The Blame Game

By Leah Bell-Johnson|May 1, 2017Top Stories|

In six short years, PCC’s Newberg Center went from being a success story to the center of an epic and expensive debacle.

newberg roof

The exterior view of the Newberg roof with its patchwork of panels.

In 2010, PCC began plans for the $7.2 million Newberg Center. A year later the building was opened, earning commendation for its sustainable design and architectural innovation. Four years later it was closed due to water damage in the roof, and $3 million worth of taxpayer money was allocated to build a new roof. A year after that PCC demanded $3.4 million from the construction company responsible for building the original roof.

Construction of the Newberg Center was made possible by a $374 million bond approved by voters back in 2008. In keeping with the objectives put forth during the bond campaign, construction of the new building would be “committed to achieving LEED Silver certification, but we will strive for LEED Gold certification for new facilities…”

LEED, a project created by the U.S. Green Building Council, stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. According to the USGBC website, “projects pursuing LEED certification earn points across several areas that address sustainability issues. Based on the number of points achieved, a project then receives one of four LEED rating levels: Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum.”

The desire to achieve sustainability led to the decision to use Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs), a lighter and supposedly more efficient alternative to traditional building materials. The Structural Insulated Panel Association describes SIPs as consisting of “an insulating foam core sandwiched between two structural facings, typically oriented strand board.” The Association’s website continues, stating that “SIPs are durable, but they aren’t designed to get wet.”

“I think that PCC, because we do good and we do a great deal of good, has an extremely hard time admitting wrong.”

PCC Sylvania Maintenance Technician, Steve Borcherding, has firsthand experience with this aspect of SIPs, having worked with them in the humid climate of Juneau, Alaska. His experience prompted him to raise concerns regarding their use in the roof of the Newberg Center. During an interview, Borcherding claimed that “in a meeting to review the HVAC systems in the building… I looked at the HVAC system, and I said, ‘you don’t have any means to control humidity inside the building… if you don’t control the humidity the building will fail.’ ” According to him, this meeting happened in February 2010, which was nine months before the official opening of the Newberg Center.

Borcherding’s description of the meeting indicated that his concerns were not well received. Despite agreement from one of the project’s lead architects, Greg Bennett, Linda Degman, Director of the Bond Program, refused to consider changing the design, lest it alter the timeline and budget of the project.

While vocal from the start about concerns regarding the roof’s structural integrity, Steve Borcherding was not the only one to take note of the flaws in the design and execution of the Newberg Center.

water damage to newberg roof

Additional interior water damage.

The late Tim Donahue, Director of Facilities Management Services at PCC, wrote a letter in July 2012 to PCC’s Internal Auditor calling attention to the damage to Newberg’s roof. His intention for the letter was to “alert you [the Internal Auditor] of concerns I have regarding the planning, design, and construction of the PCC Newberg facility in Newberg, Oregon. The issues I bring to your intention involve the following: a) Financial mismanagement and a malfeasance-ignoring and taking no action regarding fiduciary responsibilities regarding the Newberg facility, b) An apparent cover-up related to the design and construction activities involving the Newberg facility.” According to Borcherding, Donahue met similar resistance in his attempts to notify those involved in the construction of the Newberg Center of its flaws.

Donahue’s letter was originally obtained by reporter Nick Budnick for the Oregonian. The full seven pages of the letter can be read here. The document also includes evaluation and observation of the roof by Professional Roofing Consultants, Inc. and architect, Richard Graves.

mold growing inside newberg roof

A close-up of mold growing on the damp surface.

Perhaps the decision to disregard the roof’s flaws in both design and reality could be attributed to ignorance. Perhaps it was simply an attempt to save face. Or perhaps it was a case of misguided righteousness. When asked why he believed PCC chose to ignore his concerns in the first place, Borcherding answered, “I think that PCC, because we do good and we do a great deal of good, has an extremely hard time admitting wrong.”

Regardless of the motives, it was a decision that would ultimately lead to the failure and removal of the roof, construction of a new one, and sizable and largely enigmatic legal proceedings.

On February 8, 2016, PCC filed for arbitration with R&H/ Colas Construction, demanding that the company “pay damages associated with the repair and replacement of the Newberg Center roof in an amount yet to be determined but no less than $3.4 million.”

Emma Meshell’s previous report on the Newberg roof, for The Bridge, highlighted the details of the arbitration request, “According to the arbitration filings made by PCC, a variety of structural elements were left in the rain overnight by construction workers. The documents state that SIPs, framing members, nailers, and joint elements—all crucial to the building’s integrity—were exposed to moisture, subjecting the project to failure before it reached finality. The 3.4 million dollars demanded of the construction firm by PCC is intended to cover the cost of repair, architectural and engineering services, owner’s repair services, temporary student classrooms and administrative facilities, and permitting fees.”

water damage to newberg roof

The crumbling Mars-like interior of the Newberg roof. The white matter is loose styrofoam.

R&H/ Colas Construction has objected the claims made by PCC, stating in the official arbitration report that the company “specifically denies the remaining allegations contained in PCC’s SOC [Statement of Claims].” The document continues, stating that “Some or all of the alleged losses or damages sustained by PCC were the result of PCC’s own fault or negligence in failing to properly maintain the property, and in failing to promptly address or mitigate the claimed damages.”

Other reporters from The Bridge have sought additional input from the law firm representing PCC, Miller/Nash, Mohamed Alyajouri, Director of the building zone which includes the Newberg Center, Hennebery Eddy Architects, the architecture firm responsible for the building’s design, and Kali Thorne-Ladd, Chair of the PCC Board of Directors. All referred them to Kate Chester, Director of Community Engagement for PCC, who responded with, “As you know from Emma’s article, the college is in active arbitration regarding the Newberg roof replacement. The arbitration hearing is planned for August 2017. As such, we are not in a position to offer additional comment or interviews at this time.”

“Why don’t we sit down and have that conversation, ‘how do we not do this again?’”

A similar response was given when seeking comment from Linda Degman, PCC’s Director of the Bond Program. In response to the roof’s failure Degman stated in an interview with OregonLive, “It’s unfortunate that this happened, none of us would have liked to be going through this…but because we followed the process and we ended up here, I’m not sure that I would change the process necessarily.”

Despite his prominent role in the Newberg incident, Steve Borcherding has opted to remain a third party in the legal proceedings between PCC and R&H/ Colas Construction. His jovial and open demeanor belies this, but after many years of pushing back against management and meeting great resistance, it’s clear that he has had his fill of the whole situation.

“Borcherding went from managing multiple large scale projects worth several million dollars, to cleaning roof drains.”

This may be due, in large part, to the drastic shift in Borcherding’s professional career over the past six years. Construction Architectural Project Manager at the time of the Newberg incident, Borcherding has since been downgraded to Maintenance Technician; a change he claimed happened almost immediately after he raised concerns over the failure of the Newberg roof.

Borcherding went from managing multiple large scale projects worth several million dollars to cleaning roof drains. While his pay has remained the same, his workload has become significantly more simplistic. Yet his dismay seemed rooted less in his career difficulties and more in the implications of the Newberg Center’s failed roof.

“This was eminently preventable, the whole thing. Whose fault it is, is almost moot because this was preventable. Why don’t we sit down and have that conversation: ‘How do we not do this again?’ How do we value the input of our in-house staff as much or more than our consultants? How do we look out for our constituent’s interests, in students and taxpayers? And I don’t think any of that was done here.”

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