WEST ORANGE, NJ — The air structure known as the “bubble” at West Orange High School that houses locker rooms, a weight room and a practice facility is in the midst of its rebuild after a snowstorm collapsed the structure in February 2018. The West Orange Board of Education received an update on the progress of the bubble, which is behind schedule, at its Aug. 26 meeting after discussing myriad problems with the construction at its Aug. 12 meeting.
At the Aug. 26 meeting, architect Tony Catana of the Spiezle Architectural Group said the bubble would be inspected by the West Orange Building Department to receive a Temporary Certificate of Occupancy, which would indicate that the building is safe for use, on Aug. 27, after press time. The bubble would have to be completely finished before the school can receive a permanent Certificate of Occupancy. Catana said at the meeting that much work had been done on the structure since the last time the board met.
At that meeting on Aug. 12, Catana and Superintendent Scott Cascone provided an update on how construction of the bubble was progressing. According to Catana, the athletic facility was supposed to be completed at the beginning of August. The main reason it is not is that the manufacturer of the bubble material, Arizon Building Systems, is not being cooperative with the contractor who is building the interior of the bubble, Catana said.
“They refuse to make the penetrations that need to be made in the bubble for him to complete his work,” Catana said about the dispute between the contractor and Arizon. The manufacturer is the only one who can make cuts for openings and duct work into the material of the bubble or the warranty on the structure would be voided, and the company is asking to be paid for the work even though on the contractor’s plans, Arizon’s work is included in the agreed-upon price.
“I’ve been trying to push Arizon to come out and I’ve made a suggestion to that contractor that they pay them in advance to give them an incentive to finish,” Catana said. “Beyond that I don’t know how to make Arizon comply.”
Because the air structure material manufacturer is chosen by the contractor, the BOE does not have a contract with Arizon. This is why Catana advised against legal action at the Aug. 12 meeting, fearing that it would delay construction of the bubble even longer. In addition to the manufacturer work that had to be done, the architect said other contracting work, such as flooring and painting had to be finished by the contractor. In his update at the Aug. 23 meeting Catana said those things have been completed.
At the Aug. 12 meeting, BOE member Cheryl Merklinger said she was frustrated hearing about the issues that have delayed the completion of the bubble, especially so close to the beginning of the school year and fall athletic season.
“We have school starting in a few weeks; we have gym classes that are going to be displaced still,” Merklinger said. “From what I understand, the football team isn’t going to be able to use the locker room.”
She suggested the BOE consider putting the manufacturer on legal notice, but Catana said that often pushes them away and adds more time to already delayed projects.
“Firing them isn’t going to get your work done faster,” he said, saying that the district could charge the company for delaying the construction. “It’s going to add months to the process. So the best thing we can do at this point is keep pushing them. If you can’t utilize the space by school, you can apply liquidation damages because you have to provide additional services that will cost you extra money.”
Rather than take legal action, Cascone suggested meeting with Arizon first to discuss the issues.
“Maybe there’s something they’re not getting; maybe there’s a message they haven’t heard,” he said at the Aug. 12 meeting. “Maybe I’m naive and that won’t work, but something I’d recommend we do in the short term is bring them in and have a conversation about where we are, what our concerns are, what we need to do to get to where we need to be. If we find we have irreconcilable differences, we can always go the legal route.”
At the Aug. 26 meeting during the update discussion, Cascone said the two sides did find that they could not agree, and the district administrators and architect would meet with their lawyers on Aug. 27.
“At least to them, the differences with the contractor are irreconcilable,” Cascone said. “So we decided to meet with the lawyers. We are trying to get that resolved, or at least go the legal route.”
Also at the Aug. 26 meeting, Catana said that much work had been done since the last update on Aug. 12. Answering a question asked by BOE member Terry Trigg-Scales, he said there is a small amount of duct and piping work to be done to obtain a permanent Certificate of Occupancy once the penetrations have been made by Arizon, and then the structure will be complete. The lockers are slated to be installed during the first week of October.
There were no public comments on the bubble at the Aug. 26 meeting, but BOE members and the public discussed the issue at length at the Aug. 12 meeting. BOE member Mark Robertson said that one of the biggest issues is that a project manager was never chosen for the site.
“One of the primary issues is a fundamental management one,” Robertson said. “No project manager had been assigned to own it. It wasn’t clear in the architectural contract, it wasn’t assigned to buildings and grounds to own, there was no ownership. We can certainly remedy that moving ahead, but that’s how we got here.”
Several residents spoke about the bubble during public comment at the Aug. 12 meeting, including Mountaineer EndZone Club President James Rawls.
“Based on what I heard today and some of our past experiences, perhaps a contingency plan should be put in place in case they do not fix the bubble,” Rawls said. “Our students athletes do use it and I can tell you that it’s made a significant difference in their performance as football players.”
Robin Isserles of West Orange Cares About Schools suggested making a list of what the district wants when they meet with Arizon or take legal action.
“I think when you sit down with the folks that you’re going to sit down with, you should perhaps come up with a list of demands and use the leverage that you have as board members to make sure they come good on their promises,” Isserles said. “This is outrageous, and I think unfortunately issues like this is where parents get angry but then also sort of give up hope that things work the way they should.”
Photo by Amanda Valentovic