BHS construction back on track after asbestos discovery

The discovery of nonfriable asbestos in a building that needed to be demolished as part of the BHS South of Bancroft Project has delayed the process by seven weeks. Photo: Camille Baptista

Despite delays at the beginning of the school year caused by the discovery of an unexpected type of asbestos, the Berkeley High School South of Bancroft Project is back on schedule, according to Principal Pasquale Scuderi.

The ongoing construction project on the southern end of campus has so far involved installing a stadium on the east side of the athletic field, which has new bleachers standing over a sports facility building with locker rooms, team meeting areas, coaches’ offices and a weight room. A decrepit set of bleachers on the west side of the field has been torn down, as has the seismically-unfit Old Gym to make way for a new academic building along Milvia Street.

Currently underway is the construction of the new academic building, which has yet to be named, and the installation of new visitors’ bleachers on the west side of the field. The latter should be ready when school resumes in the fall.

Funding for the projects comes from bond measures A, AA and I.

“This is really a signature project of our 2010 bond,” said Lew Jones, Berkeley Unified School District’s maintenance director, referring to Measure I, which passed in November 2010. The costs for the projects currently underway total $31.6 million, and the completed phase of the construction, including the stadium, cost an additional $9.4 million.

Delays arose at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year after construction workers found nonfriable asbestos in the Old Gym during demolition. Jones said that contractors had been prepared for some asbestos and had done a survey, but they didn’t discover the nonfriable asbestos until they started the demolition because it was hidden in waterproofing between two slabs of material.

Principal Pasquale Scuderi hopes the classrooms in the new building will be ready for move-in in spring 2014. Photo: Camille Baptista

“We ran into a fairly large change that we weren’t aware of,” Jones said. “It’s not something you could have seen before you demolished part of the building.”

Nonfriable asbestos-containing material (ACM) is a type of ACM that does not crumble into powder when touched, the way friable asbestos does, and it is therefore less likely to quickly contaminate surrounding air. However, because the contractors were not expecting to find it, it pushed the demolition schedule back about seven weeks, as they needed to follow safety protocols and run soil tests.

Jones explained that because the problematic asbestos was a “hidden condition,” the contractor was not at fault for not discovering it during the initial survey. The district therefore assumed the additional costs of removing it and running the tests. Even so, as of now the project is still within budget, but Jones added that there may be cost overruns if new obstacles arise in the future.

Now that construction is back on track, Scuderi hopes the new building will be ready in spring 2014.

Administrators plan to move the school’s world language department into the first two floors of the new building and remove the portable classrooms, where most of the department currently lives. Classes in the Arts and Humanities Academy, one of Berkeley High’s six small schools, whose students have been continually disrupted by a faulty heating and cooling system in the A building, will relocate to the top floor of the new building.

“We’ll have open space there in front of the new stadium building, which I think will be nice,” Scuderi said, explaining that “light demolition” will allow for some new landscaping with benches and trees adjacent to the new building.

Relocation of the academy’s classes will also free up music practice spaces that have been doubling as classrooms in the A building. Scuderi said this will be particularly beneficial for the expanding music department.

“We’re buying more instruments; we’re going to add a guitar class next year,” he said. “So I think it’s a good trade-off there.”


Aerial rendering of new building to replace the Old Gym as part of the South of Bancroft Project. Photo: courtesy Baker Vilar Architects

Administrators have yet to determine the best time for the move-in, which will require moving furniture from other classrooms across campus. It will likely happen over winter break or spring break to avoid interrupting classroom instruction. Once the classes relocate, and the school removes the portables, they will begin reconstructing the softball field, which was taken over when portable classrooms were installed there years ago.

Construction at the athletic field in the southwest corner of campus is also well on its way. Next to the stadium is a smaller building holding a snack bar, which will open for bigger games, and a new, improved sports equipment shed.

When planning the new field layout, the community and the district agreed on the importance of having a low-standing set of visitors bleachers on the west side of the field so as to create a more open view from Martin Luther King Jr. Way.

Jones and Scuderi said they don’t foresee anything further slowing down the process, although certain obstacles can be unpredictable.

“With projects this size, when it comes to cost and time, those are always big variables,” Scuderi said.

Read about the South of Bancroft Project on the BUSD website.

This story was updated following an interview conducted after press time. It now reflects additional information regarding the construction project’s funding as well as the nature of the nonfriable asbestos discovery and related costs.

