Restoring Hope

Strong management, innovation and a few lucky breaks are allowing workers to rebuild the Pentagon faster than expected.


sk Will Colston the age of his infant son, and he's quick to reply, "He's 157 days old." Colston pauses for a few seconds for a rough calculation and then adds, "That's about six months old."

Colston, project manager for the team rebuilding the Pentagon after last fall's terrorist attack, measures his life in days-not months or weeks-since Sept. 11. That also happens to be the day his wife gave birth to their child, Noah. Days, hours and minutes are crucial for the roughly 1,000 construction workers who have vowed that Defense employees will be back at work in the refurbished outer ring of the Pentagon on the one-year anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. The remainder of the damaged building will be repaired by next spring.

"The Sept. 11 goal serves as our vision. It has forced us to put any problems on the table and get them resolved quickly," says Colston, who, like many of the project's managers, regularly pulls six-day workweeks that stretch well over 12 hours a day. Unwavering resolve among the construction team has been critical to speedily rebuilding the Pentagon. Equally vital have been a series of contract reforms, quick thinking by managers and a few lucky breaks that have allowed the effort, aptly named Rising Phoenix, to move several weeks ahead on its ambitious schedule.

Built hastily during World War II, the Defense Department headquarters has become a crumbling fortress that fails to meet local, state or federal building codes. Since 1993, the 5.5-million-square-foot Pentagon has been undergoing a $3 billion, two-decade renovation designed to bring it into the 21st century. The building comprises five, 1-million-square-foot "wedges" that will be gutted and rebuilt successively so that at any one time no more than a fifth of the Pentagon's workers have to be relocated. Each wedge houses about 5,000 employees.

On Sept. 11, Pentagon construction crews were doing final, touch-up work on the first wedge after more than three years of renovation. Some Defense employees already were moving into new office spaces. "We were down to checking the marble [floor] tile for cracks," says David Kersey, project manager for British construction firm AMEC Inc., which held a $280 million contract for the Wedge 1 renovation. Fewer than 100 AMEC workers and subcontractors were onsite, while a new construction team, led by Hensel-Phelps Construction Co. of Greeley, Colo., was setting up shop to begin the next round of renovations.

Hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 tore into the Pentagon at 350 miles per hour, tearing through three of the building's five rings before exploding in a fireball that killed 125 Pentagon workers and 64 airline passengers. (No construction workers died.) The plane hit at a 45-degree angle, causing it to travel through both the newly renovated Wedge 1 and a portion of Wedge 2 that was awaiting renovation. All told, about 400,000 square feet were damaged by flames, smoke and water from a fire that burned for two days.

Lee Evey, program manager for the Pentagon renovation project, says that if the building had not been under repair, there could have been 10,000 Defense employees in Wedges 1 and 2. Instead, there were only 4,600 workers in the 2 million square feet of offices, some having just moved into new Wedge 1 offices while others were waiting to move out of Wedge 2.

Several improvements related to the renovation also kept down the death toll. "The building performed phenomenally. The changes we made as a result of the renovation ensured there were as few casualties as possible," Evey says. For example, a newly installed sprinkler system quickly squelched the fire in Wedge 1. Wedge 2 did not yet have a sprinkler system, and the fire burned there for nearly two days. In some areas it burned so hot that windows melted into puddles.

Structural enhancements also proved their worth. A newly installed reinforced steel structure outfitted with Kevlar webbing kept Wedge I standing for about 35 minutes, despite bearing the brunt of the attack. Hundreds of workers were able to escape before the section collapsed. Also, the blast-resistant windows installed in the outer ring of the renovated wedge at a cost of $10,000 apiece likely prevented injuries or even deaths that might have resulted from flying debris.

Managing Chaos

Recovery operations by firefighters, federal investigators and disaster experts from the Federal Emergency Management Agency required sifting through more than 10,000 tons of limestone façade and twisted steel to collect evidence and locate victims. Suddenly, managers for the federal government's largest building renovation were thrust into the role of supporting recovery crews at the nation's second-largest disaster site. "It seemed chaotic, but there was a jumbled order to it," says Evey. Initially, recovery crews had predicted it would take as long as eight weeks to sort through rubble and identify any remains, but the job was done in two weeks due in part to support provided by the renovation workers.

The experience of Pentagon renovation program managers in contingency planning and contracting for a large project also paid dividends in the recovery effort. Managers ordered floodlights and power generators for the recovery crew shortly after the plane hit, correctly anticipating that the work would continue around the clock for several days. Also, the managers quickly distributed architectural drawings to recovery crews, enabling them to navigate the wreckage. The program office even asked a local printer to be on call 24 hours a day, in case extra copies were needed.

When the FBI needed new, clean dumpsters for preserving evidence, program managers ordered them quickly from suppliers already on contract for the renovation. When the FBI requested construction of a more stable road leading into the recovery site, renovation managers had no trouble getting gravel delivered. They also proposed a simple solution when recovery crews complained that crash site security checks were slowing delivery trucks: Ask FBI agents to ride shotgun to get each truck through faster. Beginning in mid-October, Pentagon construction crews were back on site to demolish and remove damaged portions of the building.

