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US Embassy New Zealand’s Chancery Rehab Project: Safety and Health Concerns With Ongoing Construction

Posted: 12:53 am ET

 

In November 2013, the State Department’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) announced the construction award, through “best value” determination of the major rehabilitation project of the chancery of the U.S. Embassy in Wellington, New Zealand.  This project, according to the announcement would include seismic strengthening, security improvements, and general building upgrades.

Below is a brief description of the project estimated to cost between $36-50 million:

SAQMMA-13-R0094, Wellington, New Zealand, Chancery Major Rehabilitation.

The 3,000 gross square meters Chancery building, originally constructed by the USG in 1977, sits on a 1.4 acre compound, located in the Thorndon section of Wellington, in close proximity to a number of other embassies and just north of the New Zealand government offices.  The compound is situated at the edge of a residential scale neighborhood of mostly two- to four-story buildings and is across the street from a neighborhood of much taller (up to approximately 16 stories), more densely sited commercial and mixed use buildings.

Anticipated renovation work includes:  retrofitting the exterior of the Chancery building façade to meet DOS standards for seismic and blast protection, systems upgrades throughout the building (electrical, telecommunication, mechanical, plumbing, fire and life-safety, and technical security), seismically bracing all building equipment and infrastructure, handicapped accessibility upgrade, constructing a 110 gsm addition to enlarge the work area, and space utilization improvements.  Site work includes: a physical security upgrade at the two vehicular entrances; new parking configuration; and new landscaped areas.

The project will require extensive use of swing space and construction phasing, as the Chancery office functions must be fully operational for the entirety of the project.

Via US Embassy Wellington, NZ

Photo by US Embassy Wellington, NZ

This week, we’ve received several concerns about the ongoing construction project:

Safety issues: “Work is going on while this building is still occupied by dozens of employees, creating a largely unsafe working environment. Repeated inquiries to Worksafe NZ have gone unanswered, despite the fact that there have been serious injuries on this project. At this point it’s just a matter of time until someone is killed on this site.  The building has been evacuated repeatedly due to fire alarms, and building-wide power outages are a routine occurrence.”

Structural concerns: “The building suffered damage from the Kaikoura earthquake in November, and staff were required to return to work before a structural assessment was completed.”

Health concerns:  “Employees in all sections are routinely subjected to excessively high levels of noise, dust and smoke. Dozens of employees have complained of respiratory and vision problems since the project began in 2014.” 

Communication issues:  “A dozen employees were recently evacuated to the British High Commission due to this project, and their workplaces were subsequently consumed by the work. After the High Commission’s closure these staff had to return to the Embassy, except now they effectively have no workspaces. There is no timeline for completion of the project, or for when the rest of the staff might expect any improvement in the work environment.”

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We’ve asked State/OBO about these concerns and allegations. We also wanted to know what the bureau has done to mitigate the disruption, and the health and security concerns regarding the ongoing construction. Below is the full response from the State/OBO spox:

In September 2013 the Department awarded a contract to rehabilitate the existing chancery in Wellington to meet seismic and security requirements, as well as address needed improvements to building systems.  The extensive construction work underway is required to retrofit and seismically strengthen the building.  The project was carefully planned in phases in order to maintain business operations of the embassy during the construction period and phasing plans and impacts were discussed and briefed to stakeholders prior to executing the project.  The project is scheduled for completion in early 2018.

Construction of an occupied building is always a difficult under taking and is inconvenient, but measures have been in place since the inception of the project to ensure the safety of both construction workers and embassy staff working in the building.  The project is being managed in accordance with the procedures and policies of the Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) and the Department.

OBO is aware of complaints such as those raised and has reviewed the matter.  Though the project has encountered challenges — as is expected with a project of this complexity – the review confirmed that there is an appropriate safety program administered by the construction contractor and enforced by OBO project management, and that there have not been violations of required policies and procedures.

The original note sent to us says that “There is no timeline for completion of the project” but the OBO spox readily told us that project is scheduled for completion in early 2018. That indicates to us that there may be a hiccup in the communication line between employees and the project folks.  Somebody please fix that.  Whatever discussions or briefs were done to “stakeholders” were not heard or understood.

A separate source told us that US Embassy Wellington and OBO were “looking into having some staff work at home”, or “occupy an office in the British High Commission”, to avoid disruptions while the chancery is renovated.  A check with the BHC, however,  indicates that the British High Commission in Wellington announced on November 24, 2016 that its building will be closed until further notice.  Damage from the recent earthquakes has apparently been discovered in their offices following an inspection so the building was temporarily closed for safety reasons.  Now folks still have work but no workspaces?  What’s the secret to making that work?

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Related items:

FedBiz listing: https://www.fbo.gov/spg/State/A-LM-AQM/A-LM-AQM/SAQMMA-13-R0094/listing.html

The Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations Announces the Construction Award for Major Rehabilitation of U.S. Embassy in Wellington, New Zealand; Office of the Spokesperson; Washington, DC -11/12/13

 

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