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Alexandra Berzon

CityCenter work often precedes approval of plans

16 February 2009

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- In hundreds of instances, construction at MGM Mirage's massive CityCenter project has moved forward based on unapproved engineering, a Sun review of reports issued by private inspectors at the work site shows.

In those cases, inspectors on the project reported that contractors were working from last-minute drawings that affected the structural integrity of the building but had not been approved by the county. In some cases, the engineer of record also had not approved the drawings.

County inspectors regularly review the inspectors' reports — called "noncompliance reports" — to make sure the entire project is ultimately built to code despite unapproved fixes, county spokesman Dan Kulin said.

By the time the project is finished, all plans should be retroactively approved so the practice of building based on yet-to-be-approved plans shouldn't lead to unsafe buildings, Kulin emphasized.

Yet the practice is the inverse of how the process is supposed to work: Officially, the county requires that all engineering changes be approved and stamped before that portion of construction begins.

"This is a situation where the contractor or owner is taking a risk, and we're certainly seeing that the process documents when they're deviating from the approved plans," Kulin said. "If it doesn't comply with code, they'll end up having to go back to make additional modifications."

In the past year, the Harmon and two Veer towers at CityCenter encountered significant structural problems that required major engineering changes.

Last month, MGM Mirage announced that it would top off the Harmon at about half its planned height because of the belated discovery of 15 floors of problematic rebar, as well as economic concerns.

Documents do not reveal a clear connection between the common use of unapproved plans and the problems at the Harmon and the Veer.

Representatives of neither CityCenter general contractor Perini Building Co. nor owner MGM Mirage responded to requests for comment.

The county has a plan-checker on the CityCenter site several days a week to take care of engineering changes or fixes that are needed on the project, Kulin said. Most approvals take from "minutes to days," he said, but some more complicated plan changes take longer.

For the fast-paced building that Las Vegas has become known for, a wait of any length for an approval can be too long. The informal system of building with unapproved plan changes is not unique to CityCenter and has for years allowed builders in Las Vegas to work at a breakneck pace by cutting time spent waiting for the county to approve plans, industry insiders say.

"We would just let them go, go, go, go and get them stamped later," said a Clark County building inspector who spoke on the condition his name would not be used. "The whole idea is not to slow down the project. When we catch mistakes later they have to go back and do jack-hammering or add stuff, put it back in."

The inspector said he has observed occasions over the years where retroactive changes that would be difficult to make were not enforced by the county.

"Sometimes we get to areas and it's just too late now and we've got to accept it," he said.

County officials say, however, that they require builders to make changes if they have used plans that are not up to code, as was the case at the Harmon.

The building inspector said the department has been cracking down somewhat on building with unapproved plans since the problems at the Harmon came to light.

Some observers say they find the practice troubling.

"This seems, from my perspective, a systemic failure," said Neil Opfer, a professor of construction management at UNLV. "I can understand something drops through the cracks so you issue a noncompliance report, a slap on the hand, say 'Don't do it again.' It would seem if stuff is happening over and over, that would be a significant problem."

At the two Veer towers, where major structural problems were discovered last summer, inspectors employed by Kleinfelder issued dozens of reports indicating that contractors were building from unapproved plans.

For example, on May 1, Kleinfelder inspector Roy Mulinix said contractors were using a fix detail for an elevator structure that had been drawn up two weeks before by the engineer and hadn't been stamped by the engineer or the county.

The county relies on private inspectors to report the cases of noncompliance. But those inspectors are not always reliable. At the Harmon, inspectors employed by Converse Consultants issued numerous false reports stating that everything was fine, the county has said.

The county insists rebar plans at the Harmon were in compliance, and Perini says the plans were faulty.

On the lower floors of the Harmon, before the rebar problems began, inspectors issued several reports indicating that contractors were basing their construction on unapproved plans.

On Dec. 6, 2007, Converse inspector Robert Davidson noted that an SME Steel employee was welding vertical 1-inch plates based on unapproved drawings.

At the Veer, Kleinfelder inspectors eventually discovered that subcontractor Steel Engineers was performing the wrong kind of welding on both towers.

Eventually contractors fixed the issues at the Veer towers by wrapping a "fiberglass-like" material around columns, Kulin said.

On May 15, just days before the county documented problems at the Veer, county inspectors issued a "notice of violation" to Perini stating that work there was based on verbal approval or written details that weren't officially approved either by the engineer or the county.

The county ordered Perini to produce an engineer stamp immediately.

"Certainly in an ideal situation, the process in place is geared toward getting plans approved and then doing construction," Kulin said. "But we do not really have control over all the aspects of a construction site. The main point would be that so long as the construction complies with county code, that's what we're interested in."

One private special inspector, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified, said unapproved plans can pose a problem because they make it more likely that inspectors will miss construction mistakes in cases where contractors are not complying with even the unapproved plans.

That happens, he said, because he is sometimes given county-approved plans, while contractors are basing their construction on unapproved plans that differ from those in his hands.

"Sometimes I'm working on revision No. 3 and all of a sudden they're working on revision six and it doesn't quite match up," he said.