Waterbury residents beamed with satisfaction last month when Governor Peter Shumlin joined construction crews in pouring the first concrete footings for a new state office complex to replace offices destroyed by tropical storm Irene. Scheduled for completion by the end of 2015, the new complex will open its doors to 900 Agency of Human Services functionaries returning to Waterbury after a three-year diaspora in locations ranging from Montpelier’s Capitol Plaza Hotel to the IBM campus in Essex.
The construction project, at what was once the state hospital, has three parts: dismantlement of 19 buildings damaged beyond repair by the 2011 storm; construction of the 86,000-square-foot two-story office complex and a 20,000-square-foot utility and maintenance plant; and renovation of a set of Irene-ravaged buildings covering 115,000 square feet and known as the “historic core” of the hospital.
Describing the fate of the buildings being razed—a project now mostly complete—a May press release from Shumlin’s office said that contractors are “surgically deconstruct[ing] 355,000 square feet of unusable buildings, recycling 94 percent of all materials.”
“We’re crushing bricks, crushing concrete,” elaborated Jesse Beck, president of Freeman French Freeman, the project’s architects. “We’re reusing as much of that place as we can.”
“We’re taking down 355,000 square feet and replacing it with 106,000 square feet,” said Mike Stevens, project manager for the state’s Department of Buildings and General Services. “We’re returning 80 percent of the employee count that was in those  buildings. So the moral of the story is we’re building much more efficiency.” With more than a half-million square feet of floor space thus involved, and a total outlay—from insurance and state and federal funds—of $125 million, the undertaking ranks as the largest building project in the state’s history, he said.
While state agencies had long since taken over many of the psychiatric hospital’s buildings, the institution, which dates from 1890, still housed 51 patients when Irene came to town. Those patients will not return to Waterbury, however. They will instead find new homes in locations from Burlington to Brattleboro.
Avoiding the watery tentacles of future Irenes is crucial to the renovation and new construction. The new office building will have ground floors about nine feet higher than those that the storm scoured in the historic-core buildings. This will keep occupants six inches above what is reckoned as the high-water mark of a 500-year flood, which, Stevens said, “is about three feet higher than Irene ever was.” The historic core’s renovation will transform those buildings’ second floors into first floors.
The new building will present a modernistic face to the world, while retaining a neoclassical balance. It will also feature contemporary environmental design, with two wood-fired biomass boilers, solar panels on the roof, and triple-glazed windows, a “green, clean, energy-efficient and modern workplace,” in the words of Shumlin’s release.
In the buildings under renovation, workers will restore the historic brick institutional architecture. Dating from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the structures lost many of their architectural amenities in the mid-1900s, when motives lost to the record led the state to rip out classic tall chimneys, porte cocheres, dormers and cupolas. The rehab will restore those structural niceties.
The mid-1900s also saw a spate of new construction that produced the 19 structures now coming down. That construction, closer to the Winooski’s floodway than the historic core is, tickled the tiger’s tail—Irene and her flood waters being the tiger.
“Nature takes its course,” Beck said of the guiding principle of the design.
A year and a half from now, with Waterbury’s new municipal office complex also completed, the village of 1800 will be quite a different place. “Waterbury’s going to go through a complete transformation,” said the town’s long-term community recovery director, Barb Farr, mentioning for example that another project will bury all the utility lines along about a mile of Main Street by 2018. The completion of the state and municipal office projects will not mark the end of dealings with Irene, she added; the town has also applied for mitigation grants to elevate especially flood-prone homes that remain in low-lying areas.
Right now, the focus is the state construction site, buzzing with approximately 120 construction workers. Ultimately the return of the state workers to Waterbury will furnish or restore permanent jobs for those who serve the state employees coffee and sweep their floors. While declining to put a number on how many hires the complex’s completion might mean for local businesses, Fauna Hurley, executive director of Revitalizing Waterbury, a nonprofit focused on the downtown’s renewal, said that “a lot of them have [recovered], but we have a lot of other businesses that are lower in their numbers and haven’t recovered. They’re all certainly very, very excited to welcome the state workers back.”