water and dirt. They did give me a dehumidifier to use, which helped.”

Chris Metil, administrative assistant in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures and associate director of the Summer Language Institute, said there were “a good two weeks’ worth of problems” on the 14th floor. A graduate student on her floor had his carrel soaked and a number of borrowed books ruined, she said. Some dirt also crept through her windows and cracks in the mortar, she said.

“But by and large, the clean-up crews did a fantastic job. Facilities gave us a special number to call if we saw a problem, and I have to say they responded right away, putting socks everywhere to soak water up, and cleaning window sills where some mud had stuck,” Metil said.

For those who have yet to undergo cleaning outside their windows, Metil summed up her experience:

“When the crew is at your level, the noise is deafening,” she said. “For about two days, if I got a phone call, I’d have to tell the person I have to go across the hall to be able to hear them. Then when the crew is above you, you have water coming in.”

Noise issues have taken multiple forms. In the communication department, faculty member Adam Roth found it difficult to conduct the oral interviews that were his class’s final exams at the end of the spring term while crews were outside his office window.

And Marcia Grodsky, assistant curator of Pitt’s Darlington Library on the 6th floor, has been entertained by the sometimes off-key singing of some workers outside her windows.

The situation was more amusing than annoying, she said, given that there were no researchers using the library at the time.

More importantly, workers have draped in plastic the back stacks where some priceless books are stored and are checking to ensure they remain undamaged.

Among the other University treasures being closely watched are the Nationality Rooms. Some damage has occurred, although Facilities Management is keeping a close watch, said director E. Maxine Bruhns.

“The Scottish Room is the first place we saw water,” she said. “They were doing a testing, and they were blasting away, and water was coming in at the top of the stained glass windows and running on the floor.”

The Czechoslovak Nationality Room and the English Nationality Room also had some damage, Bruhns said. “In the English room, water was dripping off the tulip-carved Tudor corbel, which is from the House of Commons, and it went to the wooden floor and warped a couple of floor boards.”

Bruhns also has had some damage in her 12th floor offices. “Water doesn’t have to be coming in only through the windows,” she noted. “If there’s a light fixture it can come in there. What happened here on the 12th floor is that it began coming into our office storage room. It flooded the floor, and came into Susan [Langer]’s office.”

Another of the challenges is the “entrance-and-exit roulette,” as Karen Billingsley of the Honors College puts it — that uncertainty about whether the door one used in the morning might have an “entrance closed” sign posted by lunch time, forcing employees to find an alternate route. “You come out one door and don’t know how you’ll get back in,” she said with amusement, adding that it’s become difficult to give visitors directions, given the constantly changing nature of the entry closings. Workers hadn’t begun working on the 35th and 36th floors, which house the Honors College, but Billingsley said she plans to keep a watchful eye when they approach the recently renovated floors’ large glass windows to ensure all remains dry inside.

Cost Co. workers also have faced some challenges. While the company has extensive experience in masonry preservation, including work on Pitt’s Alumni Hall, Soldiers and Sailors National Military Museum and Memorial and the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, the Cathedral project is the first in which its workers have had to deal up-close with peregrine falcons. Aside from a few fly-bys from Erie and Dorothy, workers have remained largely undisturbed, DeChellis said.

Will Mitchell of Facilities Management said that as of last week, the falcons still weren’t welcoming guests to their 40th-floor ledge, but that the young birds soon should be flying off to new homes of their own, leaving Erie and Dorothy empty-nesters again. Mitchell said Cost Co. plans to set up oscillating sprinklers around crews when they start the uppermost floors, using the water as a harmless way to discourage the birds from getting too close to workers.

The Cathedral work has included removing a few more pigeon carcasses than other jobs — the remnants of peregrine meals — but encountering dead pigeons on Pittsburgh rooftops is not unusual, DeChellis said.

The average day’s work on the project includes 40-42 men with 12-15 swing scaffolds rigged and seven or eight of those in use at any one time, he said.

Weather-related concerns for the workers have changed with the seasons. Storms always are an issue, forcing workers off their scaffolding in a hurry when lightning threatens. When the project started in March, cold was the enemy. Now, as the project moves upward, wind can present problems, particularly on the western facade that faces incoming weather.

The most challenging portion of the project has been in cleaning the corner turrets that rise from the 5th to 30th floors, DeChellis said. Each takes four weeks to clean: two weeks for the exterior and two more weeks to clean inside the turrets — with the thinnest crew members working on a specially built scaffold that permits movement within the tight confines of the decorative structures. Four similar smaller turrets span the 32nd to 38th floors, DeChellis said.

Some Cathedral employees have been displaced as contractors took over their workspaces to gain access to the building exterior. Hieber said Financial Information Systems workers from the 19th and 32nd floor have been moved to other buildings to allow them to work uninterrupted while contractors are on their floor.

Cost Co.’s DeChellis said not everyone on the 32nd floor needed to move, but the group chose to stick together and relocate for two months.

In addition, some Payment Processing workers from the 30th floor have been moved to other parts of the building while the contractors use a doorway there to gain access to the exterior.

The University Senate office is another jumping off point for Cost Co. crews. There, Senate office director Lori Molinaro has welcomed a little bit of company, and the promise of some new carpeting when the work is done. She admittedly worries for the workers as they use the ledge outside her office as a starting point for their work.

She said the Cost Co. crew “could not be any nicer” even though they are trooping through her workspace 15 or 20 times a day as they use a door that allows access to the 12th-floor roof. Although they placed a protective runner on the floor, she was alerted that the amount of traffic would mean the carpet would need to be replaced when the project is finished.

Regardless of the inconveniences, the attitude among many of the employees is that the exterior work is a big improvement.

Although Molinaro’s section of the building has yet to be cleaned, nearby areas have. “I can’t get over the difference,” she said. “Now that it’s clean, it just sparkles.”

In spite of the problems experienced on the 14th floor, Chris Metil maintained that the challenges were far outweighed by the project’s pluses. “I love the Cathedral and its beautiful architecture,” she said. “I’ve worked in the Cathedral for many years. It’s looking great, and when I drive into Oakland and see it, I feel so proud. I’m so glad the University decided to do this, no matter what the problems are.”

—Kimberly K. Barlow & Peter Hart

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