by Bradley Parsons
The architecture firm responsible for the ill-fated design of the new Duval County Courthouse has been unfairly blamed for the project’s runaway cost insist the firm’s local and national leadership. A month after receiving a pink slip from City Hall, Cannon Design’s CEO wants the mayor’s help in repairing its reputation.
In a letter sent Nov. 30 to Mayor John Peyton, Cannon Co-Chair and Chief Executive Officer Gary Miller called on the City to “set the record straight” about cost overruns on the project. Peyton scrapped Cannon’s design and fired the architect when he determined the building could not be built within range of the project’s original $190 million budget.
By the time Peyton pulled the plug, he estimated the project cost had climbed to near $300 million, exceeding by about $70 million the construction cost that Peyton had guaranteed to the
City Council just a year prior.
Cannon and the mayor’s office agree on the factors that busted the project’s budget. Skyrocketing material costs, particularly steel and concrete, increases in the project’s scope and about $25 million in land purchases combined to send construction costs soaring. But Miller disagrees that Cannon should have been blamed for the cost overruns.
At the City’s insistence, cost management was not included among Cannon’s duties as it designed the courthouse, said Miller. Cannon’s contract with the City called for construction manager Skanska Dynamic Partners and project manager Jacobs Facilities Inc. to ensure that Cannon’s design could be built within the City’s budget.
The City’s cost managers signed off on the Cannon design several times as it moved from the drawing board closer to construction, said Miller. Reassured by those estimates, Miller said he was stunned when they jumped to near $300 million shortly before construction was to begin.
Cannon typically likes to use its own cost managers, because “we’re very good at it,” said Miller. In an industry where design firms are often believed to value beauty over budgets, Miller said Cannon has built a reputation as an architect that delivers on the bottom line.
“Our projects typically met our clients’ budget,’ he said. “We wouldn’t be in business if we didn’t.”
But Miller acknowledges that several of his firm’s projects being built at the same time as the courthouse were also struggling to stay within their budgets. Casualties, he said, of the same surge in material costs that were squeezing the courthouse.
The cost of steel and concrete had climbed by 20 percent. Cannon informed its clients that material costs were rising and asked if they wanted to scale back plans. That question wasn’t posed to the City, said Miller, because Cannon wasn’t managing costs on the courthouse project.
“Again, we didn’t have cost management responsibilities,” he said. “All across the country, as soon as we saw what was happening (with steel costs,) we let our clients know that there is some unusual circumstances going on and what did they want to do. We weren’t communicating that on this project.”
Later, when the cost overruns became evident, Cannon helped the City cut $26 million from the courthouse design. Miller is still skeptical about the estimates that led to his firm’s ouster along with Jacobs and Skanska. He still believes Cannon could build the courthouse for $268 million, the last number deemed acceptable by the mayor’s office. Since Cannon was fired, Miller has repeatedly offered help to Peyton, but he said the only answer he’s received has come through third parties.
“I’ve heard he’s not interested,” said Miller.
Even if Cannon is shut out of the remainder of the courthouse project, Miller hopes the mayor’s office will clarify the architect’s role. For the past year, Cannon has largely kept itself out of the public relations fray. The firm’s policy is too let its work speak for itself. But when it became apparent that Cannon’s design would not be built, Miller started looking for ways to combat what the CEO called “misinformation” about his firm. On Monday Cannon ran Miller’s letter to Peyton on a full page of the Florida Times-Union’s business section. “We performed our job well on this project, it’s cost management that failed,” he said.
Misperceptions about Cannon’s performance could hurt the firm’s reputation, said Miller. The firm’s local Principal Joe Cavalrese said he’s heard whispers that his firm would benefit financially from the courthouse’s exploding budget. Last week Cavalrese confronted another design firm that told the mayor’s office they were owed money by Cannon. The claim was groundless Cavalrese said, and the complaining firm’s management was “embarrassed” when he called them on it.
“Our fee was fixed at the beginning of the job. Anyone who thought there was a benefit to us as the cost went up was crazy. It just meant we were doing more work for the same money.”