Historic Berkeley High Old Gym makes way for the new (06.28.12)
A funeral for a much loved Berkeley swimming pool [12.15.11]
BUSD addresses concerns over BHS campus construction [10.24.11]
Closure of BHS gym rattles athletes, angers parents [10.07.11]
City supports public education with Measures H and I [11.03.10]
Saving Berkeley High’s Old Gymnasium: A proposal [01.19.10]

Camille Baptista is a summer intern at Berkeleyside. She studies creative writing and human rights at Barnard in New York City, where she writes for the Columbia Daily Spectator.

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  • guest

    “Currently underway is the construction of a new academic building, which has yet to be named…”

    If there’s a quota system for naming buildings in Berkeley, I think YT is up next.

  • PragmaticProgressive


  • guest


  • berkeleykev

    You guys kind of buried the lede here.

    The real story is “a fairly large change” in a big construction project.

    “Delays arose at the beginning of the past school year after construction workers found nonfriable asbestos in the Old Gym during demolition. Lew Jones, Berkeley Unified School District’s maintenance director, said that contractors had been prepared for some asbestos and had done a survey, (but)…

    …“We ran into a fairly large change that we weren’t aware of,” Jones said. “It’s not something you could have seen before you demolished part of the building.”

    I’m not saying anything improper has occurred, there is no way to tell from the scant info provided. If the original contract was written to completely exclude unforeseen hazards like asbestos except where noted by the initial survey, then the contractor can correctly bill the city for all the extra work, safety protocol, disposal fees, etc.

    But there may be an argument that (even though initially hidden) some amount of hazardous material (asbestos, lead paint, etc) are assumed to exist in the structure, and the contractor assumes responsibility for dealing with it. Again, it depends on the way the original contract was negotiated.

    The article makes it seem as if some special type of asbestos was found, and that was the reason for the extra time (and expense). There is nothing exotic about the type of asbestos found, as the article notes in a roundabout way “non-friable” asbestos is simply asbestos in a condition where it is not likely to become airborne as small particulate matter, meaning it is the least worrisome (still bad) form of asbestos.

    If I was guessing I’d say it’s probably in a layer of vinyl tile that was found in under a layer of other types of flooring. But it could have been ceiling tiles, roofing, who knows. The article doesn’t say.

    The thing is, if I’m looking at tearing out a floor that is obviously a built up sandwich of multiple layers, I’m going to have an explicit talk about what might be in that sandwich, and who’s going to eat which layers.

  • berkeleykev

    In other words, the first sentence is wrong: the delay was not caused by:
    “the discovery of a unexpected type of asbestos”,
    But rather the delay was caused by:
    “the (unexpected) discovery of a …type of asbestos”

  • Camille Baptista

    Hi, we’ve called to follow up with the school district about why the asbestos was unexpected, what the nature of the contract was, and some other details. Thanks for your comments!

  • berkeleykev

    Again, there’s not necessarily anything corrupt about change orders.

    But big change orders should be examined, and the confusing emphasis on type of asbestos makes me more curious what the real story is.

    It’s an assumed given that there will be asbestos and lead paint in older buildings. The article notes that Mr. Jones said, “the contractors had been prepared for some asbestos”. It is a “known unknown”, if you will.

    So I’d be curious to hear what the contract says regarding assumed and unassumed hazardous materials, and how the school board and city approach contracting these types of projects in general. Who did the initial survey? Why was the asbestos-containing material missed? If the city is routinely assuming contractual responsibility for hidden (but foreseeable) conditions, what efforts are being made to control overall project costs?

    Again, stuff happens. It is not usually economical to spend the time and money to discover every last possible issue with a large project before beginning. But even (especially) understanding that, it is necessary to have a clear intelligent approach to the known unknowns.

  • guest

    Berkeleykev…your first reaction is almost certainly correct: Either the contract was ineptly written and/or the contractor is gouging.

    ATTENTION DR. EVANS: You’re plotting your own demise, if you don’t get an outside review of policies and BID procedures at BUSD. You might as well start now throwing darts at a map for your next job…the unions will buy you the ticket.

  • guest

    I’m thinking “Mario Savio Hall”.

  • berkeleykev

    Well, it is pretty standard to have an indemnification clause for hidden issues, so it isn’t necessarily the case that anything untoward is occurring.

    For instance, if you hire a handyman to hang a tv mount on your wall, he can’t see where the wiring and plumbing is in the wall, so he may have a standard clause in the contract absolving him of responsibility should the 1/4″ x 3″ screws find a wire or water line. He asks, “about here?” and you say, “no, up a bit” and he starts drilling.

