Monday, June 25, 2007 | The building at the center of the Sunroad fiasco is basically like a giant Erector Set — a towering edifice of glass and concrete with a simple skeletal steel cage at its center. That’s how two different structural engineers described the 12-story structure with the well-catalogued height problem.

But dismantling and reassembling the building so that it fits within the Federal Aviation Administration’s 160-foot height limit would be more complicated than undoing a few screws and adjusting a few beams. The solutions for fixing Sunroad’s big problem range from knocking the building down and starting again to propping up the roof while workers chop out a portion of the structure’s torso.

Twenty Feet of Trouble

  • The Issue: Sunroad has been ordered to restore its Kearny Mesa office to a height of 160 feet. Experts wonder how and if it can be done.
  • What It Means: There are enormous practical complications involved in reducing the height of a 12-story building. The head of the architectural firm that designed the tower said it can’t be done.
  • The Bigger Picture: The Sunroad fiasco has become the first scandal to hit the Sanders administration. Sanders’ stance has evolved from tacit cooperation with the company to defiant rejection of any of Sunroad’s demands for reprieve.

“I’ve never heard of doing this before,” said Christopher Kamp, president of the Structural Engineers Association of San Diego. “I’ve heard of adding on top. Usually you don’t reduce square footage.”

The prospect of reducing the building from its current stature of 180 feet — a height that has led to its labeling as a hazard by the FAA — gained more attention last week when Mayor Jerry Sanders joined City Attorney Mike Aguirre in demanding that Sunroad alter its structure. But doing so would involve a forest of expensive complications. Those complications have been made more serious because the company has been allowed to continue to work on the building.

Thus, the only fundamental way to solve the Sunroad’s problem is to rip the building down and start again, said Brian Paul, president and CEO of BPA architects, which designed the structure.

But other architects and structural engineers disagree. Mike Stepner, a former city planning director and professor of architecture, said taking the building down to the ground is a drastic solution. Other solutions are not simple and not cheap, however, Stepner cautioned.

Because the building is designed to be a certain height, everything from the elevator towers to the circulation shafts have been tailored to that design, Stepner said.

“When you start slicing it off, all that mechanical equipment and technical stuff on the upper floors has to be brought down to where the new height limit is,” he said.

One major complication for Sunroad and its construction company, Swinerton Inc., is that the top three floors of the building in question look markedly different than the rest of the building. Therefore, in order to maintain some semblance of the tower’s design, the height would have to be taken out of the building somewhere in the lower nine floors.

That’s no easy feat, according to Swinerton’s Tom Shannon, senior superintendent of the Sunroad project.

“An analogy I like to use is what if they wanted to make you five inches shorter,” Shannon said at an on-site interview Friday. “How are they going to do it? Where’s it going to come from?”

Paul Baio, business development manager at Swinerton, said one idea that has been floated would involve supporting the building’s roof with jacks while workers cut out and dismantled two of the lower floors. The roof would then be lowered back down onto the remaining floors.

Baio said that scheme would not affect the structural integrity of the building in any way, but that it would be difficult and expensive. Removing lower levels of the building would maintain the architectural integrity of the project, however, Baio said.

Another problem: The exterior of the building is all but finished.

When the city issued its initial stop-work order in November 2006, parts of the building were open to the elements. A month later, Tom Story, Sunroad’s vice president of development, sent a city inspector a letter requesting that the stop-work order be modified to allow the company to do work that would “make the roof waterproof.”

The city’s head of development services, Marcela Escobar-Eck, sent Story a letter allowing Sunroad to carry on with limited work at the building “in the interest of saving the structure from damage which could be caused by weather.”

Fred Sainz, spokesman for Sanders, said Sunroad clearly went over and above the work that the city permitted. The city’s intention was to allow the company to weather-proof its investment to protect it from damage, Sainz said, but Sunroad took it much further.

“Shame on us for allowing that to happen,” Sainz said.

Now, most of the building’s protective coat, or “cladding,” is in place. Almost the entire building is encased in glass, including the top three floors. That means there would be more work for Sunroad to do should the company have to lower the tower’s height.

“It’s not just the bones — it’s not just the steel that’s up there right now — they have to reevaluate and redesign the whole exterior cladding system, all the glazing,” Kamp said.

The top floor of office towers also typically houses the bulk of the machinery needed to keep the building’s air conditioning, elevators and other amenities running. Sunroad and Swinerton employees would not divulge how far along workmen are in installing that equipment.

Sanders’ stance on the Sunroad issue has evolved over many months. His office initially dismissed a lawsuit by Aguirre seeking the removal of the 20 feet as a poor message to send to the development community. Earlier this month, Sanders embraced Aguirre’s lawsuit.

Last week, he changed his rhetoric further and began to give the company stark warnings, including the issuance of a restoration order that told Sunroad to bring the building back down to 160 feet.

Sainz said the mayor has no real interest in how Sunroad goes about lowering its building or the problems the company faces in doing so.

“I suggest that they start taking the chainsaw and the blowtorch to it,” Sainz said.

Please contact Will Carless directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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