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Halifax County seeks help as courthouse hits snag

South Boston News
The exposed frame of the courthouse annex. (Willa Hatcher photo) / October 04, 2018
Renovations to the Halifax County courthouse have hit a snag, and county officials are uncertain how serious the problems are or how much it may cost to fix them.

However, the Halifax County Board of Supervisors agreed Monday night to authorize spending up to $148,000 to hire structural engineers who can assess whether the courthouse annex — the 1960s-era addition that houses General District Court and Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court — is sufficiently sound to move forward with renovations that are planned for that portion of the courthouse building.

Interim County Administrator Dan Sleeper said he is optimistic that the issues with the annex are manageable, observing that “when you’re renovating old buildings, it happens every time.

“You just run into things and that’s why you always have contingencies with historic buildings where you never know what [conditions are] until you get inside of them.”

Sleeper said the uncertainty has set back the entire project a few weeks, but “so far it looks like we’re not going to run into as big a problem as we thought.”

The problem lies with the original construction of the courthouse annex, using prestressed concrete slabs for flooring and supports. Thinner and stronger than standard reinforced concrete, prestressed concrete is laced within by strands of steel cable or bars, resulting in lighter construction materials that can support ever-heavier buildings.

“The whole thing was engineered for strength and stability back in the 1960s,” said Sleeper.

When construction crews tore away the walls of the building, they discovered breaks and cuts in some areas of the annex’s concrete frame, raising the question of whether portions of the building are suited for renovation.

Sleeper said the breaks probably developed over time and could have been caused inadvertently — offering the examples of cutting through the floor to run HVAC ducts or wires.

“With prestressed concrete paneling you can’t do that unless you know what you’re doing,” he said. “We’re trying to see exactly what they were doing [back then].”

Whether the blemishes have compromised the integrity of the building frame is a question that engineering experts will have to resolve.

The county is just starting the process of how to go about finding answers. The administration and the Board of Supervisors must also decide who to engage for the study. Asked if that would mean turning to CJMW, the county’s architectural firm overseeing the courthouse renovation project, Sleeper demurred: “I can’t comment on that.”

The county has not gone forward with a change order for the courthouse project, but supervisors did agree Monday night to have the county administrator and legal counsel Jeremy Carroll meet with the Commonwealth and courts to discuss possible delays to the courthouse renovation project and the potential impact on a court-approved consent order setting forth what is expected of the county.

In the same motion, the board authorized spending up to $148,000 on fresh structural engineering and analysis fees. The motion, voted on after members came back into open session after talking among themselves in closed-door executive session, carried by a 5-2 vote. Opposing the motion were ED-6 supervisor Stanley Brandon and ED-5 supervisor Joey Rogers. Board chairman Dennis Witt was absent.

Jeff Francisco, ED-2 representative and a member of the board’s property committee with Brandon, said he believes that full renovation of the annex wing of the courthouse building remains viable, but portions of the building are “not quite what they thought. There was stuff there that they could not see, so they’re going to look into it further.

“Nothing bad happened, they were just working on it and the structure was a little different than what they thought. They want to be careful with it, we want to be careful with it and look it and make sure it’s okay.”

The general contractor on the project is Blair Construction, based in Gretna.

Another supervisor said he supported the motion Monday to keep the project moving forward, but only after getting more expert analysis of the building’s underlying state. ED-8 supervisor William Bryant Claiborne said he initially pressed for a full rebuild of both the courthouse annex and the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office — a building separate from the main courthouse, but next door and in very poor condition — but later supported the renovation plan once it became clear that it was the consensus option among board members for repairing and modernizing the dilapidated courthouse.

Francisco said he believes the renovation plan “can be done and I think it will be done,” but “the experts have to look at it and prove the building is sound as I think it is and everything is okay.”

Francisco, who came on the board after the county and judges entered into the consent order for the courthouse renovations, said Halifax will save millions if it can avoid having to rebuild the annex. “I heard the figure the other night that we’re saving $3.5 million by renovating,” he said.

Although supervisors capped spending on an engineering study at $148,000, Sleeper expressed hope that the work could cost much less. “It’s just an estimate. We probably won’t ever even hit it.

“It may cost us only $25,000 or $30,000, it depends on what we end up doing,” he added.

Renovation work remains ongoing to the historic courthouse, and crews are continuing to go forward with renovation work to portions of the annex building that are deemed sound.

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