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The Elbert Files: Faulty towers


The University of Iowa’s Stead Family Children’s Hospital in Iowa City and the Neal Smith Federal Building in Des Moines are faulty towers.

Both were erected with fanfare that dissipated into disappointment as flaws were discovered.

The 14-story hospital was completed in 2017 adjacent to Kinnick Stadium and has been widely publicized during football games when fans and players wave to patients.

Des Moines’ 10-story federal office building at 210 Walnut St. – it wasn’t named in honor of longtime Congressman Neal Smith until 2007 – was built in 1967 to replace the city’s 19th-century federal building. The 1871 building at Fifth Street and Court Avenue was demolished in 1968 and replaced by a parking garage.  

The federal building was beset with problems from the start.

“Shortly after construction got underway in December 1964, changes had to be made to the design of the foundation,” the Des Moines Tribune reported in 1967 as federal employees prepared to move into the building. 

A later Tribune article reported the building opened with leaky pipes, “non-airtight windows” and an “erratic elevator,” although a government official said the structure was “a fine, handsome, functional building.” 

The U.S. Government Services Agency said the building cost $2.7 million to build in 1967, or about $23 million in 2022 dollars. 

In 1980, A GSA official confirmed that windows had always leaked, and he told me it would cost $8 million ($27 million in today’s money) to fix them. The leaks, he explained, were caused by flashing that was installed incorrectly. Instead of channeling rainwater away from the building, the flashing brought it inside, producing considerable damage over time.  

Two decades later in 2003, the government spent another $12 million ($18 million in 2022 dollars) to replace the roof and create new glass facades over problem windows. 

The 5-year-old Stead Family Children’s Hospital in Iowa City already is also in need of expensive repairs, including the possibility of replacing all its windows.  

I originally wrote about the hospital in 2018, when the university was stiffing a Cedar Rapids-based mechanical contractor for $17 million of a $74 million bill for work at the hospital and Hancher Auditorium.  

That bill was finally paid in 2019, according to Cedar Rapids Gazette reporter Vanessa Miller, who has written extensively about the hospital and its problems. 

Before the dispute was resolved, I wrote a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the Iowa football team pay part of the $17 million because of the free TV publicity it got on game days when fans and players waved to sick children in the hospital’s press-box-like top-floor windows. 

At the time, the Gazette’s Miller wrote about a series of design changes and construction delays that would be funny if they weren’t so expensive. 

To date, roughly $392 million has been spent to build the hospital, which is about $118 million, or 40%, more than was originally budgeted, according to Miller. 

She noted that one of the more costly changes occurred a month before construction was originally slated to begin, when designers changed the shape of the hospital from rectangular to elliptical, a shape that was more challenging and more costly to build. 

She also reported that during construction there were more than 1,000 change orders, creating what one expert said was a “messy project contractually.”

Now the window problem has surfaced.

Miller wrote last month that “officials have decided to replace every window in a new bridge connecting the Children’s Hospital with the main UIHC campus” at an estimated cost of $3.6 million. 

There are also plans to replace other windows, and Miller wrote that it is possible that all windows in the 14-story building might need to be replaced at a cost of up to $15 million.  

It’s not clear why both buildings have had such problems with windows.

I just hope whatever mistakes were made are not repeated in the nine-story, $137 million U.S. Courthouse that is nearing completion on Des Moines’ downtown riverfront.

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