Charleston County gets $3.5M for judicial center building flaws

The $48 million Charleston County judicial center, adjacent to the historic County Courthouse, has been plagued with problems to its floors and walls since it opened eight years ago.

Brad Nettles

Charleston County has settled a long-running legal fight over costly construction problems with the judicial center that opened in 2002, even as ongoing repairs have closed the building's main entrance and water continues to seep through the basement floor.

The county was seeking more than $6 million in a lawsuit filed five years ago, and has settled for $3.5 million. A trial had been scheduled in October.

"You're always looking for more than what you get, but I think the county was pretty satisfied," said Thomas Pritchard, an attorney for the county. "Nobody named as a defendant walked away without paying some money."

Alabama-based Harbert International was the contractor for the courthouse construction project. The other defendants were NBBJ East Limited Partnership, Goff-D'Antonio Assoc. Ltd., Federal Insurance Co., and several third-party and fourth-party contractors.

"We always stood behind our work, and we're sorry this thing ended up in court and in front of the whole world," William Lalor, a Harbert International executive, said Wednesday. "Yes, we had disagreement; it's settled now, and we're happy."

The $48 million judicial center in downtown Charleston was in need of repairs from the day it opened, said Clerk of Courts Julie Armstrong, the elected official who oversees the building near Broad and Meeting streets.

Rain leaked in through the walls, groundwater perked up through the basement and floors were ruined by water damage, she said.

Harbert International initially made some expensive repairs, including a $700,000 replacement of the building's northern wall, but disagreed with the county about the need for additional work.

Deputy County Administrator Walt Smalls said the county spent $4.7 million on repairs that County Council authorized near the end of 2007.

"The biggest part of the project was making the building envelope water-sealed," he said.

That part of the project involved removing and replacing 210,000 bricks, reflashing 115 windows, coating or replacing 56,000 square feet of stucco, and more, The Post and Courier previously reported.

Pritchard said the settlement amount "is almost, basically identical to the (cost of) the strip and reclad that was done on the building."

The latest round of repair work, replacing a terrazzo floor in the building's main entrance that had puckered and created bubbles that would squirt water into the air when stepped upon with a high-heeled shoe, is now being completed.

Armstrong said there are still problems with water in the building's labyrinthine basement, which includes offices for sheriff's deputies and maintenance staff, and holding cells for prisoners.

"I've had upper respiratory infections since I started working here," said Sheriff's Deputy E.B. Doherty.

Armstrong said repeated attempts to get the county administration to address the problems resulted in half-measures, like painting the floors a week ago.

"They keep putting lipstick on a pig," Armstrong said. "The day the painters left, the water was already bubbling up."

Smalls said the county has been addressing repair projects systematically, and had attempted to improve the situation in the basement.

"We did some in-house repairs, taking out carpet and sealing some walls," he said.

County Councilman Vic Rawl was still a judge when the judicial center was completed, and he worked there for a year before he retired. Rawl said he's not surprised to hear that there still are problems with water getting into the basement.

"How many basements in Charleston do you know of that don't have a leakage problem?" he said.

Smalls said that over Labor Day weekend, contractors will inject a sealant through the basement floor, a $7,700 job that should end the leaks, and also mark the end of the judicial center repair program.

"That's the end of the deficiencies," Smalls said.