Huge project underway at Nebraska Capitol

Capitol administrator Bob Ripley points to false ceiling covering ductwork that will be removed. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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June 29, 2017 - 6:45am

A huge project is underway at Nebraska’s state Capitol: the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system is being replaced. The project is expected to take 10 years to complete, at a cost of more than $100 million.


In the stately, subdued first floor hallway of Nebraska’s state capitol building, Capitol Administrator Bob Ripley is showing a reporter around, when he’s interrupted by a loud, hammering sound.

“Let’s move down the hall," Ripley suggests, explaining, “They’re knocking out, breaking up concrete to widen a doorway in the basement for the heating, ventilating and air conditioning project.”

After a year and a half of planning, this is one of the first visible – or for most people at this point, audible – signs of work being done. But over the next eight and a half years, that work will become much more obvious.

Debris being removed from doorway widening work in the Capitol basement. (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Ripley acknowledges the work will be be intrusive.

“It’s going to require going into every office in the building and taking out the heating and cooling unit that sits beneath most windows in the building, as well ductwork in the ceiling and all those sorts of things,” he said. “You have to remove people from offices. They can’t continue to work in their space and just put a piece of plastic over the top of them and just work around them.”

Already the state has begun the process of leasing space outside the Capitol for some of the agencies that occupy offices in the tower. Then in December, office workers will be begin moving out and around the Capitol, like pieces in a sliding tile puzzle. Ripley says each phase of the moving will last about 14-16 months.

“In the first phase we will move those people in designated agencies in the tower out into rental space. Then, once that’s done we have the space to move people from the first phase up into the tower while the work in their quadrant first phase is being done. They’ll be in the tower. When that work’s over they’ll move out of the tower down into their offices, now fully renovated. The second phase people will move out of their space into the tower while work’s being done, and so on. It’s kind of this leapfrog process,” Ripley said.

And while they’re out anyway, it won’t just be the 50-year-old heating, ventilating, and air conditioning system that will be replaced. Old steel windows, some of which can’t be opened anymore, will be repaired. A fire alarm system will be upgraded. A fire sprinkler system will be installed. Two electrical substations will be upgraded. Offsite, a two megawatt emergency electrical generator will be installed. And a block away, a surface parking lot will be turned into a wellfield with almost 300 wells more than 500 feet deep drilled for pipes to carry liquid back to the Capitol at the ground temperature of 55 degrees. (To see the architectural and engineering program statement for the project, click here).

Ripley says this heat pump system will save the state money in the long run.

“For cooling, it’s fabulous. And even for heating, it’s good. Because when it’s 20-below outside, 55 degrees is pretty nice. And so we can use at least a portion of that temperature for the heating component. We’ll have to supplement it, yes,” he said.

That will replace the chilled water that currently comes to the Capitol from the University of Nebraska. Ripley says the new system will also solve the current problem that the heat can’t be turned off in the spring until the last danger of frost has passed.

“People get real irritated and say, ‘Why isn’t the air conditioning on?’ Well, next week, it drops to 27 degrees. Well, we’d have had serious damage to our mechanical system had we done it when people were uncomfortable,” he explained.

Originally, plans called for the lot that will be used for the wellfield to simply be returned to being used for surface parking. But Ripley credits Gov. Pete Ricketts for recommending that footings be installed to allow for construction of a building in the future.

Ricketts credits his “team” of administration officials, and says it only makes sense.

“It was really just about giving us more flexibility and options down the road. We know that this is valuable real estate around the Capitol building, and that if we can give ourselves the option of putting up something down the road, that could help save Nebraska taxpayer dollars,” Ricketts said.

Earlier this year, Ricketts vetoed $11 million the Legislature had appropriated for the HVAC project over the next two years. But he says  that was mainly a matter of timing, and won’t affect the project overall.

“We’re really just matching the cash flows more closely to what we’re actually going to be able to spend. So it doesn’t mean we’re avoiding expenses right now. We probably will have to come back and add that money back in, but it won’t be in the budget cycle that starts July 1,” the governor said.

And the governor says while the $106 million project is pricey, it’s worth it.

“This building is priceless. It is really an icon for our state, and something we’ve been blessed with, with the people who came before us to have the foresight to build this beautiful Capitol building. So we want to make sure that we’re taking the steps to maintain and pass this building on to the next generation of Nebraskans. So it certainly is a large amount of money we’re going to be spending, but we’ll also help make sure that generations of Nebraskans can come and appreciate this beautiful Capitol building,” Ricketts said.

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