Officials look at cracks in Senate office building

COLUMBIA -- Parts of the six-story Gressette Senate Office Building on the Statehouse grounds have begun cracking and tilting so much that state officials have spent $59,760 in the last five months to study the building's structural integrity.

The latest engineering study of the 30-year-old political landmark recommends another more detailed study. Its cost is unknown.

But, officials say, the first studies don't indicate a major problem, and no one should worry. The tilting and cracks are not extreme, they said.

"I don't think there is any immediate danger to anybody from that building, " said Rich Roberson, director of the S.C. Budget and Control Board's General Services, which oversees state office buildings. "If I thought there was any question about how safe it was, then we would take action."

The final study might reveal that more repair work needs to be done.

"What we want to do is study it to rule out any possibility of a long-term problem," Rich said.

Possibilities of renovation range from sealing cracks to prevent weather damage to shoring up the internal structure, officials said. Shoring up could prove expensive, but without the final study, no one can say exactly what needs to be done or how much it will cost.

If major shoring up is required, the building might have to meet today's earthquake building codes, adding to the cost.

No other building on the Statehouse complex, which includes the historic Statehouse and five other major state office buildings, has similar problems, officials said.

On busy legislative days, hundreds of people go in and out of Gressette, which looks like a huge concrete block with windows.

The structure, which houses the state's 46 senators and their staffs, sits atop a sprawling underground parking garage with more than 1,700 spaces. Gressette was built from 1975 to 1978, according to a plaque in the lobby.

Worst near McConnell's office

The problem of cracks around windows is worst around the northeast corner of the first floor, where Sen. President Pro Tem Sen. Glenn McConnell, R-Charleston, has his offices, according to a study of the building.

Cracks around windows and corners have been caulked and might have been as wide as 2 or 3 inches, Roberson said.

Efforts to reach McConnell for comment were unsuccessful.

Clerk of the Senate Jeff Gossett, who has been kept informed the situation, said General Services is doing a good job and he's not worried.

"They are just trying to get a feel of whether the building has stabilized or whether something needs to be done," he said.

The building's flaws are not glaringly obvious, and it is not a subject of conversation, Gossett said. But you can see some slight tilting in a few places on upper floors, he said.

"There are some cracks (on the first floor) in a few places around windows or where walls come together that's been patched and repaired a couple of times over the years," he said.

Support will need scrutiny

The Gressette building mostly is supported in its center, and floor slabs go out from it. That is where the upper floor tilting is occurring, officials said.

A major focus of any further scrutiny will be to study steel strands within the concrete slab that underlies the Gressette building's first floor, officials said. The placement and condition of that steel affects how much weight that slab can bear, they said.

Dimitris Rizos, associate professor of civil engineering in the University of South Carolina's College of Engineering and Computing, said given the cracks in the Gressette building, it was a good idea to do the initial studies. He said it's also a good idea to follow through with another study that will allow engineers to better assess the building's strength.

"They need to know where the steel strands are in the slab in order to come up with a refined estimate of its strength," said Rizos, who read the studies at The State newspaper's request. "That information is definitely needed."

The initial study was done by Davis & Floyd, a Charleston engineering firm.