First reported 6/12/2009 11:57 a.m.

A troubling discovery regarding the structural integrity of the middle school gymnasium was made public during a June 11 board meeting, and reaction from school officials ranged from anger to disbelief.

“It was poorly designed and poorly built,” Superintendent Lou Cavallo said of the gym’s exterior walls. “It might not have even been built to the design.”

According to an architect called in to help District 91 address the problem, the walls of the gymnasium are significantly thinner than they ought to be. Exterior walls of that height are usually at least 14-inches thick, he said. The walls at the Forest Park Middle School gym are only 10-inches thick. The structure itself is supported by steel framing, so the walls are not bearing the weight of the school’s roof.

However, the masonry is cracking and bowing and, conceivably, if left alone, could collapse.

Furthermore, the architect said he has reviewed the designs used 25 years ago to construct the gym, and is concerned about the lack of detail in those plans. For example, the drawings do not show how the walls are attached to the roof and the foundation.

“It’s very questionable how it was built,” said architect Jan Taniguchi of STR Partners.

Addressing the problem will not come cheap, and board members voted to move forward with one of two solutions presented by Taniguchi. The gym walls will be reinforced with horizontal steel beams. Walls in a home economics classroom on the northeast corner of the middle school will also be reinforced. Those efforts are expected to cost the district some $337,000.

School board Vice President Sean Blaylock voted against reinforcing the walls, and said he preferred to do a total replacement, which would increase the cost by an estimated $276,000.

Blaylock said he was “awfully uncomfortable” with the possibility that other potential problems in the building had not been discovered, and the best solution is to rebuild. The entire middle school was constructed as an addition to Field-Stevenson Elementary in 1985.

Taniguchi assured district officials that reinforcing the walls would be a permanent solution. All that would remain, he said, is sealing the existing cracks.

Robert Laudadio, superintendent of buildings and grounds for the district, said the problems were discovered in April when he suspected that cracks in the walls might be indicative of a larger problem. In October 2007 Laudadio asked for a similar inspection from Taniguchi’s firm, but was told the cracking was simply cosmetic.

During the June 11 school board meeting, Taniguchi defended his 2007 inspection. He said the cracks weren’t as severe and he had no compelling reason to investigate further.

Laudadio said he was shocked at the severity of the problem and can’t figure out how the contractors, construction managers and inspectors didn’t catch the problem 25 years ago. Administrators have no evidence that construction standards were violated, but said efforts would be made to verify compliance.

“Who was looking at this?” Laudadio asked.

The walls of the gymnasium are unique when compared to the rest of the building, said Laudadio. They stand 28-feet tall and lack some of the reinforcing characteristics found elsewhere in the building’s construction. Inspections throughout the middle school will take place, but Laudadio said he’s confident the remainder of the facility is structurally sound.

He could not explain why the walls of the home economics room have deteriorated.

School administrators will apply for emergency status with the state so that contractors and materials can be obtained more quickly. Taniguchi said an optimistic timeline would see the project completed in early October. In the meantime, basketball games and physical education classes would be moved to accommodate the construction.