You Think You Dont Like Washing Windows

November 4, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — Jim Leech, the facilities planning and management director for Kent County, is nearing retirement but he's found the last two years pretty exciting.

Much of last year and the year before, he was busy watching his new baby — the Kent County Courthouse — take shape.

Leech is the official responsible for maintenance of most of the county's buildings — except for the Road Commission garages and office — and its parks.

And in the past nine months since the courthouse's completion and occupation, he said he and his subordinates have been learning all about Grand Rapids' newest big office building, including dealing with issues such as how often to wash the windows.

"We had to do some testing," he said.

"And because of all the construction nearby, we found out we have to wash the first floor and lobby windows inside and out on a monthly basis."

And the rest of the windows in the 200-foot tower — all 43,000 square feet of them —get washed once a quarter on the exterior and every six months inside.

"That's a lot of glass," Leech chuckled. "It's about 40 percent of the building's exterior skin of 140,000 square feet. But actually, it's not as much as the old Old Kent building across the street (Ottawa) — that's about 50 percent glass. And at Bridgewater Place across the river, that's one hundred percent glass."

The windows' exterior might not need washing so often, he told the Business Journal, were it not for springtime's double whammy.

First, Leech explained, come all the bugs: the springtime hatch of the many species of insects that live the bulk of their lives as underwater larva in the Grand River.

"It's a mess," Leech said. "They get all clogged up in the corners of the windows."

And then, in the wake of all the mayflies and other insects, comes week upon week of West Michigan's "green sheen": a pile-up of pollen from trees, flowers, weeds, crops and every other green thing that grows.

And the problem is not just that the pollen gives the world a green tint in courthouse occupants' eyes; Leech says it also accumulates in the building's air filters to such a degree that it clogs them.

But cleaning the filters is no big deal, he said, and a complete exterior window washing is faster than one might think.

"I did a lot of work with the window washing companies here in town trying to find out what was the most economical way to do that," he told the Business Journal.

"A lot of the buildings have these window-washing rigs — scaffold-like platforms — that go up and down.

"But I was told by the window-washing people that it's much too slow. So we have tie-offs on the roof and the window-washing crews work in bosun's chairs."

He explained that as the workers gently rappel from the top and work down, they can swing side-to-side and get three or four windows at a time.

"The washing proceeds pretty rapidly.

"And it's pretty economical," he added. "The annualized window-washing contract cost is $26,500."

And that's penny ante stuff compared with the $1 million in salaries for 29 full-time and 18 part-time officers who keep the courthouse and its lock-up security. "And that doesn't include their insurance, and retirement and workers' comp coverage," Leech said.

Then there's a staff of six custodians — three on days to handle emergencies from spills to over-flowing johns; three at nights to clean secure areas, the file rooms and the mail room with its automated sorting equipment and X-ray detection gear.

The night shift custodians also monitor the work of a small army of contract cleaners.

Thus far in this first year of operations Leech said it has cost about $800,000 for custodians and for the contract cleaners who vacuum 323,628 square feet of courtrooms and offices, plus the vestibule.

The actual area of the building, including its nonpublic service areas and the 10,000-square-foot lock-up, is 349,200 square feet. The county's criminal justice system previously was shoehorned into about 200,000 square feet at the old Hall of Justice.

The new courthouse has its own facilities manager and a small staff of workmen that troubleshoot the building's mechanical systems that aren't covered by warranties.

"We have a couple of technicians who do a certain portion of the heating and air conditioning systems. We do the fire alarm systems in-house. And we're fortunate that one of our people is a qualified electronics tech who saves us $65,000 to $75,000 in service work."

The staff does a limited amount of maintenance on the elevators, but the Schindler Elevator Corp. is responsible for routine testing as well as its proprietary software.

Leech said that with only nine months of occupancy, it's still not clear what the precise cost of operating the building will be.

"I had a budget and had to make some adjustments," he said. " So far we're within the budget, but remember, we have not got a full year of operation on this building.

"The first months when we were up and running, a lot of stuff was under warranty, so we didn't have any repairs to make because we're skating along on all new equipment."

In terms of electrical costs and heating, he said the new courthouse's total costs are higher than in the old building because of the size difference.

But he said the unit cost of those utilities is substantially lower.

"It's a more economical building," he said. "Electrical and heating was running $1.25 a square foot at the old Hall of Justice and the same costs at the new courthouse are running about 96 cents per square foot."

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