    If he were to initially take contractual responsibility for all possible damages resulting from hidden lines, he would have to charge accordingly- instead of $100 to hang a bracket he’d be charging $100 for the bracket and $1200 for the potential that he might have to open up the wall and fix plumbing, then repair the wall and paint it. And you wouldn’t hire him.

    Or, if he could insist that you pay him to open up the wall to the extent that he could verify there was no wiring or plumbing where the long screws were going to go. So instead of hiring a guy to zap a few screws in, now you’re hiring a guy to cut a hole in your wall, look around, then if it’s clear zap a few screws in, then patch the hole. So instead of a $100 house call it’s now a $500 job. Again, you probably wouldn’t hire him.

    So what should occur, is the guy (or gal) shows up. He specifically points out the indemnification clause, and explains what I just explained in the last two paragraphs. He looks on the other side of the wall to see if there are probable issues (if there’s a sink on the other side, there’s plumbing in the wall, etc…) and explains the relative risks. Then the client makes an informed decision, either, “go for it” or ” cut a hole and see”.

    If the client says “go for it, I’m not paying you to look around in my walls” and the handyman goes for it, then damn skippy there will be an expensive change order if a screw finds a pipe. And that’s not crooked in the least.

    Honestly, if the article hadn’t seemed like intentional obfuscation of the asbestos issue, I wouldn’t have given it much thought. But when I hear a weird story (“unexpected type of asbestos”) I get much more suspicious what the real story is. Could just have been bad communication, or perhaps a reporter who doesn’t know too much about building.

    But it was enough to catch my interest.

  • guest

    berkeleykev…in general, I agree and well said.

    BUT consider the recent revelations regarding the contractor hired to fix leaking pipes at Emerson. They did not follow industry standard procedures, failed to do the job and caused classroom and bathroom closures – all under the supposed supervision of Lew Jones and his department. After waiting NINE months the KIDS actually had to write to him asking to fix the pottys!

    At best, there are serious deficiencies in the way BUSD supervises contracts (spends our money.) At worst…well, what usually happens when millions of dollars in contracts are poorly administered?

    And construction contracts are only one part of the potential for ‘irregularities’ in the spending of our money. When was the last time there was an outside audit of BUSD’s Purchasing Department practices, controls and existing contracts?

    Power corrupts. And the operational financial muscle at BUSD resides in the arms of lifer department heads, with names you never heard- until there’s a scandal. Dr. Evans, demand audits.

  • berkeleykev

    Oh yeah, it merits examination, for sure. Anyone who has done construction work has a gut-level, almost PTSD reaction when they hear “change order”. Add in a confused/ing explanation, and you’ve got a red flag for sure.

    How much does a seven-week delay on a thirty-million dollar project cost, anyway? Ouch. Good thing the parking meters take credit cards.

    (But if we expect our concerns to be respectfully considered, we have to offer the caveats I described above, that’s all. Plus, I’m criticizing an article written by a summer intern who is covering a lot of bases, so I want to make clear that it’s not some cut-and-dried thing that only a naif would miss.)

    Ok, enough time in the screen for now. Gotta get out and enjoy this awesome day. Have a great weekend.

  • Soren Stammers

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  • ConstructionWorker

    Looks like the asbestos problem was dealt with correctly. Those who handle asbestos are typically certified for obvious safety reasons.

    Construction Worker Central

  • guest

    True, asbestos removal is highly regulated. But that doesn’t relieve BUSD’s facilities managers (and the architects and contractors they hire) from the responsibility of professional due diligence in the preparation of bid documents. This type of asbestos is common in old buildings. Identifying it is not difficult and planning for its removal would have prevented the cost of an unexpected delay.

    What’s really worrisome about BUSD’s “Hey…Who knew?” attitude is that we passed a huge parcel tax in 2010 which puts $50M+ in these same hands.

    How many more times will we see the ball dropped?


  • Claw Roofing

    That’s good that they got the asbestos taken care of.

    Calgary roofers

  • Camille Baptista

    Hi berkeleykev, I’ve updated the article with some more information that I hope will address your concerns. Because of where and how the asbestos was hidden, the fact that it wasn’t discovered in the initial survey was not the fault of either the district or the contractor — in other words, the contract didn’t have a clause saying that the contractor would be responsible should such a situation arise. The district assumed the additional costs.

    Thanks again for bringing up these points.