Estimates suggested it would take as long as eight months to remove the debris and begin rebuilding. But construction crews, working 24-hour days, seven days a week, had the site ready for rebuilding before Thanksgiving. Now, renovation managers face their greatest challenge-quickly rebuilding the damaged portion of the building without scaling back or delaying the Pentagon's long overdue modernization project.

A New Approach

Three days after the attack, Pentagon renovation officials made it clear they would continue the project while rebuilding. They awarded Hensel-Phelps, a Colorado-based construction firm, the first installment of a $758 million contract to renovate the remaining 4 million square feet (Wedges 2 to 5) by 2014.Originally, the contract was to be awarded Sept. 11. Hensel-Phelps and the Wedge 1 contractor, AMEC, agreed to jointly rebuild Wedge 1 and the damaged portion of Wedge 2. The repair costs could top $700 million. The success of those agreements-and ultimately, the rebuilding and renovation of the Pentagon-will hinge on a series of contract reforms made in recent years by project managers.

Five years ago, Evey, a former Air Force and NASA contracting chief who had no construction experience, took over the Pentagon renovation project and found a "broken" program management structure. Since 1993, renovation teams had missed most of their key deadlines, lawmakers had frozen spending because of cost overruns, and contracts had been awarded based only on cost, not performance. Evey found the cost overruns and delays largely were attributable to an acquisition strategy that was as outdated as the building's electrical system, which had not met code since 1953. The traditional contracting approach to federal construction, known as "design-bid-build," required hiring a designer to spend months drawing up highly detailed renovation plans. The design plans for Wedge 1 took eight months to create and were more than 3,500 pages long. The bidding was then opened to builders who offered firm, fixed-price bids for the work, which went to the lowest bidder, with little consideration for past performance.

Michael Sullivan, deputy program manager, says design-bid-build contracts often create adversarial relationships between contractors and clients. With fixed-price contracts, the only way a firm can make additional money, Sullivan says, is by making changes in the design. "It forces them to find faults to make money. That's not the type of relationship you want with your contractor," says Sullivan. As a result, the Pentagon renovation project is now using design-build contracts, a popular tool in the private sector, for future renovations. The design-build approach saves time, by scrapping lengthy design documents and open bid competitions, and holds contractors accountable for their work.

Unlike traditional construction deals, design-build contracts cover only cost and materials. The contractor can only turn a profit by earning an incentive worth 10 percent of the contract value if it meets quarterly performance goals. All design-build contracts are audited by the Defense Contract Audit Agency to ensure that labor and material charges do not hide profits. The government and contractor evenly share any cost overruns that do not exceed 10 percent of the contract's cost. The contractor covers any overruns beyond 10 percent. Any savings are also split, with 70 percent going back to the government and 30 percent to the contractor. Sullivan says design-build contracts will help keep both the renovation and rebuilding work on schedule because they tie a contractor's profits directly to their performance. Already, he says, design-build contracting has proved successful in its first test, saving Defense $1 million in building the Pentagon's $99 million remote delivery facility, which opened on time last year.

Tom Schwieger, operations manager for Hansel-Phelps, says the design-build contract has been even more valuable in light of Sept. 11. Hansel-Phelps, poised to win the Pentagon renovation contract well before the attacks, expected to begin work on 1 million square feet of space in Wedge 2 by Dec. 1, 2001. However, only about 300,000 square feet of that space was ready for renovation in December because some had been destroyed and the rest was needed to house workers displaced from Wedge 1 by damage from the attack. Schwieger says the contract gives Hansel-Phelps the flexibility to begin renovating some of the space and to delay rebuilding the rest. Under the old contracting methods, he says, making any changes to the original plan would have taken months, because it would have required modifying the contract. "Now, everything does not have to be suggested, bid and approved," he adds.

Sullivan says that allowing contractors to offer designs plans can lead to better use of building space. For example, the Pentagon's original renovation plans called for modular furniture that needed to be taken apart to be moved. Hensel-Phelps came up with reconfigured office plans including freestanding furniture and better placement of lighting and utilities wires. "Flexibility is so critical in this building, because military personnel rotate in and out at least every three or four years," he says.

Looking Ahead

Building contractors aren't the only ones providing project managers with insight into improvements that can be made during ongoing renovations. Several task forces, such as the Building Evaluation Task Force Group and the Pentagon Force Protection Project Action Team, have been created to interview workers who were in the building on Sept. 11, review building policies, and consult with outside experts on building safety and security.

Among the results: All wedges now will have luminescent fire exit signs and arrows along baseboards rather than electric exit signs over doorways. Those in the building Sept. 11 complained it was difficult to see signs above doors while they were crawling out of the smoke-filled corridors on their hands and knees. "None of [the suggestions] for the most part are particularly Earth-shaking, but all summed up together we think they'll make this building significantly better," says Evey.

Meanwhile, Congress has become a backer of the Pentagon renovation project. After imposing spending caps and refusing to adjust construction funding to account for inflation in the past, lawmakers following the attack pledged an additional $795 million to the renovation work, in addition to emergency rebuilding funds, so that the Pentagon can be completely restored by 2010. With those additional dollars, a better contracting strategy and safety upgrades, Evey may not be joking about his new motto for the Wedge 1 rebuilding: "It's so much better the second time around."