Balconies repaired after concrete falls off one of Austin's tallest buildings

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The location. The luxury. And, the high dollar views. It's one of the most exclusive and expensive places to live in downtown Austin, and you can see it from miles away. The Austonian and its 56 stories of multi-million dollar residential condos was finished in 2010. So, why are construction workers back on site now?

If you've been downtown in the last several months, you may have noticed scaffolding all over Austin's tallest skyscraper. KXAN has learned crews are fixing a major safety concern that's been kept quiet for the last three years.

A close call reveals building issues

The Austonian's general manager, Shawn Bell, said a 6-foot piece of concrete cracked off one of the balconies in 2015, and parts of it almost hit a staff worker standing on the 10th story dog park.

Repair work on The Austonian's balconies started in February and dates back to a problem that first popped up on a different balcony in 2014.

Bell said the outer edge of the concrete slab was cracking, and it was repaired. They thought it was an isolated situation, but in July 2015 that 6-foot concrete spall, an engineering term for a fragment of material, fell off the edge of another balcony.

After the close call, The Austonian Condominium Association eventually hired its own engineering firm to inspect them. According to multiple lawsuits, Pivot Engineers determined the balconies were not built correctly and the cost to fix what they called "defective work" would be more than $13 million.

The condo owners filed the first lawsuit in fall 2015 against the developer Second Congress, Ltd., the general contractor Balfour Beatty and its subcontractors, including the concrete subcontractor, Capform, Inc. 

"There's just standards in the concrete industry for making sure the reinforcement has adequate concrete cover. So as long as you follow those standards there really shouldn't be any issues," said John Duke with Capital Project Management.

CPM is overseeing the balcony repairs. Duke said the root cause of the problem was the steel rebar situated too close to the outside edge of the concrete slab, which led to water getting in and rusting and expanding the steel. 

Crews are going in and removing about 2 inches of concrete and replacing it with about 4 inches. They are also replacing the steel with what's called glass fiber reinforced polymer so it won't rust.

Both Balfour Beatty and Capform told KXAN a cause was never determined, and in a statement Balfour said, "The fact is that the project was well built in accordance with the plans that were provided."

The condo association would not release Pivot's final inspection report, and the original case was settled out of court for a confidential amount. Bell said it is expected to cover the cost of all the repairs.

Overhead protection is on the street level to keep people passing by safe. The work is about 70 percent complete, and the 16-month project is expected to wrap up in April 2019.

Same general contractor is building Austin's newest tallest building

Balfour Beatty is also the general contractor on Austin's soon-to-be new tallest building, The Independent, which many call the Jenga building. Balfour Beatty is using the same concrete subcontractor, Capform.

In a statement, Balfour Beatty said, "Safety is always our top concern and we have a proven history of quality control with Capform."

Capform's Vice-President, Jim Renaud, told KXAN in a statement:

At this time I am not at liberty to discuss any of the theories as to what caused the concrete to crack at these locations. However, Capform has built numerous projects before and after this project and we have never encountered this same situation. We are confident that this was an unusual occurrence and not an ongoing concern."

In a lawsuit Capform filed in January of last year against the architects on The Austonian, it claims Ziegler Cooper Architects altered the design and components of the balcony systems, including the rebar placement.

Previous problems: Glass falling from Austin high-rises

KXAN has reported on two previous incidents involving falling glass from The Austonian. The first time it happened was in 2011. The Austin Fire Department said the outside pane of a double pane window on the 45th floor fell onto the street below. It damaged a car in a parking lot.

In August 2016, another pane of glass broke and fell from a unit on the 48th floor. In both cases, the glass did not hit or hurt anyone.

The W Hotel in downtown Austin had to close for several days in June of 2011 after glass kept falling on multiple occasions. In one case that resulted in a lawsuit filed against the hotel, two people were injured when glass from a broken panel rained down on them in the hotel pool. The hotel replaced all the glass on the entire building.

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