Shell Game

A mistake in the renovation of Grady Gammage Auditorium at Arizona State University has cost taxpayers up to $63,889 and set construction back three weeks. ASU scrambled to fix the error before it upset this year's schedule of performances.

According to the project manager, the equipment designers and the architect, no one is to blame for the problem--but all suggest it's someone else's fault.

Grady Gammage Auditorium, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, is currently undergoing a complex, fast-paced renovation. The auditorium's 120-ton orchestra shell, known for its outstanding acoustics, is being placed on a special lift so it can be moved out, into a "garage" on the east side of the building. The move is designed to allow the venue to provide more stage space for the popular--and profitable--touring stage shows which play Gammage, without harming its concert sound.

In February, the shell-relocation project was estimated at $1.5 million. The Board of Regents has since approved a ceiling of $1.9 million for the project, because of the changes which came during construction.

CBH Consulting Engineers was chosen as the architect of the garage, and it subcontracted with Taliesin West architect David Dodge. Taliesin is Wright's Arizona legacy, home to the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and School of Architecture.

Scenic Technology, a New York-based firm, was chosen to design and build the transport which would move the shell into its enclosure.

The construction had to be completed between the seasons of Gammage's performances if shows were to go on as scheduled. Because of the time constraints, ASU waived the bid process. Construction moved quickly throughout the summer to make the opening date of Showboat, the first production scheduled for Gammage this season.

Then, about six weeks ago, Scenic Technology discovered that the shell wouldn't fit into the garage. Because of what ASU project manager Margy Parisella calls a "mathematical error," the garage had less than an inch of clearance for the shell, when it required eight or nine inches.

To make room for the shell, the shell enclosure had to be expanded an additional 12 inches, at a cost of $57,889. CBH also billed an additional $6,000 for the redesign. The error, combined with the other changes arising in the course of construction, puts the project at about $100,000 more than the original estimate.

Construction was set back about three weeks, causing ASU to miss its mid-July deadline for reopening Gammage. Fortunately, one of this year's scheduled shows canceled, which gave ASU enough time to fix the problem without upsetting the entire season of performances. (The opening of Showboat was moved from July to October.)

According to architect David Dodge, it's not the fault of the designers that the shell wasn't big enough. Dodge says that because Scenic Technology didn't tell the designers about its decision to turn the air-casters--the inflatable cushions the shell will roll on--90 degrees, it threw off his calculations. Scenic's decision was forced by the university's decision not to move the stairwells inside Gammage, Dodge added.

Still, even while Dodge aims the responsibility elsewhere, he's not saying it's anyone's fault.

"I'm not putting the blame in the sense that they are solely responsible for it. The circumstance itself is extremely demanding," he explains. "Everybody is going to be operating at 200 percent, it's just not possible. We're lucky this is the only thing that has happened on it because it's a very tough job to do something this complex."

Scenic Technology, while saying that ASU had asked it not to comment, disputes Dodge's explanation.

"Well, there was supposed to be a clearance of eight to nine inches, and when we double-checked the measurements, it turned out there was 11U16ths [of an inch]," says Patty Thurston, a spokeswoman for Scenic Technology. "So that's when we went to the architects, and went to ASU and told them there was a problem. If there was eight or nine inches of clearance, I don't believe turning the casters would've affected that, would they?"

Parisella, ASU's project manager, is working hard to keep a lid on the controversy. She's adamant that finger-pointing should not interfere with team-building.

"I think that the [contractors'] two stories are kind of irrelevant and may not relate to each other," she says. "We are all working as a team, trying to do $2 million worth of work in 16 weeks, and that's a very difficult thing to do."

Parisella suggests that there's too much going on in a project like this to keep track.

"A design error can be five people's error, and my sense is, this is a project that takes all of the people to get it right. And you could say, 'There's a design error,' but maybe five different parties are responsible for it," Parisella says. "If I would've had a week to review all of the documents in construction, I probably would've found it. But you know, we don't have the luxury of time on this job, because time is money and every show produces more money than any of these things. You just gotta keep rolling."

Even as project manager, Parisella says she couldn't have been expected to catch the mistake because of the pressure she works under. And she says New Times is "silly" for asking whether she could pinpoint the breakdown.

"I can't really tell you, on a day-to-day basis, what day so-and-so measured it, and what day something was built. That's really hard for me," Parisella says. "Do you know how many projects I run, and how much millions of dollars we're dealing with here? How can I know on what day what piece of equipment was built in New York? . . . I have about 10 projects right now."

Yet Parisella says that when construction is over and the team has disbanded, someone will figure out if anyone should have to pay for the error in the shell relocation.

"We are investigating it, but we haven't come to any conclusion yet," Parisella says. "And the goal of the team is to keep moving, get the project done, and then we will take a look at everything."

David Dodge doesn't think the problem with the shell enclosure is all that big a deal; the way he looks at it, things could have been worse. He believes it's common for fast-track projects to go as much as 30 percent over budget.

Parisella says 10 percent contingency is normal for any construction project, and 4 to 5 percent of that should go to design errors.

If the original estimate of a total cost of $1.5 million is used, the Gammage renovation is now pushing that 10 percent contingency, and 4 percent of that can be attributed to the problem with the shell.

In the end, however, it's not really important to find out who was at fault and why, Dodge thinks.

"It would be very wrong if it gets out in a publication that someone is at fault or someone should be held accountable for any kind of thing that appears to be a loss," he says. "You've got to let the work and the person that's doing it do the best they can. . . . If something gets rebuilt in the factory, and you don't see it, who would pay any attention to it? And a lot of things happen that way. In this case, it happened out in the field, where everybody can see it.

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Chris Farnsworth