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Milwaukee considers design/build for City Hall project

The wooden pilings underneath Milwaukee City Hall. (Photo courtesy of the city of Milwaukee)

The wooden pilings underneath Milwaukee City Hall. (Photo courtesy of the city of Milwaukee)

By Sean Ryan

Milwaukee Public Works officials want to use design/build to select contractors for the project to repair City Hall’s rotting foundation.

City Hall stands on an underground forest of than 2,500 wood pilings, each 25 feet long and at least 14 inches around, that support the stone foundation of the building. The building needs wood pilings because downtown Milwaukee used to be a swamp, and crews that built city hall in the 1890s had to punch down to the bedrock to create a solid platform the support the building.

But the pilings on the northeast corner of the building are starting to rot with fungus, and the city must replace them to stop the building from sinking. The project to fix them is so complicated, and has so many unknowns, that the best approach is using design/build, said Ghassan Korban, coordination manager for the Milwaukee Department of Public Works.

“There are just too many factors that could alter the design and construction process,” he said.

Design/build lets project owners issue one contract for both design and construction. Instead of going to a low bidder based on a set of construction specifications, design/build contractors are ranked based on a series of criteria, such as past experience, and do not have a fixed price.

The city does not know the extent of the damage to City Hall’s foundation pilings. It does not make sense to send one company into the crawl space under the building to take the pilings apart and investigate them, and then later select a builder to do the same thing in order to fix them, Korban said. Also, the unknowns would result in a slew of change orders if the construction project is competitively bid, he said.

Public works officials this month are asking the city’s Common Council and mayor to approve using design/build on the project. Korban said the plan is to issue a request for proposals for the project in late December or early January.

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