An Eastern Washington University office building remodeled with $5.2 million in tax dollars received a historic preservation award last month as an example of “what can be done to give new life to structures.”
But some fear Sutton Hall may be one of the most dangerous buildings on campus, if it were to catch fire.
The former men’s dormitory was wired two years ago with 5,000 feet of computer cable that health experts say would spew deadly gases if burned.
Phosgene and other poisonous vapors could endanger the lives of about 125 employees at Sutton if they did not leave the three-story building quickly, an Eastern investigator wrote in a 1997 report.
“As little as two parts per million phosgene can be immediately dangerous to life and health!” Dean Heinemann wrote. “This is why immediate evacuation is critical when fire is suspected.”
Sutton opened in late 1996 as the university’s student services center. It is one of the most heavily used office buildings on campus, housing admissions, financial aid, counseling and cashiers.
An architectural firm mistakenly asked contractors to install computer cable with a potentially toxic insulation in violation of the National Electric Code. But Eastern did not force them to replace the wiring and absorb an estimated $30,000 bill.
Instead, contractors won approval from the city of Cheney - which gives final approval to occupy buildings - to keep the wiring in place and protect workers and students in Sutton with a modern system of early-detection fire alarms, ventilation and sprinklers.
“Of all the risks a person encounters, I would not put this very high,” said Cheney Fire Chief John Montague, whose office approved Sutton for occupancy in 1996.
Kathy Fleming, an Eastern employee and former president of a union representing 400 workers, said any unnecessary risk to people’s lives is not worth it.
“It (Sutton) is safe as long as there isn’t a fire,” said Fleming, with Local 931 of the American Federation of State, County, Municipal Employees.
Heinemann conducted his investigation early last year for Eastern’s environmental health and safety department, according to university records. The investigation was launched after Susan Lopez, who works in Sutton, raised concerns about her safety.
Lopez, who could not be reached for comment, learned about the wrong wiring from another worker.
Heinemann was so concerned about the computer wire in Sutton that he demanded annual inspections, fire drills and safety training for all occupants.
However, Heinemann’s boss, Barbara Skyles, on Tuesday downplayed the worries.
Skyles, director of environmental health, said Sutton is safe. She said checks by building maintenance workers and the backup firedetection system in Sutton minimize the danger.
“In any fire, you have smoke that could be harmful,” Skyles said. “This is a case where there could be more toxic gas coming off the wire.”
Built in 1923 as Eastern’s first men’s dormitory, Sutton was converted into an office building that reopened in September 1996. It is one of six campus buildings in Eastern’s Historic District.
The Eastern Washington State Historical Society awarded the university an honorable mention for preservation of 75-year-old Sutton Hall.
Marcia Smith, head of the preservation awards committee, said she was not told about the wiring.
“No one talked to us about the problems,” said Smith, whose committee will review the award at its next meeting. “We don’t really look at the interior of the building, only the exterior.”
The general contractor for Sutton was Kearsley Construction Inc. and the consultant was Northwest Architectural Co. The electrical subcontractor was Arc Electric.
Steven McNutt, an owner of Northwest, takes the blame for not catching the cable mistake until after it was installed and the building nearly finished.
Northwest, he said, failed to update wiring specifications that were first used in the early 1980s when the Sutton renovation was proposed.
“It was our mistake,” McNutt said. “It was a case of us having some 12-year-old egg on our face.”
McNutt said Eastern could have forced Northwest to rewire the computer cable, but it did not.
Rather, Northwest appealed to the state’s chief electrical inspector and Cheney officials to approve Sutton for occupancy. Inspector Jack Watterson bounced the decision back to Cheney because he said the state does not inspect computer data cables.
Northwest argued that the wiring was located in ventilation ducts resistant to fire and equipped with a series of alarms and sprinklers. The chance of fire erupting without workers and students knowing about it are very slim, the company said.